How to conduct a meaningful job interview – advice for startup founders

With most founders being first time managers, often their biggest challenges include recruitment. Without prior experience with hiring to rely on, most will have to figure it out by themselves.

Ott Niggulis

Bad hiring decisions, in general, are costly. And for startups, the cost is even higher. First, the team is all you have in a startup, and all it takes is one unreliable, uncooperative, or incompetent team member to kill your team’s productivity and engagement.

Second, you will probably lose around six months of what would otherwise be productive time on onboarding, managing, and replacing the person. And six months is a really long time for a startup (it’s like dog years vs human years if you compare startups to established businesses).

And third, there’s a high risk that you will settle for a mediocre candidate, which can completely ruin your business (more about that in the next blog post).

How can you, as a startup founder, figure out which candidate would be best for your team? There are a few things we can recommend.

Don’t trust your intuition alone

The first thing you need to know is that people are biased, especially in the hiring situation. And no, you are not unique in that regard. If you rely on your intuition alone, you will subconsciously decide on a candidate based on the first 20 seconds, and you will spend the remaining 59 minutes of the job interview asking questions that would reaffirm your initial impression. So if you like the candidate (because he/she looks similar to you, has a firm handshake, has a nice haircut, or whatever other bogus reason), you will ask questions that you know he/she can answer. If not, you will be much more critical. So do you want to make your most important management decisions based on a 20-second impression?

Have a structured process

The best way to get over your biases is to establish a structured process. The process does not have to be perfect, and you don’t have to do it as well as Google does, but you need to have some structure to make an informed decision.

Discuss with the team (again, don’t rely on your opinion alone) what characteristics the candidate should have and make a list of 5-10 critical aspects. Put that into a checklist and evaluate all candidates based on the same criteria. Even if your checklist is straightforward, it will almost certainly give better results than relying on your intuition.

Ask behavioural interview questions

Invest some time into learning about conducting a good job interview and what kind of interview questions provide meaningful information about the candidate. The traditional “where do you see yourself in 5 years” and “what are your three biggest strengths/weaknesses” only show whether the candidate took time to google “interview questions” before meeting you.

At best, they will tell you nothing about the candidates’ skills, attitudes, or performance. At worst, you will try to look for meaning in otherwise meaningless answers and usually draw the wrong conclusions. Instead, ask for real-life examples where a candidate has demonstrated a trait you need – e.g. “What was the last challenging goal you set for yourself?”, “When was the last time you received criticism that you thought was not justified? How did you react?” or “When was the last time you started a project / proposed a new way of doing things that was not your direct responsibility?”.

Involve your team in the decision

The second best way to get over your bias is to involve your team in the selection process. And don’t just let them voice their opinion, but give them equal voting rights. If you can’t reach a consensus, there’s probably a good reason for it – after all, your team has to live with the candidate as well.

Let your team meet at least the shortlisted candidates, but don’t let it ruin your process – brief your team on what you have learned about conducting interviews, stick to the questions you prepared in advance, and collect your team’s opinion in a structured way. That way, you can be sure that everyone’s opinion is taken into account and that you evaluate candidates on things that matter.

Don’t try to be clever

Hiring is a science, so it makes sense to learn from the best practice of successful companies and decades of scientific research before trying to improve the process. If you think you have come up with a clever interview question that reveals everything about a candidate, you are probably seriously mistaken.

Companies like Google have long ago discovered that brain teasers like “How many gas stations are there on Manhattan?” and “How many golf balls would fit into a Boeing 747?” reveal absolutely nothing about the candidate’s’ ability to do the job and questions like “If you had a theme song, what would it be?” only serve to amuse the interviewer.

So there’s no magic, trick questions, or other sorcery involved – just take some time to learn what recruitment science and more established companies have known for decades and follow their advice. Agree on a process with your team, figure out your interview questions in advance, and evaluate candidates in a structured way based on the same criteria, and your chances of making the best decision rise dramatically.

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