Previously, we’ve advised implementing structured interviews in growing organizations. Today, I had the privilege of sitting down with the HR team at Qualbe Marketing Group—a digital marketing agency—to get a firsthand look at how to make that transition.
Pull up a chair and take a look at our conversation. I’m confident you will find helpful information if you are considering such a transition for your team!
Set the stage for us. Where did you start in guiding your digital marketing firm into a more structured interview process?
We knew we had certain characteristics that we wanted every hire to have based on our company core values that were already in place. So we started out knowing that we needed to look for characteristics that were compatible with our organization’s core values, and make sure that we had questions that correlated to each of those core values.
The next step was to firmly define the job-specific skills required for success in each position. Understanding (1) what job-specific outcomes were needed and (2) what characteristics and skills help the employee achieve those outcomes were key. So we worked with the managers in their respective departments to define the top 6 to 8 desired job outcomes for each position in the company, created the questions that correlated with each of those outcomes and then added them into the interview.
Can you give me an example with a specific position you interview for?
Sure. First, we know our salespeople need to be relational because they need to build rapport with our customers. It’s one of our core values to treat people with respect. But we also need salespeople who can close the deal in a short time span. So we look for characteristics in the interview that reveal the presence or absence of those two abilities. We ask questions that draw out a potential hire’s sales philosophy and skills to identify if they can accomplish both objectives.
Our salespeople also need to adjust their delivery style to a broad audience. Some customers prefer to hear a quick, short sales pitch. Others want to tell you their life story and hear the sales pitch at the same time. So we also look for salespeople who are aware they need to adjust their delivery for different people. We don’t want salespeople who only relate and don’t sell. We also don’t want salespeople who only push the sell without relating because we haven’t found that to be very successful for most of our product lines.
How do you draw out more than a candidate’s ability to give great sounding “interview” answers?
We do that with probing follow-ups like, “Tell me a time when you’ve done that,” looking for specific, identifiable evidence that has happened in the past. Also going back through references, we can cross-check information they’ve given us to see if we are getting similar feedback from people they’ve worked with.
Occasionally, we interview someone who hasn’t done the type of work before–maybe they are newly graduated, or they worked in sales before. With that kind of person, we need to consider who has the best aptitude for sales since they don’t have a track record to work from.
One of the best ways to check for aptitude and interview integrity is sending them through scenarios. For example, we like to ask our sales candidates to sell us a product. Even with a person who doesn’t have a lot of experience in sales, we can see indicators that they do or do not have an aptitude for sales success.
This simple exercise allows us to see what kind of tools they use, how effective they are at communicating, how persuasive they can be about something they really enjoy or believe in. Occasionally we’ll have a person who freezes up or has a difficult time completing the exercise, and that often indicates that this isn’t the best role for them. But we’ve learned by experience that most people who perform well go on to do well as a salesperson on our team.
How do you blend a friendly, conversational approach with the investigative mindset and a healthy dose of skepticism?
If there isn’t a certain amount of comfort and a certain amount of rapport, people won’t tell us very much about themselves. They’ll become more careful and guarded, which will also impact our ability to evaluate their potential performance. It’s part of what we think about as we are building our interview team. It’s helpful to have some people on the team who are good at building rapport and putting people at ease. We use the first part of the interview to do a little bit of that. We often give people a tour of the building and let them see what’s happening inside the organization to build some of that friendly rapport as someone is coming in. That way the interview doesn’t feel so stiff.
When we get into the interview, even though we’re being investigative, we don’t have unfriendly tones. It doesn’t feel like we’re obviously following a structured process because the questions are delivered with respect and a relational tone. They’re just formalized questions. The people who are delivering the questions are human, not robotic. That’s what makes the difference.
We also set up the room so that the interviewee is included in a semi-circle rather than sitting everyone on one side of the room and having the candidate face a panel of five people. This makes it easier for everyone to talk more freely. We arrange the questions in a more natural conversational flow that makes sense moving from one area to another. In all of this, however, the questions are the same for every single candidate, which helps us have a more objective reading of how someone performs in the end.
You’ve built in a scoring system to help the interview panel put a numerical value to a candidate’s answers. Tell me about that.
We’re constantly improving our framework that identifies what characteristics we’ve seen with people who have been on the job and performed well vs. those who have performed poorly. If candidates aren’t able to answer questions, if they’re answers are vague, or sound too good to be true and they can’t show any proof that they’ve actually achieved those things, that’s a bit of a red flag. Experience over time has revealed that these people tend to be low performers in the long run. Knowing this helps us go through and rate the quality of an interviewee’s answers, which then leads us to the ability to aggregate their scores across the panel.
Part of the power of having an interview team is that we’re looking at the hiring decision from more than one person’s perspective. In each interview, we typically have two HR representatives and at least one manager working together. Since we’ve already identified the necessary characteristics and put them into categories, as we’re listening to a candidate’s answers to questions, each of us is translating our perspective of the candidate’s answers into a numerical value that falls on a 1 to 10 scale of low to high performance indicators.
For a hiring consideration, we want to see someone who is falling in the high performance range–that top 20% to 30% of the people we are talking to. Those are the ones who stand out, and we can see them pretty clearly.
What kinds of training is helpful for bringing managers along in this transition from unstructured to structured interviews?
For the process to work, everyone needs to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and how to do it. Bring the managers into the process. Have them talk about what success looks like in the role. They should have a better idea than anyone else does. Bringing them into that dialogue really helps to set some of those parameters. Discuss the types of questions to ask and why they are being asked–what characteristic is trying to be understood when asking that question and how does it tie back to the success indicators for that role.
We also take time afterward to discuss how the interview went, how the candidate performed, and how well we think our process is working–refining it as we go. Sometimes we find that a question we really thought would be effective at drawing out certain information doesn’t, and we have to rework it. Or we find that tweaking the order of a couple of questions is a smoother transition.
The most important thing is encouraging everyone to trust the process and follow it through. People need to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Otherwise, they’ll tend to fall back to their own philosophies about how to interview. If you want to work together as a cohesive team, you all have to be doing the same type of interview.
How do you help managers stay objective enough to hire the people who can get the job done rather than the ones who are delightful to work with?
That depends on the manager. There are some managers who are drawn to pulling in people who are wired to drive performance, and other managers prefer to pull in people who are easy to relate to. You have to understand who the manager is, what is important to them, and if they have any blind spots in this area. Helping them see what drives success in the role and why it’s important is part of HR’s job. Separate the difference between what drives success in the role, and what characteristics they enjoy relating to–helping them get clarity on which is which.
At the same time, no one should have employees who are unusually difficult to manage. In our organization, it’s really important that we have high-character people. The person who is incredibly difficult to work with, but is a high performer still wouldn’t be a good fit in our organization. If that person is going to regularly offend our customers and the people they work with, we wouldn’t choose to bring them onto our team. There is a balance.
Sometimes managers have to stretch and learn how to lead people who are different from themselves. That’s a large part of what makes a manager successful in their own role–learning who their direct reports are and adapting to best help those team members thrive.
What kind of benefit is there in being able to go back to the data from the interview process of a successful or failed hire?
It gives you data for looking at trends. This data helps us identify the success indicators that came up during the entire interview process. The structured interview is only a part of how we’re evaluating a candidate. We use skill assessments and personality assessments, too. We look at resumes and applications and we talk to references. All of these pieces work together and are indicators we want to review to uncover trends that reveal who is most likely to be high performing in the long run.
If we have somebody who fantastically flops, we want to see that, too. Was there something in our process that we should have seen–that should have been a warning sign to us that this wasn’t likely to work out? We want something that makes the organization thrive and is good for the person. Knowing those things through that interview process is good for everybody, rather than having to find it out on the job. It’s so much worse to have to fire someone than it is to say no to them during the interview process–better for the organization and better for the individual.
Is there anything else about structured interviews that you want fellow HR colleagues to hear about from your experience?
It takes time to see the value of the structured interview. After you’ve seen 10 or 15 candidates go through it, and you realize that you can effectively compare one candidate to another. You’ve asked the same question to 10 or 15 people and you’ve heard 10 or 15 response. You have also hired some of these people and seen how they’ve performed on the job, and adding that knowledge adds confidence to your process. You know where you’re finding useful information and where you’re not. You are not likely to see that in the very first interview because you don’t have that track record of comparison. When you start getting really comfortable with your measurements and what you are looking for with the right outcomes in your interviews, certain people stand out above the rest and you gain confidence in your hiring process.
What I heard the Qualbe team implying throughout our interview–and perhaps the most important takeaway–is that this is not a create-it-once and run-it-over-and-over-again magical fix. It evolves, you tweak and improve based on the data and trends, and that takes time. But if you keep working toward the goal of making sure everyone knows why the questions are being asked–not just asking some questions because somebody said it was a good structured interview question–your team will become quite skilled at uncovering information from questions that help the panel understand each candidate.
What questions do you have about implementing structured interviews in your organization? Let us know in the comments and we’ll be sure to answer.