Interviewing Candidates, the Right Way

With so many executives bad at giving job interviews, Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison offers some unique "Help.

A job interview can be one of the most unnatural interactions, a surreal combination of the excitement of a trip to Disneyland and the dread of going to the dentist.

Too often, interviewers turn the merely uncomfortable into the unbearable. They think they should make candidates “sweat” a little. Somewhere along the line, they were taught or told that they should ask really tough questions and see how others perform under extreme pressure. But how does that mirror the real world? Other than, say, air traffic controllers facing mid-air crises or surgeons making life-or-death decisions, most of us operate in environments that are collaborative and relational. Job interviews should reflect that reality.

The secret to becoming a good interviewer is to put yourself in the candidate’s place. Remember what it was like in the other chair, particularly earlier in your career—that it’s natural for people to be nervous during an interview. As a good interviewer, you make the extra effort to put candidates at ease, which allows them to showcase who they really are and the value they’ll bring to your team.

It all comes down to your ability to “HELP”—homework, engagement, listening, and a positive attitude.


A good interviewer prepares in advance by reading candidates’ resumes, checking out their social media, and understanding their backgrounds, from their previous jobs to where they went to college and their hobbies and other accomplishments. If candidates have taken an assessment ahead of time (a requirement at more senior levels), review that data beforehand. And, never put a resume on the table or ask people to “walk me through your resume”—what a waste of interviewing time! When you do the homework ahead of time, you can ask more meaningful questions about what people accomplished and how. Granted, if you’re interviewing multiple candidates over the course of a few days, preparing for each meeting does take a lot of time. But considering the benefit of getting the right person for the team (and the cost of hiring the wrong person), the payoff more than offsets the effort


Interviews should be conversations, not interrogations. That means engaging people right from the start and putting them at ease. I always go out to greet candidates rather than having them brought to my office, and suggest that we get coffee in the office kitchen before we start our meeting. Humanizing the interaction with small talk—asking about the drive in that morning or the flight the night before—sets the stage for a more natural and meaningful discussion that’s enjoyable for both parties. In addition, when the interview starts, I never sit across the desk from the candidate. Sitting side-by-side, with no separation, invites a more relaxed and candid conversation.


As the interviewer, your job is to listen, not talk. You already know what you think—what you don’t know is how the other person thinks! Asking open questions and truly listening—giving the person your full attention and not looking at their resume (and never a phone or other screen)—will help you discover such things as how they would handle particular situations, solve problems amid ambiguity, and lead others. By listening well, you’ll pick up nuances about each candidate’s strength and weaknesses, skills, competencies, and motivations.

Positive attitude

This one really goes against the grain of the hard-nosed interviewer who’s indulging in a bit of a power trip. A positive attitude doesn’t mean you’re any less discerning of the candidates you meet—you want to find the best talent! At the same time, as the interviewer you’re not just the “buyer” who is evaluating candidates. You’re also a seller who is presenting what your company stands for—its mission, values, overarching purpose, and culture. End the meeting on a positive note with conversation that mirrors how the meeting started (e.g., ask what the rest of their day looks like). With this attitude, you’ll help ensure that even candidates who aren’t called back for another meeting or don’t become finalists feel that they had a great experience and walk away with favorable opinion of the company.

Face it, interviewing is tough–on both parties. No one wants to see people at their worst. By following HELP you’ll have a better chance at seeing the candidate at their best.


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