The art of interviewing

May 1, 2011
No management function is more important than hiring the right people. Without the right people, everything else declines - production, customer relations, profits, happiness. And the stress it creates...whew!

Tim Twigg and Rebecca Crane

For more on this topic, go to and search using the following key words: interviewing, hiring, employee interviews, protected classes, Tim Twigg, Rebecca Crane.

No management function is more important than hiring the right people. Without the right people, everything else declines — production, customer relations, profits, happiness. And the stress it creates ... whew! Nothing brings on stress (and drama) quite like having an employee who does not fit. Did you know that the number one reason for turnover is lack of fit, coupled with misunderstandings? You know the reasons: the employee is not a team player, not motivated, can’t multitask, doesn’t pay attention to detail, isn’t good with customers, doesn’t hold himself or herself accountable for his/her actions, etc. The list could go on and on.

Turnover is costly, both emotionally and financially. Studies indicate that, at a minimum, the cost is equivalent to the annual salary of the person who is being replaced, but it can be as much as two to three times that amount depending on the position, applicant pool, job market, etc. Wouldn’t it be great to reduce that cost and get the right people onboard the first time?

When a bad hire happens, most people wonder how it happened. The person aced the interview along with all the other steps in the recruiting process, so why did he or she turn out to be a nightmare? How did the person end up not at all like the person you met during the recruiting process? And more importantly, how do you prevent a mistake like this from happening again?

There can be a lot of reasons for bad hires, but one primary one is poor interviewing techniques. When was the last time you actually prepared for an interview? Don’t most of us normally just wing it? We have a handful of questions we love to ask, and we don’t take the time to go much beyond those questions. We figure our “gut instinct” will be right. If this is working for you, great. If not, you might want to consider fine-tuning your interviewing techniques, specifically the type of questions you ask. This can help get you closer to seeing the “real person” during the interview.

One major interviewing pitfall is not allowing the applicant to talk very much. Instead, you try to “sell” the candidate on you and your practice. Don’t do that! The interviewee should do about 75% of the talking. Interviewers sometimes get uncomfortable with silence or waiting while an applicant struggles to answer a question. The interviewer will sometimes take over and explain, describe, and provide his or her own opinions to promote more conversation. This can inadvertently lead the applicant into knowing what to say or simply agreeing with the interviewer, which does not serve the purpose of getting to know the applicant.

Another pitfall is asking too many yes/no questions. These types of questions will not provide information for you to evaluate the person’s fit within your practice adequately; in fact, the answers will often be misleading. When you ask, Are you a motivated person? who couldn’t get that question “right”?

Ideally, ask open-ended questions to keep the interviewee talking. You want to collect as much data on this person as possible. The best way to do this is through carefully crafted interview questions that go beyond simple yes/no responses.

When crafting questions, make sure they are legal. Generally speaking, if a question is not related to important or essential job duties, skills, work behaviors, or attributes, it should not be asked. Under multiple federal and state regulations, it is unlawful to discriminate against applicants based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, age, or disability, just to name a few. People who fall into any of these groups are in what are called protected classes.

Raising a topic or asking a question pertaining to any of these protected characteristics could be perceived as discriminatory, particularly if the applicant believes he or she was denied employment opportunities as a result. The art of interviewing means knowing what legally can or cannot be asked in order to prevent potential liability.

Avoid questions or conversations related to:

  • Marital and/or family status
  • Age or any indirect means of determining someone’s age, such as learning his/her high school graduation dates
  • Race and color
  • Sex
  • Birthplace or citizenship
  • Military record
  • Ancestry or national origin
  • Credit rating
  • Affiliated organizations
  • Children and/or relatives

Bottom line, ensure that all questions are job-related. Eliminate any that serve no purpose in determining someone’s ability to perform job duties.

Interview questions typically land in one of five categories. An interview will be a combination of all five.

  1. Credential = education, certification, licensure
  2. Technical = knowledge necessary for the job (e.g., computer software)
  3. Experience
  4. Opinion = self-evaluation; yields the candidate’s opinion about a given situation
  5. Behavioral = work-related, behavioral responses from the candidate’s past.

Most interviews follow these percentages: credential/technical — 17%, experience — 28%, behavioral — 1%, and opinion — 54%. Notice the high percentage of opinion questions in the typical interview. What could be wrong with putting so much emphasis on those types of questions? Simply this: the person being interviewed would give an opinion that he or she believes you would find more favorable, even though that’s not what the “real person” really thinks. Without the right questions, acing an interview can be easy with an experienced interviewee who knows all the right responses.

This is the recommended interview question mix: credential/technical — 10%, experience — 20%, behavioral — 60%, and opinion — 10%. Note the emphasis here on behavioral-based questions. Different from opinion questions — although frequently confused with them — behavioral-based questions focus on past behavior from real work-related experiences to determine an applicant’s future behavior. The underlying proven premise is past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. It is this information that allows for greater understanding of the “real person” behind the interview, and whether or not that person will be the right fit for you.

Behavioral-based questions typically begin with the words describe, explain, tell me, or how did you ... These words focus on present or past situations, rather than would you, could you, should you, or will you ... which focus on the future and are opinion-based. To get a list of some sample questions, call us at (800) 679-2760.

Behavioral-based questions require preparation on the part of the interviewer before they can be effectively implemented. That is because the interviewer must identify a situation, or situations, relevant to the position to be filled that are key job competencies and behaviors that, if not handled well, would result in job performance dissatisfaction — for example, high stress, angry patients, multitasking, fast-paced, and detail-oriented.

From these job competencies or behaviors, questions are then formed to specifically target gathering this information from the applicant’s past. Here is an example of a behavioral-based question: People aren’t always busy at work. Describe the slowest time at your last job. What action did you take? What was the result? And when I check your references, who can I verify that with?

In this case, the behavior or job competency desired is being able to fill slow time at work and keep busy with relevant duties and responsibilities. During the interview, the applicant must recount a previous specific time in which it was slow at work, and then state his or her response to this slow time and the result of his or her behavior.

Be mindful of the applicant stating an opinion rather than a real situation. You’ll know this has happened if the applicant says something like, “If it were slow at work …” The key word is if. This is not a factual account of a real situation; it’s a hypothesis and an opinion. Redirect the applicant to respond with a real situation.

The most important component to these questions is how an applicant acted in response to the situations. People’s core behaviors and responses change very little, so knowing what someone has done will likely represent how that person will act in a similar situation in the future. Consider these aspects:

  • Was the action well-thought-out?
  • Does the person hold himself or herself accountable or responsible for anything?
  • Was the action immature?
  • How closely does the action match your desired response in a similar situation?
  • Did the action create improvement or not?
  • Does the applicant relate his or her action to the result, whether good or bad?
  • Did the applicant blame others in relating the past action?

Be sure you allow the applicant time to recount the situation from his or her past. It may take some time, there may be some awkward silences, and you may have to push a little. Not being able to answer the question at all is a red flag. Whatever you do, don’t overexplain the question and lead the person to a proper response.

Finally, because the person is relating real facts from real events and providing reference information, you set the stage for more effective reference-checking. In many cases, simply asking for references will cause a person to tell the truth, regardless. Liability issues don’t typically present themselves when you confirm information with a reference instead of trying to solicit information from the applicant.

Can you do more than you are doing currently to interview candidates better? Sure you can! Improving your interviewing skills and specifically incorporating many behavioral-based questions into your interviews are essential to that process. Interviewing in this manner is not as easy as “winging it” with your favorite opinion-based questions, but it will prove to be worthwhile in the long run. Nothing feels better than getting the right person on the team. Everybody wins — you, your practice, and the applicant.

Tim Twigg is the president of Bent Ericksen & Associates, and Rebecca Crane is a human resource compliance consultant with Bent Ericksen & Associates. For 30 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resource and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with the ever-changing and complex labor laws. To receive a complimentary copy of the company’s quarterly newsletter or to learn more about its services, call (800) 679-2760 or visit the Web site at

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