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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Strategies for creating a better interview process

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Julie McCarthy

Interviewing for a new job is a notoriously stressful activity. Whether it’s panel interviews, skills assessments or personality tests, candidates are often put through the wringer. But does interviewing have to be an anxiety-riddled process? Julie McCarthy, a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto, argues that both organizations and job seekers benefit when interviewing is less stressful.

For one, companies can lose out on top talent when candidates have negative interview experiences. According to McCarthy, it can also make candidates less likely to use that organization’s products and services, and also less likely to recommend that company to others. “Most organizations want to ensure that the candidate experience is comfortable,” McCarthy explains. So how can organizations make the experience more pleasant? Here are her five suggestions for improving the overall process.

  1. Outline an agenda to explain what’s happening

McCarthy says that interviewing can be an anxious experience for candidates because of the uncertainty around what will happen next. “If we feel like we have a lack of control in our environment, it makes us feel nervous,” she says. “However, if during the beginning of the interview, the interviewer explains what's going to happen, there are no big surprises.” McCarthy also says that allowing job candidates to have a say in the experience can help with reducing anxiety. They could be presented with a list of questions up-front and decide in what order they’d like to answer the questions. Another option, when possible, would be to give candidates the opportunity to choose whether to do their interview in person or virtually. Those needing to find childcare, or who would have difficulty taking time off, might appreciate the virtual format. Others could prefer the opportunity to see a company’s office and interact in person.

  1. …and why it’s happening

Standardized tests, like personality and skills assessments, are great tools to gather information about candidates. But administering these tests without adequate explanation can illicit feelings of unfairness and anxiety, according to McCarthy. The way to mitigate unfairness is to explain to candidates why they’re taking these tests. McCarthy suggests wording such as: “The test that you are about to take has been carefully designed to assess the skills required for the job.” In addition, language such as: “Rest assured that the assessment you are about to take requires you to complete tasks that are familiar to you” can also help reduce uncertainty and feelings of anxiety. In fact, explanations about any part of the hiring process, onboarding process or the role itself are beneficial. “Anxiety is often driven by uncertainty in our environment, so reducing that uncertainty is key,” McCarthy says.

  1. Listen to candidates and ask about their values and career goals

Interviewing is a two-way process, McCarthy says. “In order to really make this matching process successful, we have to understand what [candidates’] needs are.” She recommends asking candidates what their values, career goals and aspirations are during the interview process. “Then you can match and showcase which portions of your organization might be a good alignment for the needs of the individual employee,” she explains. For example, if a candidate is passionate about volunteerism, a hiring manager could highlight that the organization gives employees days off for volunteering, while a job seeker who expresses interest in learning a relevant skill might like hearing about a company’s professional development benefits.

  1. Execute panel interviews wisely

McCarthy supports the use of panel interviews, especially when the panel is diverse in terms of background and department. However, panels can also be intimidating for the interviewee. Instead of the traditional setup of interviewers on one side of a table with the candidate on the other side, McCarthy suggests having everyone seated at a round table. If conducting a panel interview virtually, McCarthy recommends planning out in advance who is asking questions and in what order. “We don’t have as many natural cues as in-person interviews with respect to who is talking next,” she says of virtual interviews.

  1. Be transparent about pay, benefits and what is and isn’t negotiable

Talking money and negotiating salary can be one of the most stressful parts of the interviewing process. To mitigate this, McCarthy suggests that companies adopt a transparent pay and benefits policy. “This helps ensure that all candidates are able to negotiate equally,” she says. Alternatively, a salary range could be provided so that candidates are on the same page as the organization as they move through the interviewing process. When preparing and delivering an offer, hiring managers should be clear on what can be negotiated – for example, salary, flexible schedules, vacation time and advanced learning – along with what the company might hold firm on. “Also, let them know that they can take time to consider the offer,” she says. This reduces the stress of having to make a big decision quickly. Employers could offer up to a week to consider the job, depending on the need and nature of the role. “This gives them time to gather information and talk to others,” explains McCarthy.     

Julie McCarthy is a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management with the department of management at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management.