You’re sitting at your desk. Toothpaste is crusted in the corner of your mouth, and you might have forgotten to comb your hair. You don’t remember whether you put on matching socks and you last ironed your shirt, well, never.
You look at your calendar and realize that you have a candidate coming in to interview in 10 minutes. You move a stack of papers off of your guest chair and grab a cup of coffee in order to be coherent. “Lucky I have an hour with this person. That’s plenty of time to convince them how awesome it is to work here. How awesome a boss I am. After all, this is just a first impression.”
Wrong! But thanks for trying!
How much time do you have to make a first impression at an interview? Not long. Some say 1/10 of a second, some say 30 seconds. So, let’s call it 10 seconds on average. In the first 10 seconds of this scenario, what have you achieved?
- The candidate walks into your messy office (2 seconds).
- The candidate sees you in all of your disheveled glory (1 second).
- You juggle your coffee cup to your left hand, introduce yourself and shake hands (4 seconds).
- You offer a glass of water or cup of coffee and the candidate refuses (1.5 seconds).
- You both figure out how to sit down in your cluttered office (2 seconds).
So now you’re settled and ready to start wowing the candidate — and your 10 seconds to make a great first impression were up half a second ago. You haven’t even had time to take a breath, pick up the resumé, or make any charming small talk. And your first impression is over.
But that’s not all. This interview is also the candidate’s last impression of you.
Or at least, this interview is the last impression they’ll have before you potentially make them an offer and try to convince them to come on board. You have a single hour to make your first and last impression on a person you want to join your team, on top of doing the normal work of evaluating a candidate in an interview.
There’s a lot more going on in the typical interview than most of us realize, and you need to make the most of this time.
1. Fix your first impression
The scenario above in no way resembles how you actually want to appear when you greet a candidate. If you look disheveled and seem scattered, that’s the first impression that you’ll spend the next hour trying to overcome. To say the least, that’s not the last impression you want to leave.
Wouldn’t you rather spend that time building upon an amazing first impression, rather than scrambling to catch up after making an unimpressive first impression?
So clean up your office. Comb your hair. Remember the candidate’s name and don’t be carrying your coffee cup when you meet.
In fact, you should plan to spend 15 minutes before the interview just on getting ready and preparing to make a great first impression. This includes all the clean-up tasks above, as well as reviewing the resumé and making sure you know what questions you’re going to ask and what topics you want to cover.
Fixing your first impression doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, but it will infinitely improve your last impression.
If you struggle with putting your office together in a tidy way (as some of us do), try to block an entire afternoon for interviews, and block an hour that same morning just for reviewing all the resumés and cleaning up your office. That way, you only have to clean up once and you can do all your prep in one session, rather than multiple times in one week.
This strategy has the additional advantage of allowing you to take extra care in getting ready on the morning of your interview day, so that you can make sure you look presentable.
A few other tips: If your office is especially messy, consider taking interviews in a conference room. Schedule reminders to alert you when you need to start preparing for interviews so you don’t accidentally forget about them until the candidate is knocking on your door. Planning ahead and taking a little extra time will go a long way towards making your first impression a winner.
2. It’s not an inquisition
You do have to ask some essential questions during the interview, but you also need to remember that this isn’t an inquisition and you are not the high inquisitor. Your candidate is a person, and although you are asking them questions, they should feel like they aren’t being bullied or coldly asked a string of impossible questions.
If your candidate’s last impression of you is of a cranky person firing hard questions at them, while your competitor down the street left the impression of fun people who can hold real conversations, guess who will land the candidate?
Of course, balancing the necessary questions and assessment parts of the interview with the feeling of a fun, engaging conversation isn’t easy. If artfully working questions into your charming communication style doesn’t come naturally to you (and it doesn’t for most people), there’s only one way to do this: practice. You might feel like an idiot when you first try to work a question into a conversation, but that’s normal. Here are some tips:
- Use your “getting to know you” chatter as a jumping-off place for questions. If the candidate says something about how busy they’ve been at work, reply with, “Yeah; things can get a little nuts sometimes. What are you finding most challenging about your current role?”
- Tell your own stories in return (just don’t take TOO much time). For most candidates, you can then use your own story to transition to your next question. So if you’ve told a story about your worst cold-call, you can ask them what their biggest sales challenge has been.
- Always feel free to say something like, “Okay, great. Now, I have another question…” once the conversation has wound down a bit. It’s definitely fine to shift the topic that way – it’s an interview, after all, so not everything has to be a perfectly seamless transition. As long as you’re polite, the candidate won’t be put off.
3. Get what you need
A rapid-fire inquisition is almost as bad as the complete opposite: leaving the candidate with the impression that you asked absolutely nothing. And even worse is to leave yourself without the information needed to make a decision and possibly needing to call the candidate to get the answers that you need.
So yes, you want to put the candidate at ease and make the interview feel more like a conversation than an inquisition. But don’t go so casual that the candidate wonders if you even really work there.
What you truly need from every candidate is a way to compare them to your company, the role, and other candidates. You can only do this if you plan what to ask in advance (and then, if you’re following #2, figuring out how to gracefully ask these questions).
To figure out what questions you need to ask, consider the following:
- What hard skills do you need to test? Are you the right interviewer to do that?
- What soft skills does the candidate need in order to do the job?
- What are your cultural ‘dealbreakers’?
4. Give what you can
To make sure your last impression is your best impression, make sure that you give the candidate what he or she needs as well. This doesn’t mean to impatiently ask, “Do you have any questions for me?” as you check your watch, sigh, and eye the door meaningfully. Making a positive impression means you have to be ready to genuinely listen to your candidate and give back.
Ideally, you have been talking to your candidate as he or she has been answering your (conversational, artfully worded) questions. Did she talk about traveling? Mention how much you like to travel (or don’t) and how much travel is expected in this position. Did he talk about traffic from home? Mention your company’s flexible hours and parking reimbursement.
When they give, give back. Most likely, they are bringing their best effort to this interview, and so the least you can do is return the favor.
When the candidate asks questions, give thoughtful answers. If you run out of time, hand over your business card and ask the candidate to email you any questions. Give the very last impression of being friendly and accessible – that will go a long way towards making sure the candidate thinks well of you.
Do you feel a little more pressure now? Maybe you should. Whether a candidate takes a job is firmly based on this initial interview, and impressions count.
OK, ten seconds on the clock. Thinking of an interview as only your first impression is risky business. Always go into an interview knowing that this is your last impression before a bunch of big decisions are made. Will the applicant take the job? How will salary and vacation negotiations go over? 3, 2, 1… Time’s up!
Michael Overell is the CEO and co-founder of RecruitLoop, an online recruitment marketplace based in San Francisco and Australia. He is a former McKinsey consultant. Michael is passionate about startups, health, and technology. Surfs when he can; rides a bike most days. You can follow him on twitter at @mboverell.