Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Better interviews can improve hiring process

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President Obama’s directive to improve federal hiring processes instructs managers to increase their input into the selection of new hires. One way for managers to do so is by improving their ability to interview job applicants. Some tips:

Prepare. In order to design relevant questions that will reveal a job applicant’s strengths, you must understand your job opening, the applicant’s credentials and your selection criteria.

So don’t recycle old, outdated job descriptions for your opening. Instead, take a fresh look at the opening by analyzing the tasks it will require, the credentials needed to fulfill those tasks, how you want the job to be done differently than in the past, and the types of personalities that would jibe with the rest of your team.

Review the interviewee’s application shortly beforehand. I know from personal experience how important this is: During my career, I have been interviewed by many managers who hadn’t read my resume, didn’t remember anything about it or couldn’t find it before our interview. Not helpful.

Also, before the interview, ask the applicant to bring any documents that might help you evaluate him, such as writing samples, relevant Web pages, or relevant maps — as just a few potential examples.

Make interviewees feel comfortable. It is usually more important to evaluate how well an interviewee operates in teams rather than how well he responds to bullying ambushes. You will probably generate more revealing answers from your interviewee by fostering an easygoing atmosphere, rather than by unnerving and intimidating him with “gotcha” questions.

You can increase your interviewee’s comfort level by being friendly and warm, maintaining eye contact, smiling and using humor when appropriate. Also, conduct the interview at a round table rather than across a desk.

Ignore your email, phone and BlackBerry to give the interview your full attention. Don’t fire off questions like a cannon, but instead shape your interview as a give-and-take conversation. Compliment your interviewee on his credentials, tell him why he made it to the interview stage, or give positive feedback to his answers.

Don’t talk too much — a common mistake; many interviewers blather on about their own backgrounds instead of focusing on the potential match between the opening and the interviewee.

Sell the opening. Just as the interviewee will try to sell himself, you should try to sell the opening. Describe the opening’s demands, and identify the advantages of the opening and your organization.

But be honest. Explain if the job will require travel, dealing with difficult personalities, or enduring some type of office transition.

Prepare your interviewee for follow-up interviews. If your interviewee will be invited back for follow-up interviews, tell him who will interview him and what topics will be covered. You will thereby generate grist for evaluating how well your interviewee researches those topics, synthesizes information from other professionals and resources into compelling arguments, prepares a presentation and delivers it.

This is important because — unless you will be hiring a trial attorney or surgeon — those skills will probably be more useful to your new hire than the ability to drum up, un-researched, poorly considered responses under pressure without opportunities to consult other people or resources, as tested by most interview questions.

End the interview informatively. Tell the interviewee about next steps and when he will hear from you again — and then follow through.


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Mentors deserve unconditional thanks

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If you have a mentor, remember that the only payback he receives for helping you is your gratitude and the knowledge that his advice has helped you in some way.

To put it in street language: Nobody owes you nothing. You should effusively thank your mentors whenever they extend themselves for you.

But even though your mentor deserves credit and gratitude for any of your successes that he helped catalyze, he does not deserve blame if any leads or advice he provides fail to pan out.

It is your decision whether and how to follow up on your mentor’s suggestions, so you must take responsibility for how your follow-up turns out — for better or for worse.

What’s more, there are many reasons beyond your mentor’s control that may cause his advice or leads to fail. For example, perhaps his advice was executed improperly; perhaps key contacts are unavailable to help you or fail to produce anticipated assistance; or perhaps time has overtaken the advice.

Whether or not your mentor’s advice works out, he devoted time and thought to provide it to you — efforts that deserve thanks, no matter what their outcome.

So don’t make mistakes commonly made by mentees: to make preliminary comments like, “If X happens from all of this, I’m going to take you out to dinner,” or to only thank mentors when their assistance is fruitful. Rather, if your mentor’s efforts are worthy of a thank-you dinner, he is worthy of that dinner even if his efforts, for whatever reason, fail to meet expectations.

And by all means, if you promise to take your mentor out for thank-you drinks, dinner or anything else, be sure to do it. Otherwise, your mentor will remember, and not appreciate, your broken promise.

Some ways to thank your mentor:

• Report back how his advice helped you. If the advice did not work out, tell your mentor what you learned from the experience.

• Occasionally augment your verbal thanks with creative, intellectual thanks. For example, pass on a relevant article, book or documentary to him.

• Invite your mentor to any celebrations that mark your accomplishments, and publicly give your mentor credit for his help.

• Help your mentor, when appropriate. For example, if you mentor happens to mention, or you notice, an obstacle that you could help him conquer, volunteer to do so.

For example, if your mentor needs help using new media or social networking sites or is not maximizing their effectiveness, offer to help.

• Turn your mentor’s help into a gift that keeps on giving by mentoring another professional who would benefit from your advice. Tell your mentor about the mentoring altruism he helped inspire in you, and how you are passing on his knowledge to other worthy professionals.

• Send a well-thought-out thank-you card. Written thank-yous are more memorable than spoken ones. Also consider giving him a small gift of appreciation, if appropriate. Caution: If you and your mentor are both feds, ask your agency’s ethics officer about constraints on gift-giving.

• Remember that it is never too late to thank a mentor. Even if a teacher, professor, supervisor, colleague, manager or someone else provided you with important guidance years ago — perhaps it was guidance or inspiration that served you well during a pivotal time or throughout your career — contact him now.

There is no expiration date on thank-yous. Even if your mentor doesn’t remember you, or your thank-you is belated, your expression of appreciation will give your mentor a well-deserved thrill.