A job interview is a commitment of time and energy for you and for the job hunter, but planning ahead can make the process a snap.

Why is it so important to plan the job interview process when hiring new employees for your small business? A preplanned structure with a set format that you use for all interviews will allow you to:

  • Keep calm and in control of the job interview from start to finish.
  • Stay organized so you ask all the right questions, take good notes and provide all the necessary information to the candidate.
  • Reduce your chances of opening your small business to liability by accidentally asking the wrong interview questions or favoring one candidate over another due to personal bias.
  • Make the hiring process more uniform, objective, and fair for all candidates. This also increases your chances of hiring the right person for the job.
  • Save valuable time by allowing you to reuse your format and planning tools for future interviews.

The way you structure your job interviews will be unique to your small business. You can create your own interview format by following this road map and checklist for structured interviews:

1. Preparing the Interview Format and Setup

Decide whether to do phone interviews first. If you have a large number of good candidates to assess, consider hosting preliminary interviews by telephone. Doing a round of phone interviews, prior to selecting finalists for in-person interviews, can help you shorten the list of applicants with less time investment both for you and the interviewees.

Pick your evaluation methods. Do you plan to ask interviewees to complete a task or trial period before you make a job offer? These can be good ways to assess abilities in a more concrete way. If so, plan the task or trial period in writing and get feedback on it from others in your business or from a mentor. Also decide who will be asked to do the task or trial period. For example, will you ask only your top choice candidate, or your top two or three choices?

Create an evaluation system. Design a rating scale or points system that will allow you to objectively evaluate responses to your set questions. For example, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (U.S. OPM) suggests creating a three-tier scale, with all answers being classified as unsatisfactory, satisfactory, or superior. Or, you could use a five-point scale, with one as worst and five as best. It’s smart to create a chart, listing each of your interview questions along with the skill or quality it is designed to evaluate. Then, for each question, jot an example of an unsatisfactory, satisfactory, and superior (or a level one, two, three, four, and five) response. Having prewritten examples on hand will help you to evaluate the interviews more objectively.

Decide whether to conduct background checks. If you plan to do a criminal background check or credit check, review the legal requirements for doing so. Prepare the notification documents and consent forms you need to comply with the law.

Choose the interviewers. If you will be the only one conducting the interview, skip this step. Otherwise, decide which employees will take part in the interview. Train them in proper interview procedures. For example, ask them to greet all candidates warmly, keep the process as similar as possible for each candidate, use neutral body language and look up periodically to show interest. Meet with the other interviewers to plan the interview day and give them a copy of this checklist, along with other relevant documents (for example, the list of interview questions and evaluation forms).

Gather information to give interviewees. Make a bulleted list of important info to give applicants on the phone when arranging the interviews. This should include: how long the interview will take, the location of and directions to your small business, and parking/transit details. Providing this info will make a good impression and help to ensure candidates show up on time and feel calm.

Make a list of applicants to contact for interviews. Put together the list of candidates you want to interview, along with their contact information.

Create a script for arranging interviews. Write out what you, or a trained employee, will say when calling to set up the interview. It’s important to be friendly, keep the call short, make the language neutral, and say the same thing to each candidate.

2. Getting Ready for Interview Day

Choose the interview room. Pick a space that is clean, quiet, and offers privacy. For example, you should be able to close the blinds or curtains on any windows overlooking the office. Make sure the room is accessible for interviewees with disabilities.

Confirm that the room will be ready. Reserve the interview room for the interview times and be sure the room is cleaned before the interviews. Make sure you have a do-not-disturb sign to hang on the door.

Clear your schedule. Carve out space on your calendar both before and after the interviews so you won’t be rushed or distracted during the interview. Notify employees that you will be unavailable during that time.

Prepare to take notes during the interview. Decide how you will take notes on responses. If you plan to use pen and paper, place these items in a cabinet or drawer in the room. If you plan to use a tablet or laptop, have a backup on hand in case of technical difficulties.

Gather all necessary interview documents. You should have on hand: the application and resume of the candidates you’ll be interviewing; a written script or checklist of information you want to share with the interviewee about the job and your business; written notification and consent forms for background checks; and your candidate evaluation forms.

3. Planning the Pre-Interview

Prepare to receive candidates. Decide on an appropriate and comfortable place for candidates to wait if they arrive early. Space out the interviews so only one candidate at a time is sitting in the waiting area.

Designate an employee as the greeter. Make sure a receptionist or other employee will be present to warmly say hello, offer a seat in a designated waiting area, and direct interviewees to the restroom if necessary. Make sure that the employee has been trained on what to say and how to make a good impression, such as: smiling, offering water or coffee, and asking about parking validation.

4. Getting Ready for the Interview

Decide on a uniform interview length. Before you create an interview template, consider how long you want the meeting to last. To do so, mentally walk yourself through all parts of the interview and estimate how long you’ll need for each one. For example, you might take:

  • 10 minutes to prepare and go over your interview questions
  • 5 minutes to break the ice by making small talk
  • 5 minutes to outline the position, job duties, and requirements and to talk briefly about your company culture
  • 5 minutes to explain the interview process, provide a written description if you wish, and let the candidate know you will be taking notes as they talk
  • 30 to 45 minutes to ask interview and follow-up questions, allotting the same amount of question-and-answer time for each candidate
  • 10 minutes for the candidate to ask questions
  • 5 minutes for outlining next steps, briefly describing the timing of the decision process and letting the candidate know when they can expect to hear back from you
  • 15 minutes to evaluate the candidate while the interview is fresh in your mind

Setting a time frame helps you stick to your structure and keep interviews fair. This way, you won’t spend two hours bonding with a candidate who is from your hometown and loves the same sports team but then talk for only 20 minutes with an otherwise great applicant with whom you have less in common. The second person might be a better fit for the job, while your gut might tell you to hire the first. That’s one reason time structure is so important.

Prepare your interview openers. Starting the interview with some friendly chitchat can help put the candidate at ease. Prepare, write down, and practice a few conversation starters. Make sure your small talk fits within the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC guidelines, so that a seemingly innocent “ice breaker” query about family or hometown doesn’t land you in hot water.

Make a list of interview questions. Review the job description and list the key skills, traits, and duties required. Then create a set list of interview questions that you will ask each candidate in the same order. Examples include: “Why would you respond to the challenge in that way?” or “What would you do next if that didn’t resolve the situation?”Create structured interview questions that are clear, open-ended, and are tied to core capabilities required for the role, as recommended by the U.S. OPM. Use the “STAR method” — that is, ask questions about situations, tasks, actions, and results. These could be questions about job challenges candidates have handled in the past and how they responded. You could also describe hypothetical situations they might face when working for your small business and ask how they would respond.

Prepare your follow-up questions. Decide on the exact follow-up questions you will use to get candidates to clarify and expand on their answers. An example might be: “Why do you think that’s the best way to respond to an irate customer?” Or, “What would you do if the customer continued to yell at you?”

Check that questions are appropriate. Review all questions to make sure they’re appropriate under U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, guidelines. These rules forbid asking about race or ethnicity, gender or sex, national origin, religion, disability or marital status, pregnancy, or family. Questions like “Do you have kids?” are strictly off limits. If possible, have someone else in your business take a look at your questions as well.

Plan to take notes. As the interviewee responds to each question, you should take notes on responses, as well as other factors like body language, communication style, and grammar.

Prepare the informational portions of the interview. An interview is a two-way street that will include short talks from you on: the job and your small business culture, the interview process, and conditions of the hiring process and job (for example, background tests or drug testing). It’s smart to make a mini script for each portion of the interview where you will give information. This helps to keep the interviews similar for all candidates and to ensure you don’t leave anything out.

Plan a short closing to wrap up the interview. You can end the interview with a few pleasantries. Write these ahead of time, so you make similar comments to each candidate.

5. Planning Your Post-Interview Process

Set aside time to evaluate the interviews. Make time after each interview to review the evaluation form, assign an overall score, and jot any additional notes.

Plan your selection strategy. Set a realistic timeline for evaluating all candidates and selecting your next hire. It’s important to take your time to choose the employee who will be the best fit for your business and its needs.

Interviewing job candidates can be stressful because there’s so much to remember. But your next interview will be much easier if you use these guidelines to prepare everything from the interview room, to the questions, to the evaluation of candidates. Once you’ve used the process once, future interviews will be a breeze.