Interviews have changed significantly. Interviews have not changed at all. Yes both are true. Virtual interviews are now common for the first time. And the purpose of interviews remains the same. Once common half to full-day of interview plans with multiple people are much rarer. Sadly too many organizations still want to do a lot of interviews, spread out all across your time. Different options have been increasing over years. You may have a phone screen or a text/email interview first, a video interview with no human connection or other assessments, or a Zoom interview with an actual human. Some are still done by panels. Many will involve a combination of several formats. But most hiring situations still involve at least one traditional interview with one or more people, whether or not it is done in person.  Let’s look at the interview process and how you can succeed.

What is going on behind common interview practices?
What should you understand to present your best self effectively?
What can you learn from the company’s behavior or practices?

Interviews are two-way streets. Each party has something valuable to offer and to gain.  Both sides are evaluating the other. Your role is to effectively convey the value you offer for their specific needs. More important, you need to learn whether this is a real option where you can be successful in meeting your goals and needs.

The best interviews are really conversations. However, many hiring managers and subject matter experts have not had any training in interviewing. Some may have very specific interviewing formulas they are required to follow. Others may have done some self-study. Many just wing it.

How do you deal with such a messy process?

Behind the Interview Process

You’ve read about the common interview questions. You know you need to dress right, look directly into the webcam, mind your manners, and clearly demonstrate your achievements. 

If you look at neuroscience, you know that interviewers are making judgments quickly. They seek likability and connection, often without realizing it. Thus, your early interactions are improved by smiling and a positive approach. Consider thanking interviewers for their time up-front instead of at the end.

In many companies, everyone you meet along the way will be asked about your behavior and attitude. Every recruiter can tell you about the great candidate whose negative attitude or inability to cope with a delay or change in interviews led to no offer being made.

Interviewers are trying to assess whether you can and will do the job well. They seek to understand if you will fit into the job, the work unit, and the company. They want to know if you work well with others, are conscientious, are a problem-solver. They are checking to see if you have the skills, knowledge, and abilities you have claimed on your resume.

Most interviewers use a variety of questions. Each has some purpose and knowing why they ask such questions helps you prepare for and effectively answer them.

The most common questions are behaviorally-based. These ask for specific details on what the issue/problem was, what you did, and what the results were. They are used because the most effective predictor of future actions is past action patterns. A common format for these is : “Tell me about a time you had a difficult customer to deal with, what did you do and what happened.” Here is where your past success provide all the answers you need. If you have been preparing to interview, you know the best format for an answer to this type is some variant of a STAR: Situation/Task you faced, Actions you took, and Results. Your goal is to provide a quick summary of what happened with enough detail to show your abilities. Many people go for very long answers – this makes you look as if you do not know how to focus on the most critical elements. Others answer in such a short way that the interviewer has no real idea how or what the person actually did — which makes you look uninterested or incompetent.

Strengths-based questions are on the rise. These started as a way to understand recent graduates with limited work experience to call on for answers. It has spread as a way to help match people effectively with the right projects and processes. Strengths-based questions might include: “Describe a good day?” or “What energizes you?” or “Which classes in your major did you enjoy most” or “Which volunteer work did you find the most interesting?” Here you want to explain your interests and how you use them to provide answers that are as relevant as possible to the role and work requirements. Again, don’t over-talk or go for very brief answers.

There are a wide range of follow-up questions in interviews. These occur when the interviewer wants more details to help their assessment. There are general follow-up questions, like “Tell me more”, that offer you a chance to add details to the previous answer. Probing questions – such as “Explain  how you worked with that project manager?” or “How did you learn and use X” are looking for specific information and details so they understand your role and actions. Fact-based questions – such as “What was your quota for that period?” – are looking for one-two specific details. All are used to see if you have the skills and knowledge in your field that the employer seeks.

Company-specific questions are designed to see if you have prepared and are interested in the company. They take many forms. Common ones include asking what you know about the organization or function or products/services. Some ask how your personal values relate to the company’s values or about a specific aspect of the company’s current practices. Others may ask about what you see as the company’s good and bad aspects or the impact of future technology or economic changes on them.

Puzzle questions are not as common now but still exist.  These are in the “How would we bring mastodons back to life?” mode. They know you do not know the answer, but want to see how you think and analyze something. In these you want to take a minute and then talk your way through your thinking: “Elephants are close to mastodons’ size and type so if we could find mastodon DNA we might be able to use elephants to breed mastodons…” and so on.

Stress questions are also dying out as they are known not to be effective. Here we are not talking about how resilient you are or how much stress the job offers, we are talking about efforts by the interviewer to make you feel stressed and react. These are often strongly-worded challenges to some information you have provided. Keep your cool! Do not take them personally – the person asking reveals more about themselves than you. Answer as blandly as you can manage. Then consider the source – is the person the hiring manager or a peer or someone in your career field? Is it common across interviews or only one person?

Illegal questions are tough but also rare. First, many job applicants do not actually know what is legal or not to ask. Do not assume a personal or uncomfortable question is illegal. Illegal questions relate directly to discrimination law – they are on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, or genetic information. Some states and cities have added categories. Second, do you have one person asking one stupid question or is there a pattern? One might be dumb or an error, but a pattern tells you a lot about the employer. You may always choose to ask, when faced with a question you believe to be illegal, “I am not sure I understand the business reason for that question, could you tell me why you asked it so I can answer properly?”

Learning from the Company’s Actions

How a company behaves in the interview process can tell you a lot about what it’s like to work there. What should you be observing?

Who is interviewing you? Companies which value their staff tend to have good communicators in the process and a mix of people including at least the hiring manager, a subject matter expert and/or a peer involved. They tell you who you will interview with in advance and what that person’s job is.

Timing: how are they scheduling interviews? Are they considerate of your time as well as their own? Even now, I hear of one interview at a time spread over 6-8 weeks processes, all done during regular work hours. Do they expect immediate responses to every contact or do they provide some lead time within the process?

Are the interviewers prepared? Are they ready to interview and discuss the work and organization or still searching for your resume or doing something else? Does the interview flow in a logical pattern? Are they responsive to your questions? In a panel/group interview, does each person have a role in questions and seem ready?

What is their reaction to your questions? You should be weaving questions into the interview whenever possible. A good interview is a conversation. But even when their style is to ask all their questions first, you should have time to ask yours. And the interviewers should be responsive. Do they defer questions to the hiring manager only? Are they rushed? Or autocratic?

How is their follow-up? We talk a lot about candidates needing to follow-up effectively with thank you notes and perhaps a call later. Did the employer “go dark” after the interview? Yes, things do slip and hiring managers get ill, but not hearing back within their stated timeframe and not getting a response when you call after that to check is reason to pay special attention to whether that is part of a pattern or not. Do they make an offer and expect an immediate answer? Or not want to put the offer in writing? Do they give you a few days or a week to respond or push for an immediate answer with threats to withdraw the offer?

How do they treat employees? When you ask about why the person you’re speaking with likes working there and why they stay, what answers are you hearing? When you ask each person you interview with what the company or program’s current goals are, do you get answers that are fairly similar or not – or worse, no specific goals? What about with culture questions like “How do people succeed here?” Do you hear a lot of “work hard, play hard” or talk of long hours or lack of flexibility issues which can indicate a workplace that does not expect you to have a life? What answers do you get to questions related to promotions or training options?

Interviewing is a tough process for most people. This is true for both sides of the process. Yet understanding a bit about what is going on behind the questions and what it tells you can help you be a far more effective job seeker. Your role in the interview is to demonstrate your ability to contribute quickly and effectively to the employer’s needs. It’s also critical to learn enough so that you know whether this job at this employer meets your needs and goals for your future.