Hiring New Employees? What Not to Do.

I had this wonderful idea, that after I finished my PhD I would transition from the world of consulting into the world of academia.  I envisioned splitting my days among teaching, research, writing and mentoring the next generation, all the while interacting with an intelligent, motivating and engaged group of colleagues. I know, just a bit idealistic.  There followed a year of applications, phone screens, video interviews, and campus visits. 

Spoiler alert.  Having been enlightened that the grass is in fact not greener on the other side, I have not made the transition to academia.  However, I do have some entertaining experiences to share—not about how to be a successful candidate, but rather how NOT to conduct an interview should you be hiring new employees. 

Don’t leave your applicants in complete silence.  I heard back from less than 15% of the organizations to which I applied.  Your applicants deserve at least two pieces of communication from you:  that you have received their application and that you have filled the position.  There are enough automated emailing options out there that there are no excuses for silence. 

Tell your candidates where and when for the interview.  Pretty basic, right?  I was scheduled for an interview as part of the career services offered at a conference.  The interviewer gave me a time to meet but failed to give a location.  Multiple requests for the location were met with silence.  I made my best guess, the career centre set up at the conference.  The interviewer didn’t show up.  I sent several emails saying, “I am here, where are you?”.  No reply.  I waited half an hour and then sent another email saying, “I am leaving, let me know if you want to reschedule”.  I received an email several hours later asking, “Why were you not at the interview location?” My reply, “Because you didn’t tell me where it was”.  Then the interviewer suggested, “Well, let’s meet for coffee this afternoon”.  Again, no location, and even better, no time.  I took this as a big hint that he was not interested in meeting with me. 

Try not to be obvious that you are filling a quota.  All candidates know that organizations usually have a minimum number of candidates they have to interview before making a hire.  And that organizations usually have a preferred candidate already.  If this is your situation, try not to be too obvious about it.  Candidates are willing to help you fill your quota, up to a point, to get interview practice.  However, when you don’t even attempt to hide the fact that someone is a quota candidate, it gets a bit irritating.  I received a phone call that went like this: “The hiring committee has one time slot available for an interview on this day and time.  It is yours if you would like it.  If this time slot doesn’t work, we don’t have any other options”.  Yes, you have a quota to fill for the day and I am the last one on the list.  Thanks, but no thanks. 

And on the same topic, I like this one.  An interviewer’s opening line on a phone screen was, “I thought there would be two of us interviewing you, but my colleague said she is not interested in sitting in on the interview.”  Well, obviously I was a top candidate for the position.

Read the candidate’s resume before the interview.  Again, something that is pretty basic.  Here is an exchange I had recently: “I see from your resume that most of your work is in policy.  Can you tell us what experience you have had in teaching and education?”  How do I answer this without pointing out the obvious, that he hasn’t read my resume?  There really is no way around it. “Well, actually, just the first three projects are policy.  If you look at the remaining projects I listed you will see that they are all about teaching and education.  If you read some of the past positions I have had, you will also see that they are about teaching and education.” And so on.  No, I didn’t get offered that job.

Make sure your questions are comprehensible.  I am a native speaker of English so I should be able to understand basic interview questions.  In one interview, with native English speakers asking the questions, no matter how closely I listened, I had absolutely no idea what they were asking.  The questions were so obtuse and incomprehensible that I had no clue how to answer them.  I had to repeatedly ask for clarification and check whether my answers were what they were looking for.  Candidates shouldn’t have to guess what you are trying to ask.  Try your questions out on someone beforehand.  If you get blank stares, puzzled frowns, or answers that are out in left field, these are good indications that you need to make some changes.

Don’t have a disagreement about your organization in front of the interview candidate.  I was in an interview in which three interviewers couldn’t agree on the state of the program’s online courses. The guy teaching the courses thought they were in good shape; the guy who seemed to be in charge of the courses thought they needed a lot of work; and the third guy tried to mediate.  You could cut the tension in the room with a knife.  The guy teaching the courses eventually retreated into a stone-faced silence.  That was a collegial, supportive environment if ever I saw one…not.

And one last piece of advice.  If you are part of an interview panel but happen to be on your vacation in an exotic locale, and are live video streaming in, you probably want to withhold the exotic locale vacation part from the candidate.  It is delightful to be interviewed by someone whose idea of small talk is telling you the great time they are having on a vacation that you can’t afford to take.  If you find yourself in this situation?  Fake it. Say that you are out of town at a conference or collecting data for a research project. 

Sadly, these are not the only stories I collected.  There are more stories, many more…