OWNER'S MANUAL

How to Conduct the Perfect Job Interview

The stakes are simply too high for anything less. Here's your complete guide to interviewing the right way.
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Your goal is to hire the best people you possibly can.

That means your interview should be the best it possibly can. The stakes are simply too high to do otherwise.

Here are 13 steps to ensure you conduct the perfect job interview (oh, and forget the "13″ thing; when you do it right bad luck doesn't exist):

1. Truly understand your needs.

Experience, qualifications, and credentials are all important. But great employees don't just do a job; they solve at least one critical business need. Identify that critical need, determine how you measure success in the position, assess the common attributes of your top performers, determine what qualities mesh with your culture... and tailor everything to finding the perfect person to solve that critical business need.

If you don't, you're just going through the motions.

2. Decide how you will get to the heart of what you need.

Say you need an outstanding programmer. Great: Determine how you will identify "outstanding." That may include certifications, specific accomplishments, the right references, or even an on-the-spot test.

Then consider your culture. Skills are important, but attitude is often more important. Determine how you will identify the person with the right personality, interpersonal skills, and interests. That may include a few lunches with key team members, or a day on the golf course, or an evening at a ball game.

Remember, you aren't looking for the best candidate from a specific pool. You're looking for the perfect candidate for the job.

That's why ranking candidates in the post-interview phase can be misleading. You don't want the best of what you saw. You want the best person for the job. If no one in this pool is the right fit you'll need to keep looking--but you won't until you shift from thinking "best of" and start focusing on "best."

3. Describe the process.

The candidate should know exactly what to expect: when to interview, where to interview, who will be involved in the interview--everything. No surprises, no tricks, no uncertainties, no loose ends.

Remember, the first day on the job for the person you hire is the first day you contact them. Be considerate, be thoughtful... be awesome.

4. Spend double the amount of time on homework as you do on conducting the interview.

Lots of people glance at a resume a couple minutes before the interview.

There's a recipe for success. You can't ask intelligent questions and create compelling conversations unless you know the candidate ahead of time.

Start with the resume. Pretend you're the candidate. Your first job was at ACME Industries. Hmm. What did I accomplish? What did I work on? Why did I get promoted? What does that say about my interests and my work ethic.

Then look at the next job. Why did I leave my first job? What does that say about my career path? What does that say about my interests? What did I accomplish there that I didn't accomplish at my first job?Pretend you're the candidate and look beyond facts and figures; read between the lines to get a sense of the person's interests, goals, successes, failures, etc.

Then do a quick survey of social media. (Don't feel bad; guaranteed the candidate is checking you and your company out the same way. Plus anything you learn is something the candidate has voluntarily shared with, well, everyone.)

What are the candidate's interests? What does she like to do in her spare time? Who does she network with?

If you find someone in the candidate's network that you also know well, make a note. They could be a great reference either before or after the interview.

The goal is to know as much about the candidate as you can, not in some quasi-stalker way but so you can...

5. Do your best to make the interview a conversation, not an interrogation.

The best interviews are conversations--but you can't have a conversation with someone you hardly know. The more you know about the candidate ahead of time, the more you can ask questions that give the candidate room for self-analysis or introspection.

The key is to listen slowly. Pause. Give the conversation room to breathe. Often candidates will fill a silent hole with additional examples, more details, or a completely different perspective on the question you've asked.

That will allow you to ask thoughtful questions too--and when you do, candidates will open up and speak more freely because they'll realize you're not just asking questions.

You're listening.

6. Always ask follow up questions.

The most revealing answers are usually to follow-up questions. Listen to the initial answer and then ask why. Or when. Or how a situation turned out. Or who actually did what. Or what made a success difficult to achieve, or what was learned from a failure.

Follow-up questions take you past the canned responses and into the details, both positive and negative. That's a great place to go, because like the devil, the real superstars show up in the details.

7. Spend as much time answering questions as you do asking.

Great candidates are evaluating you, your company, and whether they really want to work for you. They'll ask questions--often like these.

Give them time to ask. Answer thoughtfully. Be open and candid.

But never sell. Trust that great candidates will recognize a great fit and a great opportunity.

8. Describe the next steps.

Explain the rest of the process. Explain what you will do and when you plan to do it.

Few things are worse than being a candidate who has no idea what, when, or if something happens next. Don't make the candidate ask what happens next. Tell them.

9. Follow up and provide closure to every candidate.

Failing to do so is incredibly rude, especially to a person who pays your business the highest compliment of all by saying they would like to work with you (and therefore spend more time with you than with their family.)

Sure, they won't complain to you, but they will complain about you.

(This principle should apply to anyone who applies for a job. Before you post an opening, always decide how you will close the loop with everyone who responds. Yes, everyone.)

10. Check in with others, even if they weren't formally involved.

Interviewees give you their best: They're up, engaged, and switched on. But how do they act when they aren't trying to impress you?

What candidates do while they're waiting in your lobby can tell you a lot. Find out how they treated the receptionist. Find out what they did while they waited. Ask if there were any chance encounters with other employees.

Occasionally you'll pick up a disconnect between the show a candidate put on for you and the way they acted around with people they weren't trying to impress.

A nice guy in the lobby may not be a nice guy on the job, but a jerk in the lobby will always be a jerk on the job.

11. Contact references.

But don't just contact the references the candidate provides; after all, that's a handpicked list. Check out the people in the candidate's network; chances are you know someone who knows someone who knows the candidate and can speak to her experience, skills, attitude, etc.

You have a network--use it. A terrible candidate may wish you hadn't stuck to her list of references, but a great candidate never will.

12. Conduct one more interview.

Even if you think you're sure, give yourself one more chance to be absolutely positive that you're making the right decision. Hold another interview. Or take the candidate out for dinner. Or go to a ballgame or play a round of golf.

If you have any doubt at all, however small--or even if you don't--take that one extra step to be sure.

And don't be afraid to let your intuition and gut feel inform your hiring decision. Your experience is hard earned; don't be afraid to use it.

Don't worry: Great candidates won't mind an opportunity to spend more time together because they want to be sure they are making the right decision, too.

13. Make an enthusiastic offer.

Show your enthusiasm. Express your excitement. Don't be coy; don't play the "I better not seem too excited or she might expect a higher salary" game.

In a great employer-employee relationship there is no upper hand. The right candidate will be just as excited to come on board as you are to welcome them.

That's the perfect way to start.

IMAGE: afroboof/Flickr
Last updated: May 15, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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