Is it just me or when someone says, “I’m a conversational interviewer,” all you hear is “I’m a talker and suck at interviewing?” While we never want to come across as interrogators, too often “conversational interviewers” spend more time talking than listening.

I recently had a conversation about this issue when someone posted a feel-good story on LinkedIn about hiring a customer service representative for a major big box retailer. The gist of the story was the hiring manager, “…talked for almost an hour about things that were not job related.” During this time, the candidate informed the hiring manager “that a penguin has never met a polar bear because they live on opposite sides of the earth.”

The hiring manager who posted the story went on to equate basic conversational skills to customer service competencies. The takeaway was you should hire someone “that you can relate to and have an hour-long conversation about nothing with.”

This raises huge questions and concerns that hiring managers and recruiters should consider: things like bias, risk factors and compliance with applicable laws. An irony underscored by the fact that the poster’s company settled a dispute over its discriminatory hiring practices back in 2018.

So, what is wrong with conversational interviewing? Nothing – when it’s done right.

It is possible to be both conversational and a good interviewer, if you understand the basics of how to do it well.

It starts with preparing so you know what you want to ask and what you want to say. This means spending time to review the candidate’s background. Ensuring your “conversation” is structured to meet the goals of all interviews based on that candidate and the role is next.

 The Issue with the Hiring Manager’s Approach

Let’s start by asking the question – If you spend “almost an hour talking about things that were not job related” then how can you make a job-related decision? You can’t because now the entire process is filled with implicit (& possibly explicit) bias.

We have to ask which other candidates were passed over in preference of this candidate. For instance:

– Did the interviewer hire this “young kid” over a qualified older person?
– Did the poster hire this person over a qualified individual who did not delve into their personal life or whose personal life was less fascinating or didn’t align with the hiring manager’s views?
– Did those people passed over come from different races, genders, religions?

The answers to these questions raise serious concerns about implicit and explicit bias. None of the answers would be easily defensible when confronted with a discrimination claim. This is because the interview did not focus on “job-related” qualifications.

Certainly, the ability to connect conversationally could be considered a bona fide occupational qualification for a customer service role. Though I am not sure how wandering off into a story about polar bears achieved this other than the poster found it enjoyable. Given the propensity to hire people they like, the presumptions proposed by the interviewer raise serious questions about bias.

I can’t help but wonder what the response would be if it was, for example, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mom, who dreams of returning to school to study ethnic & women’s studies that cited a factual statistic about the wage gap for women of color. Would she get the same response & offer?

While it is possible this was a good hire, it is also just as likely the candidate’s seeming inability to differentiate job interviews from general conversations could lead to performance issues in the future. As a team member, will the candidate build relationships or leave customers feeling the agent is not focused on solving their issue. How does this reflect other competencies that may be important like empathy, de-escalation, and problem resolution?

While hiring for potential & culture are important – so is focusing interviews on conversations intended to assess candidates based on genuine, bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ’s.) Focusing on BFOQ’s will limit inherent bias. When we drive interviews on BFOQ’s we hire those who are qualified vs people we just like.

Recognize the Goal: Getting and Giving Information

The most fundamental goal of the conversation during an interview is ensuring candidates meet the minimum requirements. This can usually be established based on their resume (or application) so having some questions focused on that as it relates to the job is key.

This requires spending more than 30 seconds reviewing the data in front of the candidate. Quality preparation will allow you to be ready. Combining candidate specific questions with some standard questions you will ask all candidates will help.

Build the conversation by clarifying questions that refer to their answers. Then follow up with feedback on the relevance and providing examples.

Execute: Create a Realistic Job Preview and Social Contract

Another key goal of the interview is to level set candidate expectations. Too often, recruiters and hiring managers are focused on selling the opportunity. Leaving candidates disconnected from the reality of the role, which drives new hire dissatisfaction.

By leveraging a structured conversational interview, you can share information in two ways. First, during the feedback portion. The second is in the questions themselves by focusing on specific job-related requirements. Asking an irrelevant question (e.g., if you could be an animal, what would you be?) not only comes across as interrogating but is plain silly.

To create the “social contract” simply ask confirmation and commitment questions. By doing this you can establish aligned expectations of the role. You can also refer to these during performance management (“During the interview, we discussed the importance of….)

How a Structured Conversational Interview May Look in Action

  • “In this role, you will be responsible for all aspects of the sales process. This means you would be responsible for…” (Giving Info)
  • “Can you help me understand what scope your past roles included?” (Getting Info)
  • “Your resume notes your experience with creating a sales pipeline at ABC, that sounds interesting, could you tell me more about how you handled that?” (Getting Info)
  • “The reason sales pipeline is important is that we have found the most successful salespeople are constantly growing their sales pipeline. One of the ways we support our team’s business development goal is through a CRM to help you track calls and outcomes…” (Giving Info)
  • “Inputting data into the CRM timely is important so we can track activity across regions…” (Realistic Job Preview)
  • “Would you be comfortable with that?” (Creating Social Contract)

Make it Work: Structure & Drilling Down are the Keys to Success

Remembering the fundamentals requires you to start with a structured interview. This means starting with a basic set of information you want to share and questions you will ask of all candidates.

According to Brandon Jordan, Workforce Lifecycle Analytics, a data-driven human capital consultant, “asking all candidates the same core questions aligned to performance or competencies, has been shown to be one of the strongest predictors for future job performance among other employee selection methodologies.”

The conversation is based on building off the candidate responses to drill down. Jordan went on to note that, “In a recent meta-analysis by researcher Paul Sackett et al of over 261 thousand employees, structured interviews are nearly 2.5 times more predictive than unstructured interviews and a 29% improvement over baseline unstructured interviews, which is barely better than flipping a coin for success rate.”

Being a good conversational interviewer is hard. It’s a balancing act to get information and share information in a way that feels natural. By following your initial questions with follow-up questions and sharing context, you can not only be more effective but also more engaging. When these are clearly focused on job qualifications, functions and outcomes you will limit bias, improving outcomes.

Tim Koirtyohann

Tim is the founder of Charitable Recruiting, a recruiting solutions provider focused on making a difference in the communities served. Based in Dallas/Fort Worth, Tim has provided international recruiting strategies & support to companies like Sunbelt Rentals, Reece USA, & others to help solve labor supply issues. Charitable Recruiting offers consulting in contingent/retained searches, data analytics, and talent acquisition strategy/technology solutions to improve recruiting outcomes.