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Compliance and Legal

Guide to Effective Interviews

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interviewPurpose of the Interview

The interview is the most critical component of the entire selection process. It serves as the primary means to collect additional information on an applicant. It serves as the basis in assessing an applicant's job-related knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is designed to decide if an individual should be interviewed further, hired, or eliminated from consideration.

An agency uses the interview not only to select new employees and determine a fit, but also to sell the agency and themselves to applicants and to create favorable public relations with potential customers. Applicants use the interview to market themselves and determine which offers to accept and reject.

An effective interview is one that is carefully planned and well-conducted and provides the opportunity to:

  • Observe an applicant's attributes that will affect job performance, i.e. ability to communicate; ability to reason and understand; temperament, personality and character; etc.
  • Obtain additional information on the applicant's education, work experience, job-related interests, and other information that can fill in the gaps on the resume or application form.
  • Identify the extent of the applicant's knowledge, skills, and other competencies by inquiring about past performance and achievements.
  • Compare an applicant's strengths and weaknesses with those of other applicants.
  • Describe the job, what the agency expects of employees, and what employees can expect. This gives the applicant more information to determine if s/he is really interested in the position.
  • Promote a good public image of the business and their people

Planning and Conducting the Interview

- Styles

There are basically four styles of interviews: situational, personality profile, stress, and behavioral. The situational interview determines how the applicant responds to real work situations that can be measured through hypothetical, role play, or actual problem solving situations. The personality profile evaluates traits important to the success of the individual in the position. Stress interviews measure applicants' abilities in dealing with highly stressful situations. The behavioral interview bases questions on past performance, assuming that individuals will do at least as well in a new position as in previous positions.

Any style, by itself, is not perfectly effective. Yet, each has something to offer. A wise approach would be to combine all of them to produce a comprehensive and effective interview.

- Structure

There are different types of interview structures. Structured interviewing involves approaching the interview with a pre-planned agenda. The interviewer knows ahead of time what s/he will ask and tries to stick to it. Some interviewers will ask the questions in order, and others will take a more relaxed approach but still address all of the pre-planned questions. The structured interview is important as a defense against discrimination in hiring and selection because all the applicants are asked the same questions. If interviews are used to rank applicants for veterans preference, the same questions must be asked in the same manner.

In an unstructured interview, the interviewer does not have a prepared agenda and allows the applicant to set the pace of the interview. This style of interviewing does not always provide the necessary information on which to base a selection decision. The lack of structure makes it difficult to compare and rank applicants because they are not responding to the same questions.

A semi-structured interview will work best for most types of positions. An interview guide or list of questions in a certain order is developed and used during the interview. The guide, however, allows for the interviewer to omit questions for which answers transpired previously, or to ask questions in efforts to probe for more information. The semi-structured interview will reduce the possibility of legal charges based on discrimination.

- Time Allotment

There is not an amount of time that is magic for conducting an effective interview. The key is flexibility - allow enough time to gather the information necessary, but not so much time that irrelevant items are discussed. Regarding interviews for non-exempt or non-managerial positions, approximately 30 to 45 minutes should be set aside for the actual interview, the face-to-face meeting. This will allow ample time to probe concrete areas such as job duties, attendance, etc. For exempt or managerial positions, approximately 60 to 90 minutes should be set aside for the face-to-face interview where intangible areas need to be examined, such as management style, philosophies, creativity, etc.

Allow for breaks between interviews to document the interview, refresh your mind and body, and briefly review the next applicant's application and/or resume.

Thorough and effective interviewing is mentally exhausting. Therefore, try not to conduct more interviews than you are able to focus on mentally and effectively.

- The Environment

Privacy - Applicants need to be assured that their interview is private. While you may not have a private office, you do have access to privacy - whether it be borrowing someone else's office or reserving the agency's conference or break room.

Distractions - Distractions of any sort interrupt the applicant's and your concentration and waste valuable time. To minimize distractions, close the door, transfer phones or turn off the ringer, clean off or organize your desk.

Seating Arrangement - Some feel that a desk between individuals is a barrier to free, interactive communication. If you feel this way and it is possible to arrange other seating arrangements, please do so.


The format of an interview is the key to its success. The interviewer(s) should plan in advance a general format about how the interview will proceed and should include the following elements:

  1. Greeting/Small Talk.
    This step is to build rapport and put the applicant at ease to enhance the free exchange of information. Greet the applicant by name and with a firm handshake, introduce yourself, and engage in a bit of small talk on a noncontroversial topic - the weather, parking, etc.
  2. Orientation.
    Briefly describe for the applicant how the interview will proceed: questions from the interviewer, information on the position and the agency, and finally questions from the applicant. You may also tell the applicant approximately how long the interview will take.
  3. Work Experience and Education.
    Since past performance is the best predictor of future performance, ask for concrete examples of past successes and challenges. If the applicant has little or no work experience, focus on any positions held, whether it be volunteer, summer, or part-time employment. Education includes not only high school or college, but specialized or related training as well. Use this opportunity to clarify information on the application form. Pages VII-5-VII-7 contain helpful information on preparing legal interview questions.
  4. Outside Activities/Interests.
    This is optional and should focus on skills or traits that are job related and would contribute to successful job performance. Caution should be exercised when asking questions so that answers don't reveal an affiliation with an organization because of race, color, sex, national origin, age, disability, religion, or political opinions.
  5. Summary of Strengths/Weaknesses.
    Ask the applicant to identify strengths and weaknesses as they relate to past employment experiences, how strengths would be applied on the job, and how weaknesses have affected past work performance and what is being done to improve.
  6. Selling the Position & Organization.
    Up to this point, the applicant has been selling himself or herself. Now it is time to tell the applicant about the position and the agency. Giving this information after the interviewers' questions have been answered avoids the tendency of applicants to answer questions based on what they think you want to hear. Begin the transition into this part of the interview by asking what the applicant knows about the position and the organization. Present the position and the agency positively. However, don't omit the negative aspects. Describe the duties and responsibilities, salary, benefits, hours, working conditions, etc. Be candid.
  7. Questions from the Applicant.
    Allow for the applicant to ask some questions about the position, the agency, and working conditions.
  8. Close of Interview.
    Explain the next step in the selection process. Arrange for subsequent interviews, if necessary. Express appreciation for the opportunity to meet and learn about the applicant. Give them some idea as to when a selection decision will be made. Be careful not to make any oral commitments or recommendations about the applicant's employment prospects.
  9. Document the Interview.
    Take notes during the interview, recording key job-related points without interrupting the flow of information. As soon after the interview as possible and before beginning the next interview, completely document what was observed and heard in the interview. Documentation should reflect facts, not biases or instincts.

Ensuring A Legal Interview

To help assure that interview questions are legal, determine how the answers given by applicants will be used in making the selection decision. If responses to questions disqualify or appear to disqualify from consideration for employment a disproportionate number of members of one group (e.g., women, minorities), the questions should be eliminated. If a question is not related to job duties, skills, and work behaviors, it should not be asked.

There are a number of steps to follow in determining what requirements are necessary for successful performance and developing legal interview questions:

  1. Analyze the job to identify required performance factors (technical knowledge, skills, etc.) needed for successful job performance, if you haven't yet done so. Examine the job's specific characteristics such as working conditions, major duties and responsibilities, expected outcomes, etc. (See page IV-1 on position analysis.)
  2. For each performance factor requirement, develop questions designed to elicit information on an applicant's past accomplishments, activities, and job performance. Whenever possible, questions should focus on what the applicant has done, rather than what the applicant would or should do. Questions should be designed to help establish applicants' qualifications for the job and capabilities to do the work.
  3. Develop questions that explore applicants' willingness to complete assigned responsibilities.
  4. Prepare a list of things to look for in the applicants' responses. The list might include desired work behaviors or attributes, types of experience, achievements, or demonstrations of specific skills.
  5. Design a rating form that all interviewers use to record applicant responses and summarize observations and impressions. Interviewers comments should be job-related and bias-free.

Using pre-developed interview questions and a standard interview rating form ensures that all applicants are being considered and rated on the same criteria.

Skill, education, and experience are the primary factors used to evaluate an applicant. Equally important is the individual's working behavior, i.e. working independently versus working in a group, working independently versus working under close supervision, etc. To evaluate working behavior, ask questions that focus in on likes or dislikes of previous jobs. You may also ask references for information on applicants' working behaviors.

- What You May Ask in an Interview

  • About ability to perform specific job functions with or without reasonable accommodation.
  • About non-medical qualifications and skills, i.e. education, experience, certifications, etc.
  • To describe or demonstrate how they would perform job tasks with or without reasonable accommodation.
  • Whether they will need reasonable accommodation to perform the functions of the job and what type of accommodation - only when the applicant voluntarily discloses the need for an accommodation or voluntarily discloses a hidden disability and you reasonably believe they need accommodation, or when the employer reasonably believes the applicant will need reasonable accommodation because of an obvious disability.
  • Questions about current illegal use of drugs.

- What Not to Ask in an Interview

  • Direct or indirect questions relating to race, religion, color, sex, national origin, age, political opinion or disabilities.
  • Questions relating to illnesses, diseases, hospitalizations, physical defects, prescribed drugs, drug addiction or alcoholism, workers compensation history.
  • Questions about absence from work due to illness.
  • Workers' compensation-related questions.
  • Arrest records.
  • Conviction records, unless job related.
  • Garnishment records, credit or finance information.
  • Personal topics (date of birth, marital status, physical characteristics, number and ages of dependents, child care issues, contraceptive practices, family plans, height and weight, birthplace, previous addresses, photographs.)
  • Languages - unless such skills are required of the position.
  • Memberships in clubs, societies, organizations, churches - unless job-related, such as professional societies.
  • Grievances or discrimination claims filed.

- Role of Our Personal Perceptions in Interviewing

There are various factors that contribute to our perceptions of people. Our perceptions can be accurate or inaccurate. However, it is important that when conducting interviews and interview evaluations we not allow false perceptions to influence our selection of employees. The following areas are some ways in which perceptions can influence the hiring decision, and things that we need to be mindful of when conducting interviews and interview evaluations:

First impression- The first impression is made based on how a person looks and acts compared to how we think they should look and act to work in the position or the organization. First impressions are made within a few seconds and without us even knowing we are forming a first impression. Therefore, it is the most common and probably the most damaging influence with respect to interviewing. First impressions may play a role in the decision-making process, but not at the exclusion of other job-related factors. Verify information that is giving you the first impression and determine its importance in the big picture.

Statements- Sometimes statements are made in an interview that rub us the wrong way. We might consider it inappropriate, or it just goes against what we believe. Those statements, even if they are job-related, should not affect judgement about the applicant's suitability for the position. The statements should be weighed in relation to the requirements of the position.

-Nonverbal communication- Nonverbal communication in the interview can give us valuable information about an applicant. However, each one of us has our own pattern of nonverbal expression. Gestures, body position, facial expressions, etc. can often be read to mean more than one thing. Sometimes we can't control our expressions because of disabilities. Misinterpretation of nonverbal communication can get us in trouble. So don't draw conclusions too early based on nonverbal communication.

-Information we receive from others- Our judgement about an applicant may be influenced because of who we received information from. If an applicant comes highly recommended by someone we place in high regard, we may subconsciously give positive consideration to the applicant. On the other hand, if the applicant was recommended by someone whose opinions we don't value, we may subconsciously create a bias against the applicant. Judge the applicants on their own merits.

Questioning Techniques

The success of an interview depends heavily on the interviewers' listening and using the right type of questioning at the appropriate time. The interviewer(s) should listen for the majority of the interview, while maintaining control of the interview so the applicant doesn't take it over. A general standard is the 80/20 rule - the interviewer(s) should listen at least 80 percent of the time and talk only 20 percent of the time.

Questions at the beginning should be ones that can be easily answered and help the applicant to relax. Good questions to serve that purpose pertain to an applicant's previous education and work experience. Then move to progressively more thought-provoking questions. To get the applicant to talk so the interviewer can listen, the following two types of questions are recommended:

- Open-ended (or Neutral) Questions:

This type of question is the most effective. Open-ended questions seek a direct response from the applicant-not "yes" or "no." It enables the applicant to do the talking while the interviewer listens for information, observes behavior, and formulates follow-up or probing questions. Open-ended questions generally ask who, what, when, where, why, and how. Some examples:

"Tell me about . . ."

"How did you . . ."

"What . . ."

An effective open-ended question that could start discussion of work experience, for example, is: "Describe your activities during a typical day at your present (or previous) job." This question alone may provide enough information to answer subsequent questions you had planned. More importantly, it triggers further questions: "You said you handle customer complaints. What do you do when a customer is not satisfied with the answer you have given?" "How would you handle several demanding customers at the same time?" If applicants do not have work experience, ask questions about hypothetical situations that are likely to occur on the job.

- Probing Questions:

Probing questions are used to clarify facts and attitudes and delve more deeply for information. Examples are:


"What caused that?"

"What did you mean when you said . . ."

"You said . . . Tell me more about that."

For some applicants, talking about themselves is very difficult, especially if they are nervous or feel intimidated. Some techniques for encouraging an applicant to talk during the interview are:

- Repetition

Repeat the last few words of an applicant's statement and let your voice trail off as if to ask a question. This encourages the applicant to respond to the "question," to clarify certain points, which may add valuable information.

- Summarization

This technique works especially well after there has been an exchange of information for a few minutes. Use about three or four statements to summarize what was just said.

- Silence

When the applicant stops talking and you want him or her to continue, pause and silently count to five before speaking. The silence clearly conveys the message that more information is wanted and compels the applicant to go on.

Types of questioning to avoid or to keep to a minimum are:

- Close-ended Questions:

Close-ended questions are used for cross-checking of facts and attitudes. They usually yield "yes" and "no" responses or offer multiple choice answers. Therefore, this type of questioning should be limited. Too many close-ended questions will give the interview the appearance of an inquisition and will provide little useful information for determining an applicant's suitability for a position.

- Leading Questions:

This question rarely elicits any new or valuable information. Its primary use is to reinforce what the interviewer already knows or thinks. The danger of this questioning is that it sends to the applicant the answer the interviewer is seeking. An example of a leading question is "Ours is a customer service-oriented agency. Do you regard customer service as important?" It sends the applicants a pretty clear message that if they want the position, they should respond affirmatively, and it doesn't give the interviewer the right information to judge the applicants' abilities. A better question might be: "Tell us about your experience in handling customer complaints?"

Leading questions are valid for dealing with sensitive areas that an applicant is hesitant to speak about or for empathy. For example, "You must have been upset about being dismissed without notice." The answer you receive may give you valuable information for gauging feelings about the issue and finding out what may have happened.

Interview Evaluations

It is best to evaluate an applicant as soon after the interview as possible while observations and impressions are still fresh. The key to successful interview evaluation is to know the job, its requirements, and what you are looking for in advance of interviewing. Review notes and documentation and clarify or amplify any information that may be important to the selection decision. Evaluation should reflect the applicant's skills, abilities, and performance factors measured against the those required for the position. Complete the interview evaluation or rating form.

There is a variety of methods for evaluating an interview. The most legally defensible method is one in which each applicant is evaluated on the same criteria. Based upon the interview questions that were developed, a rating method can be established that would measure an applicant's response against one or more acceptable responses. If more than one response is acceptable, each possible response must be given a separate point value relative to the most acceptable response. It can range from a very simple rating such as "+, 0, and -" to more complex ratings weighting certain responses with given numbers of points. The scores of each interviewer are then combined to form a list of applicants' ratings in rank order.

When evaluating an applicant's responses to interview questions, keep in mind that evaluation means finding past examples and present demonstration of abilities in order to predict future performance.

  • Evaluate the applicant's responses against the requirements of the job.
  • Cite specific evidence to support ratings or evaluations.
  • Be as objective as possible when assessing an applicant's strengths and weaknesses.
  • Avoid the most common biases:
    • Personal biases or stereotypes - based on how we think people of a given age, race, affiliations, etc. should appear, think, feel, act, and respond.
    • "Halo" effect - the interviewer tends to credit an applicant with too many positive attributes based on one strong point on which the interviewer places high value and underestimates the negative characteristics.
    • "Person like me" effect - the interviewer perceives traits similar to their own as desirable. This may overshadow the negative aspects of the interview.
    • "Devil's horns" effect - the interviewer finds a particular characteristic of the applicant that is unacceptable. The applicant then is presumed to have no positive attributes and is downgraded in all areas on the evaluation


This guide is courtesty if Human Resource Management Services

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