Interviewing is an integral part of the hiring process. It provides small business owners with their primary opportunity to learn about a candidate's work experience, education, and interpersonal abilities, as well as characteristics—such as enthusiasm—that are rarely conveyed in resumes; similarly, the interview process often provides would-be employees with their best opportunity to inquire about various aspects of company operations and expectations.


Before beginning the interview, the manager must define the skills needed to fill the position. This, along with careful applicant research and candidate selection, helps to ensure a smooth interview process.

Critical Skills . To secure the right person for a job, the manager must define the necessary skills for the job, often called the critical skills. These describe exactly the skills a person needs to successfully perform the tasks. Sample critical skills could be phrased as "facility with communication," "high degree of organization," or "ability to work well independently." Critical skills are expanded upon in the job description and help guide the manager during the selection process and then provide structure for the position throughout employment.

Applicant Research . Applicants must be researched before the interview. The most common methods of receiving candidate information are the resume and cover letter, generated by the applicant, or the employment application, generated by the company. These records can be very informative. Not only do they provide basic background/historical information, but the presentation can also provide glimpses into the applicant's suitability for employment. A manager, for instance, should watch for such problems as typographical errors, spelling errors, or incomplete information about the applicant. Likewise, pay attention to the length of time an applicant has spent at a position, the responsibilities they were given in successive positions, and the chronological information on the resume. Frequent job changes, declining responsibility, or gaps in employment are all items that should be pursued for clarification. None of these call for immediate rejection of a candidate, but any could signal a potential area of exploration.

Selecting Candidates. Not all people who apply will be qualified for the position. The manager selects candidates for the position from the entire group of applicants, choosing individuals who demonstrate the best skills for the open position in their written presentation.

When putting together an interview schedule, a manager needs to balance the desire to interview all qualified people with the practical necessity of concluding the search in a timely fashion. Consider the time frame for the hiring decision, the amount of time available to interview, and select candidates carefully. A good rule of thumb is to allow from 30 to 60 minutes per interview; then add 15 minutes in between interviews, to prevent back-to-back interviews. Small business consultants caution that a day of back-to-back interviews can tire the interviewer and hinder his or her ability to make a well-reasoned decision.


Time well spent in the interviewing process can prevent a poor hiring decision. Preparation is the key to a successful interview. Don't scrimp on time during the interview, and be sure to let the candidate do the majority of the talking. The space for the interview should be ready, and the interviewer should have already prepared questions for the discussion.

Environment. The interviewer can make the candidate feel at ease or an interviewer can make the candidate uncomfortable. In short, the interviewer sets the tone for the meeting. To insure a successful interview, be sure that the space is free of distractions and interruptions such as telephones or other employees; allow for minimal barriers between you and the candidate (desks or tables); and always offer the candidate coffee, soda, or water. Be courteous and professional without presenting an environment which is too formal.

Behavioral Interviewing. Though there are many kinds of interviewing techniques, behavioral interviewing allows the interviewer to focus on likely future performance based on past behavior. This is one of the most popular interviewing techniques, and it is effective precisely because it focuses on specific situations and examples, not hypothetical situations. It requires that candidates draw on past experience to describe what they actually did in specific work situations, and this discourages "made up" answers or hypothetical exaggerations. It thus provides potentially valuable insights into the candidate's likely approach to issues and problems he or she may face in your company's work environment.

Types of Questions. Interview questions are designed to explore the candidate's previous work experience, education, and other areas which will enable the interviewer to determine if the candidate has the best match of critical skills for the position. There are many types of questions.

The biggest mistake interviewers make is to ask only factual questions during an interview. Often, an interviewer asks "closed ended questions" which illicit a yes or no or other single response answer. "When did you join the company?" or "How long were you in the position?" are closed ended questions which limit the candidate's response options because they do not require the candidate to consider or analyze any specific problem or situation.

Open ended questions allow the candidate to expand on a topic, describing experiences and actual situations. They keep the candidate talking and the interviewer listening. The focus of open ended questions is always on past performance, using wording such as "Give me an example of ….", "Explain thenature of your duties at … ," "Tell me about a time when you….". Such questions are the basis of behavioral interviewing and focus on specific examples of past behavior—how a candidate performed in a specific circumstance.

Probing questions are used to uncover more information than the original answer given. If a candidate answers with "yes / no" or a very general response, the interviewer can probe by encouraging the candidate to elaborate on a point within the answer. Ask very specific questions when probing. Specific questions encourage a candidate to expand on a general answer.

Avoid leading questions which direct the candidate to a specific answer and do not encourage an honest, spontaneous response. If leading, the interviewer may nod or to encourage a particular response, or may stack two or more questions which are guaranteed to produce a desired answer. This biases the interviewer to the candidate who responds most easily with the correct answer.

Finally, increasing numbers of companies are turning to "brainteasers" or "verbal puzzles" during the interview process as tools in gauging a candidate's ability to perform under pressure. "Games and challenges can … help interviewers overcome a tendency to make snap judgments about candidates too early in the meeting," wrote Martha Frase-Blunt in HRMagazine. "Tossing an unexpected question into the mix can bring a new focus for both prospect and interviewer." These types of interview questions have become particularly popular in high-tech areas such as software design and engineering. Companies are encouraged to make judicious use of these lines of questioning, however. If the quiz or puzzle has no apparent relevance to the job that needs to be filled, candidates may react negatively. "Good applicants may be turned off by what they may consider to be a frivolous or unfair process of making important selection decisions based on a five-minute exercise," one employment manager pointed out in HRMagazine.

Closing the Interview. When closing the interview, first offer to answer any questions the candidate may have. Have basic factual information about the company and position readily available. Make the follow-up process clear to the candidate. If there are other candidates to interview, be sure that the candidate knows this and knows when to expect your decision. Always thank the candidate for interviewing, and try to leave the candidate with the most favorable impression possible of the company, regardless of whether or not the person is offered the job.

Note Taking. There are different schools of thought on note taking. Some feel that notes during the interview distract the interviewer; others say that notes should be made both during and after the interview. If you do choose to take notes, make sure that they are specific enough to help the interviewer reconstruct the details of the interview, particularly when a number of candidates are being interviewed for the same position. Notes should never be made about the physical aspects of the candidate or any other area of potential legal liability. Note taking should be reserved to commentary about the applicant's qualifications and skills suitable to the job.

Team Interviewing. In the current atmosphere of work teams and group decision making, it may be desirable to have a group interview the candidate. "Use as many sets of ears as possible," counseled Michael Santo in Agency Sales Magazine. "This team interview approach helps catch the true response of the candidate. The team interview has an added benefit of keeping the interview focused on the more critical areas, as it is less likely that all the members of the interview team will be drawn into conversations that are not insightful and could cross into areas that may have legal ramifications."

When this team-based approach is deemed appropriate, be sure that every member of the team has all of the information about the candidate prior to the interview, including copies of the person's resume, cover letter, and application. Plan the interview questions that each member of the team will ask, so that the candidate is not asked the same question by more than one member of the team.


Interviewing is subject to both state and federal laws which define employment discrimination in all aspects of employment. It is worthwhile to check for any state hiring regulations that might apply. The main federal regulations for hiring include:

  1. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)
  2. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
  3. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
  4. The Uniformed Services Employment Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA)
  5. The Immigration Reform and Control Act

Together, these acts forbid a company to discriminate in hiring on the basis of sex, age, race, national origin, religion, physical disability or veteran status. These are called protected classes and questions about any aspect of these topics during an interview is illegal.

The interviewer must avoid all questions that could seem legally questionable, such as those about height, weight, age, marital status, religious or political beliefs, dependents, birth control, birthplace, race, and national origin. Generally, it is a good rule to measure a question's necessity by the role it plays in the determination of a candidate's ability to perform a job.


Once the job is accepted by the chosen candidate, immediately notify other candidates that they have not been selected for the position. A rejection is best done by phone—it is immediate, and it allows the manager to personally thank the candidate for taking the time to interview. When unable to phone, a letter of rejection is suitable. Although the candidate may ask, it is not necessary to be extremely specific about the types of qualities that the person lacks. An exact description of what was lacking in the candidate may open the manager to lawsuits for unfair hiring practices and discrimination.

The importance of making the right hiring decision is crucial in staffing a business. It means nothing short of selecting the right person for the right job at the right time. Since the interview is often the most decisive factor in determining who is hired for a specific position, business consultants contend that the importance of mastering the interview process should be appreciated; indeed, the interview process is ultimately an important factor in determining workforce quality and satisfaction.


Allen, Jeffrey. Complying with the ADA: A Small Business Guide to Hiring. Wiley, 1993.

Bell, Arthur. Complete Manager's Guide to Interviewing.

Dauten, Dale A. The Gifted Boss: How to Find, Create and Keep Great Employees. Morrow, 1999.

Frase-Blunt, Martha. "Games Interviewers Play." HRMagazine. January 2001.

Half, Robert. Finding, Hiring & Keeping the Best Employees.

Santo, Michael. "Interviewing the Chameleon." Agency Sales Magazine. November 2000.

Seven Imperatives for Fair, Legal & Productive Interviewing.

Weiss, Donald. Fair, Square & Legal: Safe Hiring, Managing & Firing Practices.

SEE ALSO: Employee Hiring

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