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The (Non-Existent) Ideal Interviewer

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Interviewers have the responsibility to make the interview into the kind of meeting that, no matter how difficult it might have been for them, interviewees will leave feeling that they have been taken seriously and that the interviewers have valued the time spent with them.

'To interview as you would like to be interviewed' is the first principle of good interviewing. Most of us have been interviewees at some time or another in our careers, and most have been unfortunate enough to come across some pretty bad inter viewers. Just to remind ourselves that nobody is perfect, let's put ourselves back into the position of interviewees and turn the spotlight onto interviewers who display glaring inadequacies. They are in no particular order of awfulness.

To achieve this, interviewers ideally should possess some, if not all, the following characteristics:

  • empathy

  • objectivity

  • tact

  • politeness

  • patience
Empathy is the ability to step inside another person's shoes, to know how they are feeling. It is a gift seldom found in the movers and shakers in our society, those successful executives who have focused all their energy and determination on the realization of a vision. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to see those with whom they work as extensions of themselves rather than separate individuals. When it comes to interviewing, therefore, they are unable to put themselves in the interviewee's shoes, because as far as they are concerned they share the same pair of shoes and they own them!

Some people have problems with empathy, partly because they find it uncomfortable to experience the discomforts of others, and partly because there is power in not knowing. If we do not consider what others are feeling, it is much easier to be rude, impatient, aggressive, hostile or indifferent towards them.

Another problem some interviewers have is distinguishing between empathy and sympathy. Remember 'the shoulders'? They were the interviewers who enjoyed 'helping' interviewees with problems and often ended up making them worse. They do not recognize the thin line that separates the two. Empathy is defined as understanding how other people feel, sympathy is feeling it and, in addition, wanting to do something about it.

Every time you hear a hard luck story and you reveal by what you say or how you look how sorry you feel for the interviewees, you risk losing control of the interview, and if you do that, you cannot really help them. Only by remaining objective, and through your questions letting them come to understand their own problems and how to solve them, can you help.

Objectivity in the way interviewers treat interviewees is essential if interviewees are going to be listened to properly. Most interviewers like to think that they are fair-minded and impartial and that they give their interviewees a reasonable chance to do well. If asked, most would deny that they are prejudiced, because prejudice is an ugly word with an ugly history.

In the obvious sense of racial or religious prejudice this may be true, and if it is not, the law, in its wisdom, has seen to it that those interviewers who do practice discrimination are liable to prosecution.

However, if not actually prejudiced, most interviewers are to a greater or lesser degree biased. Bias is the convenient shorthand by which we go through life making mental notes on the things that happen to us and the people we meet whom we like or do not like.

'Never trust someone who wears a bow-tie,' a former employer of mine, a fair and decent lawyer in all other respects, warns. “I took it as a joke, until I realized that anyone who happened to wear a bow-tie whom he interviewed for a job, or dealt with as a client, was going to be marked down in his mind as unreliable, perhaps even crooked, and treated as such,” he said.

Bias gets in the way of establishing good rapport, because, even though we may not be aware of it, we express our negative attitudes in our gestures and our facial expressions, which interviewees, who watch us far more closely than we realize, notice. The raising of eyebrows, for instance, the annoyed frown, the pursing of our lips or the tapping of a pen will be seen by nervous applicants for a job as an expression of disapproval, and they will either spend the rest of the interview trying too hard (and failing) to capture our approval, or will withdraw into themselves and ruin their chances.

What ideal interviewers cultivate is tolerance, the ability to hear what interviewees are saying without making judgments, without criticizing or interjecting their own views or opinions. Outside the interview-room they might disapprove of men who wear bow-ties, but inside they look beyond the bow-tie to the man himself and treat him as they would someone with an ordinary tie or no tie at all.

In a sense, objectivity is an aspect of empathy, as are the other requirements of ideal interviewers, because all relate to the interviewer's ability to understand how their actions affect interviewees. Being polite is acknowledging that interviewees are just as important as we are; being tactful is recognizing their unease or discomfort and not deliberately exacerbating it; being patient is realizing the difficulties they may be having and allowing them time to give the best account of themselves.

Interviews belong to the interviewees, not to us. Their purpose is not to make us feel better about ourselves, but to obtain information upon which we can act for the ultimate betterment of ourselves, the interviewees and the organizations we work for or represent. If we establish good rapport with our interviewees from the start, we shall achieve this purpose in an efficient and businesslike manner.

The idea that you bring to the interview your whole personality intact, that you cannot choose to separate those aspects of yourself that do not favor good interviewing principles, is (to use a current expression) a 'cop-out', a dereliction of responsibility. We all have weaknesses, just as we all have strengths. If we make the most of the latter and recognize our limitations for what they are - bias, prejudice, intolerance, impatience - we can go a long way towards changing those aspects of our personality that are getting in the way of our becoming more effective interviewers.
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