There are few things in life more nerve-wracking than a job interview and in many instances, this process is more challenging for the person conducting the interview than the person applying for the job. With such a short time to get acquainted with your applicant, how do you ensure that he or she is truly qualified for the position? In episode #125, Gene Marks and Elizabeth Larkin discuss several interview strategies that will help you find the best candidate for your small business.

Executive Summary

0:23—Today’s Topic: What are the Best Interview Strategies for Small Business Owners?

2:23—Remember that you are looking for an employee, not a new friend. Keep your questions job specific; focus more on how the applicant can contribute to your business rather than his or her personality.

2:59—Let the job applicant do most of the talking so that you get a clearer sense of what they have to offer.

3:50—To fully understand how your potential candidate thinks, try to ask behavior-type questions instead of yes-no questions.

5:33—Check to see whether your candidate is being genuine or merely telling you what you want to hear.

5:44—In order to make your applicants more comfortable, conduct the interview in a casual setting such as a park or a coffee shop. You can also conduct your interview virtually, using an app.

9:01—Avoid any questions that might come across as discriminatory because these are illegal.

17:21—Be sure to end on each interview courteously and professionally because if things don’t work out with your selected candidate, you can always go back to your original applicant pool.

19:05—To help alleviate stage fright, Gene suggests focusing on the intention of your speech rather than its entertainment value.

Submit Your Question



Elizabeth: On this week’s episode of the Small Biz Ahead podcast, we’re going to be talking about a topic that most small business owners are going to have to do this at some point, and it’s called interviewing people.

So this is probably, I’m gonna guess, Gene, this is one of your least favorite things to do.

Gene: Yeah, I’m bad at it.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: So whatever advice that I have, just do the opposite.

Elizabeth: Okay, we’re gonna come back with some really bad advice from Gene after we hear from our sponsor.

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QUESTION: What’s the Most Effective Way to Conduct an Interview?

Elizabeth: Does anyone like to interview people?

Gene: Yeah, I think some people get into it and some people make it into a science. It depends on your job. I think it’s fun. I don’t mind interviewing people. I think it’s kind of fun. My biggest weakness is that when I interview somebody, I generally like talking to people, so everybody I interview seems fine to me. Do you know what I mean? I’m interviewing the person, I’m like, oh she seems like a pretty good person, whatever, I’m sure she’ll do fine.

You know what I mean? It’s kind of tough. And the other thing is that I fall into the trap that I think a lot of other people do, is we all want to be liked. So as I’m interviewing somebody, I don’t want to be like a jerk. I want the person to like me as much as I’m liking them-

Elizabeth: Do you like crack dumb jokes to make people more comfortable?

Gene: No … maybe, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t do it a lot, but I try not to.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: I’ve learned over the years … here’s what I’ve learned, because I’ve been burned a lot of times. I’ve made bad hires.

Elizabeth: Well, everyone has.

Gene: Yeah, I’ve made multiple bad hires over the years, where I’ve interviewed somebody and I just took a big leap of faith-

Elizabeth: Okay, we should probably just stop this episode right now because we’re not … no, I’m kidding. We do have, we’ve done research and we have some tips.

Gene: Yeah, no, no, I’m good. I can tell you what I’ve learned from the bad hires that I’ve made, and it’s this. In the end, the person that you’re interviewing is not your friend. The person that you’re interviewing is going to be doing a job for you, a specific task or group of tasks, to make you money.

So, I’ve actually learned that when I’m … I stay very job focused. I don’t ask people, clearly you’re not supposed to, and I don’t, but I don’t get into personal things or whatever. I really do zero in on what the job is gonna be like. I try, because I did this poorly in the past, but I think I’m doing it better now, is the whole point of an interview is to let the interviewee do the talking. And a lot of times, we make the mistake of like, we’re doing most of the talking and they’re just nodding and they’re agreeing or whatever. You gotta let the interviewee do the talking.

And I ask, I try to avoid yes or no questions. So I like to just ask, how do you feel about this? What would you do in this situation? And I try to use real life things. We had a problem with a client, and this is what happened. How would you have handled this?

Elizabeth: So, would you consider that more behavior type interviewing?

Gene: Technical, like I don’t care, I don’t ask these, “What are your strengths and your weaknesses?” That’s such bologna-

Elizabeth: Oh god. Because everyone says the same thing.

Gene: Of course, and you know, they’re all gonna have, “Well we’re hardworking and I’m a good-” you know, everybody’s hardworking and everybody’s great at whatever. I like to get somewhat technical, and I try to come armed with specific job-related things that went on, and I want to say like, “What would you have done?”

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: And then that kind of tells me whether or not this person’s a thinker or not, or whether they can contribute to what I’m going to do.

If I ask them if they have experience in a certain thing, like, “Oh, we’re a Microsoft partner,” you know what I mean? “Are you familiar with Microsoft products?” “Yes.” “Okay, what products?” Okay, and then they’ll name. “Fine, tell me what you’ve done with those products.”

Elizabeth: Which is probably already on their resume, so-

Gene: Right, give me an example of a project that you’ve worked with this product.

Elizabeth: That’s a much better question.

Gene: Yes, and what do you like or not like about this product? Tell me some of the things that you-

Elizabeth: That’s a great question.

Gene: Right, I mean, just, you know. And then I like to also … I don’t know if it’s my personality or not, ’cause I make so many mistakes myself, I like to find out mistakes other people make. I like to know what are some of the biggest mistakes that you’ve made at your last job, do you know what I mean? Or what are some of the biggest concerns that you have? Because people are just, we’re all humans, so we’re all-

Elizabeth: Doesn’t everyone just answer that with, “My mistake is I try too hard.”

Gene: When I hear that, then I’m like, this person is not being honest.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: Do you know what I mean? Like I can name off mistakes I’ve made, pretty brutal mistakes, and if I was being interviewed, I would say, “What can I tell you? I’m human and I made this mathematical error that cost my former employer millions of dollars and I felt terrible about it.” No, I’m just kidding.

Elizabeth: Would you still hire someone if that was their answer?

Gene: Depending on what the mistake was and what they did about it and how long ago it happened and what the nature of it, sure.

Elizabeth: I hit send on the email to soon, and-

Gene: Yeah, I mean stuff like that, everybody does.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: I like honestly and transparency and that’s why I like asking people about mistakes that they’ve made, because if they’re honest and transparent with me on an interview, then I feel like I can trust them a lot more when they’re working for me.

Elizabeth: Okay, so how do you try to make people feel comfortable when you’re interviewing them? Or do you just not even care?

Gene: I don’t … well, usually when I interview people, I try to pick … A lot of people have people come into their office. I actually think that that can be a very awkward situation. It’s very formal and stiff and whatever.

Elizabeth: Gene’s like, I just don’t like people.

Gene: No, right, it’s just whatever. No, I’m lucky enough to say that we don’t actually have offices, right? We’re a virtual company, so I wind up interviewing people-

Elizabeth: On Skype?

Gene: Starbucks.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: It’s normally how we do it. We haven’t done that much video interviewing yet, but we’re gonna get there, because there’s a few apps that I want to try out. One of them is an app called Hirevue, which you can put in the notes. It’s H-I-R-E-V-U-E, and it’s an artificial intelligence app that some clients have been asking me about, where people do video interviews with a computer, but based on the answer to the question, apparently it analyzes their responses and their facial expressions and their body language.

Now, for my small company, that’s probably a little overkill-

Elizabeth: That’s creepy.

Gene: … yeah. A company like The Hartford, I bet you that’s how large companies are using this technology in the future.

Anyway, making people comfortable. It really is all about your attitude. Just know that coming into your office and sitting across from you while you’re behind the desk-

Elizabeth: People are gonna be uncomfortable.

Gene: … people are gonna be uncomfortable. So it would be nice to meet in a public space for a coffee or something. My last interview with a woman that was up for a marketing job, I met her for a coffee, we just walked around a square in Philadelphia together.

Elizabeth: Oh, that’s a great idea to do.

Gene: Yeah, we just walked for like half an hour. We did like 10 laps of the square.

Elizabeth: How’d that go?

Gene: It was great. She didn’t turn out very well in the end, but the conversation went great, and there was other factors why it didn’t work out with her. But that was relaxed and fun, and so I don’t know, I just think that getting out of the office, to me, I think is the most human thing you can do.

Elizabeth: Okay, so let’s say you’ve got a half an hour with these people, do you spend time walking through their resume?

Gene: No. I don’t even bring their resume with me.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: I’m done with the resume at this point. To me, the resume is just a qualification round, and if they made that cut and to the interview stage, then that’s fine. So, I don’t even … and I don’t even go through their … Again, some people would be like, “Tell me about your experiences at this company or that company.” I will only ask if the company was like a competitor. You know, “What are those guys doing over there?”

Other than that, it’s more project-related, situational stuff.

Elizabeth: Okay, so you walk through, you meet them, you try to make them feel at ease a little bit, and then you don’t walk through their resume. You really do ask about projects, how would you handle this, how would you handle that-

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: … that type of-

Gene: Correct. It’s all-

Elizabeth: … okay, great. I think that’s very helpful for people.

Gene: Yeah, it’s all very specific stuff. You know me, I like to talk about pop cultury kinds of stuff, like TV shows they like or where they went on vacation, or books or movies or whatever. I enjoy that, so that’s kind of fun to talk about. It usually warms people up a little bit to talk about stuff.

Elizabeth: Do you do background checks on people?

Gene: Yeah. When we’re close to hiring the person, that’s like the last step. We use an app called Checkr, C-H-E-C-K-R, and it does very detailed background checks on people. It’s very, very good.

Elizabeth: We have an article, and we’ll link to it in the show notes, and I think it’s called Illegal Interview Questions You Can’t Ask.

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: It’s questions like, “What year did you graduate from Rydell High,” and that type of thing. We had so many negative comments on that article, saying, “Why can’t we ask these questions?”

I don’t know why you would need to. If you’re hiring someone for skills, wouldn’t you just want to find out what their skills are and how they handle things?

Gene: I gotta be honest, I’m in agreement with the naysayers that get frustrated with those questions-

Elizabeth: But why is it that important to you how old someone is, whether they’re in their 40s or their 30s, like who cares?

Gene: Yeah, the age thing is, you’re absolutely right. You shouldn’t discriminate on age, and it shouldn’t really make any difference at all. I think it’s the … what makes the difference, I’m gonna tell you, is the culture of your company.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: So for example, and this is for real, if you’ve got a company made up of like a young staff of 20-something’s and whatever, and you want to bring somebody in, and I don’t know, they’re in their 60s, and believe me, I’m in my 50s, so I just want to say-

Elizabeth: You’re almost there, Gene.

Gene: … I’m almost there. Maybe that’s not the best fit. I know that sounds terrible, so I’m not saying you should ask any of those questions. You want to comply by the rules, but I understand why business owners like myself sometimes get a little frustrated when we can’t … I mean, I would like to know the person’s personal situation, like do they have kids, do they have a working spouse, am I going to be hiring somebody who’s going to be leaving every 10 minutes ’cause they’re a … I’m sorry, but they’re a single parent and they’re running around. And that’s discriminatory and it’s against the law.

Elizabeth: It is.

Gene: You can’t do that. So, don’t do that.

Elizabeth: Yeah. The big one for me is the age. Like you can tell that. You can look at the person-

Gene: Yeah, that’s true.

Elizabeth: … you don’t need to ask that question.

Gene: Yeah. Sometimes you ask people, like again, it depends on where you’re from, you try to make a connection with people. So, where’d you go to high school? You know what I mean? Oh, I went to Rydell High. I don’t know why we’re saying Rydell High. Isn’t that where like Sandy from Grease?

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: Okay, so Riverdale High, ’cause it’s Archie.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: But you say, okay, you went to Riverdale High, you know, it’s like sometimes you ask, you know, wow, when did you graduate? My cousin went there-

Elizabeth: And that’s illegal.

Gene: … right, that’s illegal, and yet, I don’t know, it’s a connection. If you meet somebody socially and you find out they went to a high school, and you’re like, “Oh wow, what year did you graduate?” Oh yeah, my friend-

Elizabeth: Gene, you know it’s different interviewing someone versus meeting them socially.

Gene: I know, but that’s … it is different, and it’s illegal so you don’t do it, but you brought up the point that why some business owners, they had an issue with that article-

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: … that’s why they have an issue, because it takes away some of the human connection part of the interview. And we’re used to that, we’re small business owners. We don’t work for big corporations with lots of rules, so those kinds of rules-

Elizabeth: Frighten you?

Gene: … surprise us. They don’t frighten, but they just, you know, we kind of push back against them.

Elizabeth: Okay. Can you tell us, before we wrap up on this, one interesting experience you had interviewing someone? One thing that went awry, or one thing that surprised you, or one question that you got just an answer you were not expecting?

Gene: I interviewed somebody on the phone, this was like 10 years ago, on the phone, this woman, she was great, for a technical job. I went through her resume, she was fantastic, and then we got together at a Starbucks and had another face-to-face interview, and went through the whole job, the whole kit and caboodle, she was great, it was wonderful, whatever. I said, “Great, I’m gonna send you a contract, and it’s great, you can start,” and whatever, never heard from her again.

I mean, never. She never even replied to any of my emails. I mean, clearly I did something wrong. I had to have said something, God knows what, and to this day, I go back and say, “What did I-“

Elizabeth: She ghosted you.

Gene: … What did I … she totally ghosted me. And by the way, ghosting is a big trend now because of the way the unemployment situation is. More employers are reporting that these interview candidates are just sort of disappearing on them. And by the way, I mean, talk about … it’s just so unprofessional. I’m telling you, you probably won’t believe me ’cause you know me so well, but I really did nothing bad in this interview, okay? It was fine. And I was like, I’m in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia, believe me, it’s a small town. I’m surprised I haven’t bumped into her since. But, God knows, maybe something happened to her.

Elizabeth: Well, you probably have, and she just saw you and walked the other way-

Gene: Ran away, I don’t know. But that was the most startling experience for me interviewing, was like, geez, it’s one thing if you reach out and they’re like, “You know what, I took another offer.” Nothing.

Elizabeth: Talk about ghosting potential employers though, I’ve been ghosted before-

Gene: By employers.

Elizabeth: … oh yeah.

Gene: Terrible.

Elizabeth: Oh, constantly.

Gene: Yeah, it’s such bad form. Here’s what I think also about responding. I get it if you put out an ad on Craigslist or whatever and you get a bunch of resumes and you don’t respond to them all, you know what I mean?

But if you take the time to meet with somebody face to face, as an employer, you gotta step up. Even if you don’t wind up hiring them-

Elizabeth: Yeah, you put your big boy or your big girl pants on, and you-

Gene: Yeah, you gotta step up and say, “We’ve decided to go another direction, but thanks,” and whatever, and it’s just the professional thing to do.

Elizabeth: So this is my ghosting story, and I was really upset about this for years, and I can finally tell it. And I’m gonna tell it today for the first time, live on the Small Biz Ahead podcast.

Gene: Okay.

Elizabeth: I was so excited because there was this publication in Washington DC called Roll Call, and they just write about politics. And did I already say I was 25? So it was a little while ago.

Gene: You were 25 then, a couple years ago.

Elizabeth: Yes. So I got an interview with them, and I was so excited, and the interview was in DC, and my parents love Washington DC. So they both took the day off from work to go down with me, which I was a little like, oh my god, I’m going to an interview and bringing my Mommy and Daddy?

Gene: Well, you didn’t bring them with you-

Elizabeth: No, no, no, no.

Gene: That would have been weird.

Elizabeth: So, we flew into DC for the day, ’cause it’s not that far, and my parents went off and did sightseeing, and I went to my interview. And I was wearing my suit and everything, ’cause this was, you know, it was like one of my first job interviews.

So I go in, and the interview was with Chuck Todd. Do you know who he is?

Gene: He’s the anchor on MSNBC or something now, isn’t he? He’s like a pretty big shot-

Elizabeth: He’s the moderator on Meet The Press.

Gene: Meet The Press, right. That’s right.

Elizabeth: So, I had the interview with him. I could kind of tell it didn’t go that great, but it wasn’t terrible. He was very nice to me in person, and I went back, met my parents and we had dinner, and then we flew back that day.

And I never heard from Chuck Todd again. I sent him a thank you note-

Gene: Never. Just didn’t reply.

Elizabeth: … everything.

Gene: Yeah.

Elizabeth: So finally, I sent him an email after like a month, and I said, “You know, I flew down to DC for this-“

Gene: Good for you.

Elizabeth: … “And I never heard back from you.”

Gene: Good for you.

Elizabeth: And he wrote back and was like, “I’m so sorry. We ended up filling the position with someone internally.” Which that always bothers me too, because then don’t make me travel down here for this interview.

Gene: You know what, whatever the reason was, it was what it was. People make decisions for all sorts of different reasons. But it took you to be reaching out to him.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: And here you are still talking about it because it annoyed you so much-

Elizabeth: I know, it annoyed me.

Gene: I agree. I agree.

Elizabeth: And if it wasn’t Chuck Todd, I probably would have forgotten about it by now, but every time I see him on TV, and he’s so tanned all the time, like he just much use so much tanner.

Gene: It just goes to show that people talk, man, and they get around. They interview at your business and you don’t get back to them, and then, I don’t know, they tell their friends. Like, “Oh, I interviewed with Gene at this coffee shop. This guy’s like never even got back to me. They’re kind of jerks, you know?”

Elizabeth: I’m putting him on blast on our podcast.

Gene: Yeah, there we go.

Elizabeth: So, you should always, if you meet someone face to face, you need to send them a note and just say, “Look, we filled the position, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate you coming in. It was a pleasure to meet you.” Something really short, something that makes you feel good about yourself, but also they’re gonna get it and be like, okay, at least I was respected. They acknowledged my time.

Gene: I’ll tell you one final thing about it. The final person that you choose for the job, let’s face it, you’re still taking a leap of faith. That person doesn’t work out, the other people that you brought in for interviews that you might have liked, they were contenders but they didn’t make the final … you know, the more that you can give them the right send-off and the professional send-off, the more you keep the door open a little bit that if this person doesn’t work out you can turn back to them and say, “You know what, we’d love to bring you back in again.”

Elizabeth: Yeah, especially if you end up hiring someone, and let’s say you put them on a 90 day probation, I don’t know what that is, like you give them a 90 day contract or something, and they don’t work out, you don’t have to go through the whole process again if you’ve been polite and nice to the people. You can go back to that well and say, “Hey, you know what? We really hit it off and got along, and you would have made a great-” I mean, why start the whole process again if you can just go back to other qualified candidates you’ve already met?

Gene: Correct.

Elizabeth: It was very emotional for me to tell that story.

Gene: We’ve talked about interviews. Chuck, I think I’m seeing you later on for dinner, but don’t worry about this. Really, she’s over it by now.


Elizabeth: All right. We’re gonna be right back with Gene’s word of brilliance.

Gene: Ready?

Elizabeth: Yes. Gene, what’s your word of brilliance?

Gene: Okay, as you know, Elizabeth, sometimes it’s hard for me to keep to one word, so tonight it’s gonna be two words, or today, and that’s stage fright.

Elizabeth: Okay, that’s two words.

Gene: And the reason why I bring that up is because I do a lot of speaking to groups around the country, and people do ask me about getting nervous before you speak to a group. Like how do I avoid stage fright, you know?

Elizabeth: I can’t believe I’ve never asked you that.

Gene: Yeah, and do you, I mean, do you ever speak to a group or do have a nervous … because you know people are like, they say the fear of speaking to a group, they have a bigger fear than death. More of you would rather die than publicly speak-

Elizabeth: Yeah, there’s a famous Jerry Seinfeld joke, and it’s like, “More people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.”

Gene: Yes. Right. It’s some crazy statistic, but it’s really true. Do you get nervous when you-

Elizabeth: I don’t speak … I mean, I do a lot of presentations at work to groups. I get excited for them.

Gene: Right. Yeah, me too. Me too. If anything, I get anxious to get up there like I want to get out there so I can start whatever. But a lot of people really do get nervous, and I just want to share one piece of advice. When you’re gonna go out and you’re gonna speak to a large group of people and you’re kind of getting out there, you’re not a stand-up comic, you’re not Tony Robbins. Nobody’s gonna jump up and walk across coals and then high five and cheer and all that kind of stuff.

So, that’s all … this isn’t a TED talk, you know what I mean? You’re not … right? So just relax. If you’re gonna go up there and give a presentation to a group, your whole job is just, your objective is that they walk away a little bit smarter than they were than when they first sat down. That’s it. And you’re there to help them. That’s it. You’re not there to entertain them, and you don’t have to be all intimidated by them.

Whenever I see a group of big wigs out in the audience, you know what I mean, and I’m about to go out there, I think to myself, and I’m saying, “You know what? There’s a lot of stuff in here they probably don’t know, and I’m gonna help these guys.”

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: So, that’s what I’m gonna … I’m gonna help them. And it feels good as a human being when you help somebody else, and it feels good to a speaker when you ingrain it in your head that you’re gonna go up on stage and you’re gonna help the audience-

Elizabeth: Be helpful.

Gene: … and if you put that into your mind, it calms you down a lot.

Elizabeth: Okay, guess what our next episode is about?

Gene: What’s that?

Elizabeth: How Gene prepares to speak publicly.

Gene: I can’t wait to speak about that.

Elizabeth: All right. We’ll be right back with our next episode.

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