How to Interview like a Professional

By: Malcolm Fleschner 

If you want a guaranteed laugh, ask an HR professional about their interviewing and recruiting disasters. Tales of job seekers showing up on the wrong day, sweating profusely while failing to make eye contact throughout or walking in wearing flip flops and a tank top will flow forth.

But the conversation turns more somber if you ask the same HR professional about the gaffes or improper behavior that he or she has witnessed from interviewers themselves.

Hiring is No Laughing Matter
What’s the reason for this difference? It has to do with the stakes. A job seeker who performs badly on a given interview can shake it off, chalk it up to experience and resolve to do better next time. No harm, no foul. But an interviewer doesn't enjoy that luxury, since a bad interview can lead to a costly hiring mistake or worse, invite legal action. 

As The Essential HR Handbook author Sharon Armstrong points out, inexperienced or unprofessional interviewers frequently commit many of the same off-putting errors as job seekers, including taking phone calls, checking emails or openly texting in the middle of interviews. Of greater concern, however, are interviewers who ask inappropriate interview questions.

"This is a big no-no," she says. "I often hear about questions involving age, marriage, plans for children and child care arrangements. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals against employment discrimination, and even small businesses need to be careful not to run afoul of the law."

Knowing how to “hire smart” says Melanie Berkowtiz, Esq., is a must for any employer to avoid liability for discrimination to maintain a legal hiring process

Sharlyn Lauby, president of ITM Group and creator of the popular HR Bartender blog, emphasizes that these rules don't only apply to formal sit-down interviews. 

"When I’ve interviewed in the past for human resources roles, I’m often scheduled for very informal interviews with department managers," she says. "But even in these informal chats, I’ve been asked inappropriate questions about my age, if I’m married, how many kids I have, etc." 

The critical point, Lauby says, is that anyone who is conducting interviews, whether an HR rep, a manager or business owner, needs to be trained on what questions can and can't be asked of prospective hires. 

Interviewing No-No's to Avoid
Career Directors International president Laura DeCarlo suggests the following as some of the more common interviewing mistakes she comes across: 

1. Not reading the resume. Read the resume ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the candidate, identify potential red flags (like date gaps) you'd like to explore during the interview and specific job skills you may want to know more about. A good resume review should help you formulate questions designed to get the most out of the candidate. 

2. Not planning questions in advance. Trying to conduct an interview "off the cuff" is a bad idea. Always prepare a list of interview questions that should generate the information you want to know from a candidate. This will help you avoid the mistake of realizing after the fact that you didn't get what you needed from the interview. 

3. Dominating the conversation. An essential part of knowing how to interview is to ask your questions, then sit and listen. One of the biggest mistakes unprepared interviewers make is to talk too much during the interview, whether about the job, the company or themselves, and failing to give candidates the opportunity to reveal important information. 

4. Not asking follow-up questions. Even good candidates are not always the best interviewees. Nerves get the best of all of us sometimes. That's why it's important for interviewers to take the initiative to draw out candidates who respond with brief or generic answers. Ask for specific examples or additional information. 

5. Taking small talk into dangerous territory. Unskilled or nervous interviewers may try to break the ice by asking a candidate about something inappropriate, like whether he or she has children. Even when done with innocent intentions, these personal questions lead into hazardous waters. Better to stick to safer topics for small talk like performance questions, such as "How did you get into this field?" or "What led you to our company?" 

6. Not checking references. Always ask candidates for references before they leave. This will show whether they are prepared for the request and confident about their references. Then, if you're interested, definitely do some reference checking – some great interviewees won't necessarily be great employees while other nervous seekers will make great employees. That's why it's important to check them out. 

As DeCarlo says, while a bad interview can be funny, a bad hire rarely is. A hiring mistake can cost companies by lowering staff morale, customer satisfaction and loyalty, as well as bottom-line profits. Which is why you owe it to yourself to be the most prepared, confident interviewer possible.