How To Handle First-Round Interviews As An Employer

First of anything is when the pressure is greatest. First day of school. First date. First interview. These events are filled with tension until you get there and find everyone wants the same thing, and that it really isn’t so bad.

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On an interview, the goal is for both sides to paint a quality picture so that decisions can be made based on what is real rather than what is intuited.  It isn’t about getting the job, or making the hire—not every fit is right, and a hire should be an absolute win-win for both parties.

So, what are the expectations and the roles for the first interview—from both the employer side and also the candidate side? In Part I of this series, we explored the candidate side of the equation—now in Part II we turn to the employer/interviewer side.

For the interviewer, the first session is about assessing fit and fitness for the role. Skills are usually the easier part of this, and I like to ask questions like, “If someone else was sitting here with the same experience set as you, what would be different about you?”  See how the candidate analyzes strengths, determine his or her subject matter expertise, and get a sense of how he or she handles your questions. 

Expertise and experience are not synonyms—forget about experience and focus on what the candidate has actually done. Get examples of problems solved and focus on the thought process behind them. Get examples of lessons learned from failures, what went wrong and what the person would do differently. Smart people still make mistakes (and if the candidate never has, they need to be nominated for sainthood and probably don’t belong in your company). What separates great talent from mediocre is not making the same mistake twice (learning from failure is the most effective way to learn).

Remember that you have a go/no-go decision to make here, and that this is not about making a decision to hire, rather, it is about gathering information and testing chemistry so that you can determine if this person is someone that your company should spend more time getting to know. Don’t spend too much time talking or selling the company at this point—the first interview is about getting enough information about the candidate to make that critical decision. If you do all the talking, how can you make an informed decision?

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If two or three interviewers are meeting with the candidate on this “first round” of interviews, meet with the others prior to the interview and agree that each of you will do a general interview, BUT that each will also do a “deep dive” into a specific, separate area, then figure out what area each wants to explore. For example, in an interview for a VP of Marketing, you may want to have general questions that all interviewers ask to explore credentials and behaviors, but the main focus of each interview can be divided as follows:

Marketing experience and problem solving

General business and communication skills

Leadership capabilities

By dividing the focus of this first round, you will make sure you get three different perspectives on the candidate.  The fault of most interview teams is that they do not do this critical prep step, and so they all ask the same typical questions, and the result is one perspective three times and that can lead to a “false positive” result.

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The first interview is, above all, about establishing chemistry from both sides. If it feels right, and the person is smart and qualified, it is worth spending more time together.  A mentor of mine taught me early on, however, that if it “doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.” Follow your gut and don’t look back.

We have all fallen in love with the resumé or credentials of a candidate and convinced ourselves that behaviors could be overcome. That is a universal trap—DO NOT GO THERE. Behaviors are not likely to change. Use the first interview, from both the candidate perspective and the employer perspective, to make sure that a win-win potential exists, and be sure that the win includes a comfortable chemistry as well as the right skills.

In most people relationships—and work is all about people relationships—being smart about the interview and during the interview is critical, but in the end, you still need to follow and trust your heart.

Read Don Zinn’s advice for applicants during first-round interviews here.


Don Zinn is a managing partner of Exigent Search Partners Inc., which provides employee search services for early- and mid-stage small and medium sized businesses, family businesses, and other companies that are growing rapidly and need to pursue the talent that will help them scale to the next “operating level.”

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Westchester Magazine editorial staff.

Don Zinn, managing partner of Exigent Search Inc.

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