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Just tell candidates what you’re going to ask ahead of time

It's time to make transparent interviews the new normal.

99% of job interviews are a complete black box for candidates. Candidates typically know when to show up and, if they’re lucky, who they’ll be meeting. If you’re on the company side—the hiring manager or an interviewer—this might sound like enough, but if you’ve been on the other side of the table, as a candidate, it sucks. The less a candidate knows, the more they are inevitably set up for one of two scenarios.

Scenario 1: they go crazy trying to figure out everything that might be important.

Keep in mind that if you're a candidate, you either have a job and are trying to stay in good standing while exploring your options, or you don't have a job, in which case you're probably applying to many jobs. In other words, the daunting task of trying to figure out everything you might need to know is actually worse than it initially sounds because you need to balance this with other responsibilities or other opportunities.

Scenario 2: they wing it.

Okay, most conscientious candidates will spend some time prepping—reviewing the job description, company and brushing up on what they think are the standard questions—but in the end, it’s fairly unlikely that the candidate will put time and energy into all the right places. An otherwise strong candidate might not spend enough time prepping on a topic they’re a bit rusty on.

You are inadvertently turning away great candidates and exposing your hiring process to avoidable randomness and risk.

Maybe you're thinking, this isn't so bad. If they really want the job, they'll choose scenario one, or perhaps they're a genius, and scenario two will work nicely for them. If this is your thought process, you are not alone. Still, you're also inadvertently turning away great candidates, introducing bias, and exposing your hiring process to avoidable randomness and risk. In other words, you're making it more likely that you don't hire the best person. Yikes! Let me explain.

Good candidates have options.

It's hubris to think multiple companies aren't actively courting good candidates. By being opaque about your hiring process and the substance of your interviews, you are likely turning candidates away before they even apply. Unless you have a great and trusted brand and there are active communities where past candidates share their positive experiences with your interviews, candidates are opting-out before they've even begun—simply because your hiring process is a mystery.

Hiring is a bilateral decision. It’s about building a trusting relationship. And the interview is the first step.

Most candidates perceive standard hiring practices, like a random barrage of interview questions, as unfair.

Too many companies fall into the trap of thinking they are hiring a candidate. They are in control. They have the power. The reality is that hiring is a joint decision—you're both auditioning each other. A company can pass on a candidate at any time, but a candidate can jump ship at any time too. This misperception of power on the part of companies makes it easy to fall into the trap of trying to set the terms of the relationship—doing what's easy or most convenient for them without thinking about how candidates perceive them. Most candidates perceive standard hiring practices, like a random barrage of interview questions, as unfair—precisely the opposite of what most companies say they want. Even if a candidate does make it through an opaque hiring process, they're likely to have less trust for you and your company than the company that explained the rules of engagement and gave the fair warning of what topics and questions they'd cover.

Surprise interview questions don't help you assess a candidate's skills

Unless you are filling a job where the primary responsibility will be answering difficult questions with no time to prepare, then surprising candidates in an interview is NOT a good way to figure out if they'll be a good fit. The reality is that most jobs, and especially jobs that require challenging problem solving, afford people time, space, and security to think—to consider potential solutions, to deliberate and explore, to experiment and even fail, and to find their way to a great solution. A tricky interview removes the sense of control that most people feel when performing skills or tasks they're good at and induces unnatural stress. This stress directly correlates with physical manifestations of anxiety, like higher heart rates and sweating (yikes!) and worse and riskier decision-making (oops). The "element of surprise" is great for conquering your enemies in battle but not a great way to find your next hire. The big problem here is that instead of judging a candidate based on important skills or knowledge related to the job, you've accidentally refocused your assessment on their ability to cope with stress.

The way forward: be transparent.

There is a simple way forward, and that is to be an open book. Tell the candidate when to show up, who they'll meet with and why, what your overall interview process looks like and where they stand, and please...tell them what questions you plan to ask them in the interview ahead of time!

It’s a simple change, but it can be hard to make. For one thing, you'll be giving candidates an advantage that you never had back when you were looking for a job. Remember? No one ever told you what you'd be asked in an interview or gave you the chance to focus your preparation and put your best foot forward. But there’s no need to perpetuate bad behavior—even if everyone else chooses to. The past is the past, candidates are people who deserve respect and transparency, and you'll have a better hiring process and make better hiring decisions if you make the change. Win-win.

The other issue you’ll confront is that being transparent means a bit more work. You’ll need to plan a hiring process that you can confidently explain to candidates and choose thoughtful, job-related questions before the interview. Now, to be clear, you should be doing this already, but when you're stretched for time and have competing priorities, it's tough. The good news is you will save time in the long run by planning: you can, and should, be using the same process and same questions with each candidate you interview for a given job.

If you can put in the work and let go of the past, having a transparent interview process is the way to go. The most immediate benefit, assuming your goal is to make the best hire, is getting higher quality signal on a candidate’s capabilities and insight into the most relevant experiences they’ve had in the past. All candidates will be better prepared and less anxious and have a fair chance to put their best foot forward. If you’re not convinced yet, here’s a full rundown of why it’s the right call:

  • It creates a level and fair playing field for all candidates. Every candidate has the same information. There are no favorites, and having the bad fortune of preparing for the wrong things is no longer a factor.
  • It shows candidates you’re empathetic. It tells them you know looking for a job is not fun, and you’re doing what you can reduce the pain.
  • It levels the power dynamic between candidate and company. It signals humility and respect for the candidate and creates a positive place to start building a relationship.
  • It reduces the candidate's stress. Allowing candidates to prepare and not putting them on the spot will meaningfully reduce their anxiety and give you a clearer picture of who they are.
  • It reduces interviewer stress and boosts confidence. Some interviewers experience social anxiety in interviews, and others feel awkward or uncomfortable surprising candidates with tough questions. This allows an interviewer to focus on the candidate's answers instead of what to questions to ask.
  • It helps the candidate understand what you’re looking for. By telling candidates what you're going to ask, you're giving them insight into the skills or values you think they'll need to succeed in the role.
  • It leads to more thoughtful answers. Candidates have the time and space they need to prepare. They can brush up on skills that may have atrophied but could quickly re-learn. They’ll also be more likely to recall meaningful experiences that provide the best evidence of their capabilities.
  • It makes your company stand out. Most companies aren’t candid with their interview process. Being transparent signals that you’re fair and empathetic, as mentioned above, and thoughtful, organized, and professional.

When I started doing transparent interviews a few years ago, it initially felt a tad awkward, “Okay, you know the questions I'm going to ask; now I'm going to ask them.“ But after the first few interviews, the awkwardness quickly faded, and I immediately regretted not making the switch a decade ago. If you have important decisions to make in a meeting, you’re sure to make an agenda, share it, and confirm that people attending the meeting know what’s expected of them. Why should a job interview be any different? I get way more out interviews today than I ever have, and candidates love being treated with the respect they deserve.