Interview Balancing Act: Candidate Experience vs. Assessment

April 27, 2015 at 1:24 PM Marielle Smith

balance_blog.jpgA great interviewer wields two quite different superpowers: Creating a fantastic candidate experience (merchandising/selling) and assessing the candidate’s alignment with the target profile.

These superpowers can be broken down into a few components that are each easy to implement with a little preparation.

Candidate Experience/The Sell

  • Put the candidate at ease

Be professional, polite and warm. Would you rather work for a company where you were made to feel comfortable and appreciated during the interview process, or one where you were given the third degree, put on the defensive and overly scrutinized? Truth is, we can thoroughly assess a candidate in a friendly, conversational manner.

  •  Don’t say:

If it’s not related to the job, don’t say it. You want to hire the best person for the job. What else matters? Review legal guidelines – they’re not just for staying out of trouble. Personal details about a person don’t matter – if it seems like they do, you’re on the wrong track. 

  • Sell ethically

Hiring a unicorn expert to slay a dragon isn’t your best strategy. Part of what we do when we interact with a candidate is to sell employment. This principal applies whether the candidate is “must hire” or “not so much.” Learn how to sell the opportunity and the company. Don’t oversell — avoid hyperbole and jargon. Real, honest, specific description of working at your company and doing the role in question, with an eye to selling, garners the best results. Accurate expectation-setting increases success. Think about it: If your new hire comes in expecting unicorns and bonbons and finds dragons and stones, there will be frustration and disappointment. 

Candidate Assessment

  • What are you screening for?

It’s difficult to successfully assess a candidate against success criteria if you haven’t determined what those criteria are and briefed the interviewers on what you’d like them to cover. Take the time to decide on what abilities, behaviors and values are critical for success in the role and at your organization. Prepare interview questions that get at these abilities, behaviors and values.

  •  Open questions

Prepare interview questions that are open in nature. Questions that can be answered with a yes or no are vastly less effective than those that invite candidates to provide context, demonstrate mastery of subject matter and tactics, and provide evidence of soft skills such as judgment or empathy.

Example: I noticed from your resume that you closed $4 million of sales in 2007 – that’s an impressive number – and that you were the salesperson of the year at Oracle. What did you do differently from your peers to achieve this result? 

  • Follow-up questions

The great thing about asking open questions and establishing a conversational interview context is that a relaxed candidate is more likely to let their guard down and relate real experiences as they occurred. When an interviewer asks a follow up question in context, it flows naturally in the conversation. Still, as the example below demonstrates, sometimes a more specific question is in order.

Example: I like your approach. Can you tell me more about how you build and prioritize your pipeline? How does your prioritization plan change over the course of the quarter?

Management-oriented follow-up

How do you respond when your manager disagrees with your prioritization? This specific question is ambiguous and is an excellent example of a behavior-based interview question that doesn’t lead the candidate. The answer isn’t a right or wrong answer, but rather an opportunity to understand how the candidate exercises judgment, balances goals, deals with others. The answer a candidate gives might be perfect at one organization, but not a fit with another organization.


In order to assess a candidate effectively, we as interviewers benefit from coming to the conversation prepared with questions and a strong sense of what we are looking for. If we know we need to hire a customer-facing solutions architect who is able to balance getting things done with following a structured process for a customer, we listen carefully to their answers with these criteria in mind. If the candidate doesn’t give us strong evidence demonstrating a track record of this kind of behavior, we ask more questions. Finally, we take notes both documenting the questions we asked and the answers we were given so we can convey our evaluation of the candidate based on evidence to hiring decision makers.

These guidelines should enable hiring teams to make a great impression on candidates and to make the right hiring decisions.

Marielle Smith is a veteran recruiter, currently operating as the Director of Recruiting at Apigee. Throughout her career, Marielle has been responsible for building entire teams from scratch, by way of recruiting tech, advertising, and marketing talent, as well as high-level executives. 

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