Employer Interview Techniques in the Wake of COVID

Employer Interview Techniques in the Wake of COVID

By Mary Winter

Despite working from home and social distancing constraints, many employers have continued to hire attorneys, on a temporary, temp to hire, and direct hire basis, since the pandemic began. With the lightening of restrictions, hiring has increased, but employers are continuing to maintain modifications in the screening and hiring process. This article will outline steps employers are taking to ensure continuation of their workforce and a hiring process that works during a pandemic.

You have selected the candidates you want to interview. The market remains active, and if these candidates interest you, they likely have the interest of other employers. So, put your best foot forward and move quickly!

Universally, employers are using either their in-house or outsourced recruiter to make the initial screen of the candidates. This screening is typically accomplished by phone if by an in-house recruiter and by video if by an outside recruiter. When the candidates progress to interviewing with in-house attorneys, this first meeting with an in-house attorney is usually conducted by video. While some information is lost in not having a three-dimensional in-person interview, the video interview is nonetheless a better alternative to a phone interview, trying to interview many candidates in-person, or delaying the interview process.

One cannot understate the value of observing body language in an interview, so for higher-level positions, employers are conducting in-person interviews of one or two top candidates before making an offer. Social distancing protocols are observed during the in-person interviews. Since there are risks in interviewing candidates in-person, now more than ever it is important to thoroughly screen and assess candidates before scheduling in-person interviews. By assessing candidates prior to the in-person interview, employers can not only get the best qualified candidates, but streamline the process. Outlined below are best practices I have developed in placing attorneys over the past 20-plus years.

I. Video Interviews

A. Technical Considerations
While there are many similarities between in-person and video interviewing, there are distinct issues to consider with a video interview. Most attorneys are familiar with participating in video meetings. However, if your company uses a video system that is not mainstream, make sure the candidates know which system you will be using and provide the link and password to access the interview, and any other steps they need to know to access the system. You should also provide the full names of the people with whom they will be interviewing and any documents that may be referenced during the interview. Provide the candidates with the name, email address, and phone number of the person they should contact if they have difficulty accessing the platform. Make sure the troubleshooter is aware they need to be available during the relevant time-period. This information should be provided in the invite for the interviews.

B. Be on Time and Be Prepared
The number one factor that most discourages interested candidates is their getting the sense the organization with which they are interviewing does not care about or respect them. This perceived lack of respect during the interview process translates to their thinking this organization does not care about or respect their employees. Candidates interpret low salaries and interviewers not being on time or not having read their resumes as a lack of respect for the organization’s workforce.

Anyone who would typically interview candidates in-person for this position should first interview by video. If business people and executives would normally interview these candidates in person, it is best if they can first interview them via video, either individually or in a panel video interview. This way, you will not needlessly bring a candidate in for an in-person interview if there is not a match with the business units.

  1. About 10 minutes before the scheduled time, ensure you can access the video. This margin is necessary as often there will be a system update, or if using a laptop, the battery may be nearly dead;
  2. Have a glass of water at your desk;
  3. Close all applications you will not be using;
  4. Turn off your phone; and
  5. Be fully familiar with the candidates’ resume and have questions prepared questions. Even if you decide against a candidate, you want the candidate to want to join your organization.

If you are fully prepared for the video interviews, it is easier to focus on watching the candidates. It is more difficult to pick up clues about personality, ability, and intelligence in a video interview than in-person. Accordingly, the less often you need to look at your materials the more you can focus on looking at the candidates. For this reason, you may want to have at least two people from your organization attend the interview. This way, one can observe, and one can ask questions, possibly taking turns with these tasks.

Moreover, video interviews are not as relaxed as in-person interviews. It is more difficult to make small talk, as everyone is focused on accomplishing the mission of the call. If you are prepared, and the candidates should be prepared, there is a greater likelihood of smooth interviews so your assessments of the candidates will not be sullied with an unfamiliar interview process.

C. Phase I of Interviews: Provide Information
Tell the candidates about the position, but be careful not to provide answers to the questions you will be asking:

  1. Define your organization’s core values, its mission, and its culture;
  2. Express what you like about the organization and the teams with which you work.
  3. Explain where this position fits into the organization’s structure;
  4. Explain why this position is available;
  5. Delineate what the new person needs to do differently from the last person (if applicable);
  6. Describe what needs to be done in the next six months;
  7. Outline the amount of responsibility and authority the person will have in the decision making process;
  8. Explain anticipated promotions and progression of responsibility. When discussing opportunities for advancement, keep in mind that most companies, except those on a fast growth trajectory, offer limited opportunities for promotion. Even large companies will have more people in the company vying for the opportunities that become available;
  9. Identify organizational changes envisioned in the short- and long-term; and
  10. Clarify what constitutes success in this job.

D. Phase II of Interviews: Ask Questions
Demonstrate interest in the candidates by asking specific questions about their abilities and goals. This phase of the interview should have a conversational tone with back and forth questions and answers:

1. Abilities

  1. I see you have a lot of M&A/litigation/SEC experience — can you elaborate on your role with those transactions/litigations?
  2. Where did you receive your legal training?
  3. Tell me about difficult situations you have been able to overcome in working with business people or clients.
    1. When were you not able to overcome these issues and what did you do?
  4. What are some of your greatest accomplishments in your last two positions?
  5. What type of work environment do you like? Have them discuss preferences regarding working as a member of a team or individually and remotely verses in-office.
  6. In which areas of law do you consider yourself to be an expert? Get specifics, for example:
    1. How many software licenses have you drafted and negotiated? Do not let them get away with saying “a lot” — a lot can mean 5 or 100 to different people.
    2. How many pages were they?
    3. What was their range of value?
    4. How many people worked on the agreements and what was your role??
  7. In what ways do you motivate your teams?
  8. Ask questions about concerns you have about their candidacy. For example, if you are concerned because their commute would be long, perhaps he or she is willing to move to the area. Address any perceived lack of skills; they may have those skills, but they are not on their resume.

2. Goals

  1. What areas would you like to learn more about?
  2. What are you looking for in your next position?
  3. Does this opportunity align with your professional goals? In what ways?
  4. What contributions could you make to the company? i.e., Why should we hire you for this position?
  5. What interests you about our company?
  6. What would getting this position mean to you?
  7. What are your expectations in this position (including expectations of working remotely)?

E. Ask Candidates if they have Additional Questions
If they thoroughly researched your organization, they should have probing questions that are specific to your organization.

F. Phase III of Interviews: Closing the Interviews
Be upfront about the number of other candidates who are being considered, but don’t let any candidate know he or she is their top choice or that they are the only one who is being considered, unless you want to increase the salary level!

  1. Tell the candidate if there are specific concerns; they may have an explanation for the perceived lack of experience, or for all of their job changes. At a minimum, it will be enlightening to see if they are dejected by your observations or if they explain how they have overcome similar lapses in skills in the past.
  2. Explain the next steps in the hiring process.
  3. If interested in this candidate, ask about the status of their search, such as whether they have any second or third interviews scheduled with other employers (unless using Firm Advice, in which case we keep up with that information).

II. Assessing Candidates

After interviewing all candidates, obtain the below information from everyone who engaged with the candidate. Even if the employee was not on the call, if they communicated with the candidate, they should be given the opportunity to provide input. Often candidates will let their guard down if they believe they are interacting with someone who will not have input on the selection process.

A. Abilities: Where are they Strong and Where are they Weak?

  1. Are strengths more important than weaknesses?
  2. Are they able to learn what they are missing?
  3. How will the business/executive teams view the candidates?

B. Goals: How Do the Candidates’ Goals Align with the Organization’s Mission and Culture?

  1. Do the candidates’ desired work environment mirror your organization’s environment?
  2. Are the candidates’ goals attainable within this organization?
  3. Were they able to present compelling reasons why they want to work for your organization?
  4. Do the candidates possess characteristics that make other employees successful?

C. Presence — Be Sure to Observe:
How did they conduct themselves during the interview?

  1. Did they arrive on time?
  2. Did they make eye contact?
  3. How did they comport themselves?
  4. Were they properly attired?
  5. Were they neat and organized in both their person and materials?
  6. Did they answer questions fully, but were not too verbose?

D. Personality
Soft skills can be more difficult to teach than technical skills, but are often overlooked during the hiring process. The employees who helped to organize the interview can often provide insight in this area.

  1. Were any of the candidates difficult in setting up the interview? For example, did a candidate need accommodations on their availability, or were they willing to interview early in the morning, late in the evenings, or weekend, if necessary? Did they ask multiple times for assistance about the process of the interview? This need for help is particularly concerning if it they could have figured it out for themselves by researching the issue.
  2. Were they pleasant? Were they articulate in explaining answers to questions?
  3. Is there a common thread in why they left each of their positions?
    1. Did they repeatedly not get along with people?
    2. Did their prior employers stop giving them interesting or challenging work (maybe because they were not trusted with it?)?
    3. Was there nowhere else for them to rise in the company? This last reason can fall flat if they did not achieve much at the company.
  4. Did they leave their employment without having another position? You may need to ask about the month they started and ended employment if those details are not on their resume.
  5. If they were laid off, ask how many others were laid off at the same time, and in which round of lay-offs they were let go.
  6. Can their areas of deficiency can be corrected with training, experience, or counselling, or are the problems innate?
  7. Did they follow up with a thank you note, by email, mail, or LinkedIn?

After checking references, most employers make an offer at this stage of the process, without conducting an in-person interview. All reports are that hiring based only on video interviews have been successful. However, in-person interviews are typically conducted if the organization is making a “permanent” hire for a general counsel or chief legal officer or the position reports to either of those two positions.

III. In-person Interview for Final Candidates

When hiring a top-level attorney, employers typically conduct an in-person interview before making an offer. After obtaining feedback from everyone who interacted with the candidates, select one or two top candidates to bring in for in-person interviews. There are usually one to three people who interview the candidates in-person, in either panel or individual interviews. Most employers arrange for candidates to interview with everyone on the same day, rather than calling them back for additional in-person interviews.

Taking these steps will not only enable organizations to select the best person for the opportunity but will also streamline the process. An organized, thorough approach will reflect well on your organization, which is important when hiring savvy attorneys.

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