While virtual meetings have become vital to keeping co-workers connected during COVID-19, you would probably be hard-pressed to find an HR manager who cheers the idea of making hiring decisions this way. Not only do you lose some of the gut feeling you get when meeting someone face-to-face, but there are also plenty of things that can go wrong.
We spoke with five HR experts to find out how to make the most of these virtual interviews, and they gave us great advice for both employers and candidates.
In the words of one of our experts, Cynthia Cherry, “The goal of HR is to do your best to prevent problems, but then fix them when they do arise. This is a time for HR to really shine.”
Our Panel of HR experts
Cynthia Cherry, SHRM-SCP, heads human resources at Beacon Street Services in support of multiple companies focused on financial research publishing and investment tools software. She has more than 25 years of experience as an HR leader in subscription based business models and professional services industries.
Catherine Mattice-Zundel is an international speaker, coach and author specializing in building positive workplaces. She is the CEO and founder of Civility Partners and works with clients that range from Fortune 500 companies to private small businesses.
Rebecca Del Secco is a Consultant at Civility Partners. She calls herself the “Jill of all Trades,” working in all corners of the business from building and maintaining client relationships to developing and presenting training programs.
Jennifer Krinsky is a Senior Account Director at The Porter Group with more than 25 years of experience recruiting sales professionals throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Krinsky interviews each recruit before recommending them to her clients, and prepare them to put their best foot forward with prospective employers.
Dawn Sheckells is EBI’s Talent Acquisition Specialist. She has more than 30 years of experience delivering effective staffing solutions. Sheckells's focus is to make sure the hiring process is effective and efficient for both the candidates and EBI’s current team.
How do you make the candidate experience as painless as possible when doing interviews virtually instead of being in the same room?
Krinsky: The most important thing is to make sure you are conducting the interview on a platform that won’t give you too many technical issues. Nothing freaks out a candidate more than starting an interview off with one person not being able to hear the other one, or when the video keeps freezing up. As the interviewer, make sure YOU are in a place with a strong signal and have no technical issues. Ask the candidates to choose a system they have used before. It’s great if you can give them some options - Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc., so they are familiar with how it works.
Cherry: Appropriate small talk in the beginning of the meeting is even more important than usual when it comes to virtual interviews in order to put the candidate at ease and increase the chance of an authentic exchange. Building on that, acknowledging the awkwardness that can sometimes come with virtual interviews goes a long way in terms of making the candidate comfortable.
Mattice-Zundel/Del Secco: Create as much structure as possible. This includes informing the candidate about who will be interviewing them, what they should prepare, whether they will be on webcam or not, and what type of tech they will need – ahead of time. It’s also important to create ground rules for the team of interviewers. While there are certain standards around professionalism, it’s important to reiterate expectations around behavior, dress and the surrounding environment. It may cause confusion, for example, if one person wears a suit and tie while another person wears a polo shirt and jeans. It’s all about creating a positive and united first impression for the candidate.
Sheckells: Be prepared. It’s important to review the resume and stay true to the conversation rather than creating a silent, awkward session while the candidate watches you review their resume. Also, position your camera at eye level so you can maintain eye contact with your candidate. When speaking, look directly into the lens rather than at the screen. It may feel unnatural, but it creates a far better connection. Stay present and practice active listening.
Mattice-Zundel/Del Secco: Also, speak with the candidate as a colleague rather than a friend. It’s okay to keep the conversation light, but at the end of the day, the interview is still a formal meeting with legal parameters.
Cherry: Lastly, I suggest closing with an invitation for follow up questions or comments saying something like, “I recognize that virtual interviews can sometimes shortchange us in terms of having the chance to say all that we want to say. And so, I invite you to reach out to me at any point after this meeting if you have questions or if there is something you wished you would have shared.”
Mattice-Zundel/Del Secco: If problems arise, it may be better to reschedule the interview for another time or use an alternative mode of communication. Candidates will be relieved to know they are given the opportunity to put their best foot forward.
Do your questions need to be different considering it is a virtual interview?
Sheckells: For our business, using standard interview questions pertaining to background screening, technology, customer relationships, and customer service are essential. However, moving forward I think that it is going to be important to dig really deep into each candidate’s technical ability and adaptability. Going through this COVID-19 crisis is a learning lesson, and we see that not everyone is comfortable working from home should the need arise. It’s also an opportunity to gauge a candidate’s ability to adapt to any given situation, and with a positive state of mind. Interviewing during this pandemic will help us to determine, for instance, if our candidates see opportunities where others see obstacles.
Krinsky: I start every single interview with some warm up questions. I might make a comment about how I know this is so unusual, I ask them if they’ve done a lot of Zoom calls with family, just general ice breakers. BUT then I go right to the real interview questions. It is still an “interview” so that is appropriate.
Cherry: We are really asking the same questions because the jobs haven’t changed and the requirements for those jobs haven’t changed. One thing that is different, we have stopped doing group interviews. No matter what you do, you will always have the issue of people talking over each other, and it’s just too hard.
Mattice-Zundel/Del Secco: Hiring candidates who can thrive in a virtual environment is key to employee retention and success, at least right now. Start by evaluating the skills an employee would need to be successful in a remote work environment, and then build questions to determine if the candidate possesses those skills. For example, the employee will need to be self-motivated, comfortable working autonomously and have exceptional time-management skills. So, keep some of the same old interview questions, but also craft behavior-based questions around these particular skills. It’s also a good idea to ask candidates what they need to be successful in a job. If they need face-to-face communication, then they may find it difficult to work remotely.
How do you nail a video interview from a body language perspective?
For the interviewer:
Mattice-Zundel/Del Secco: Candidates will be looking for signs that the interviewer is actively listening to what they have to say - and not thinking about what they are having for lunch or what time the interview will be over. Simple cues like head nodding and eye contact tell the candidate that their interviewer is engaged in the conversation, which can be tough to show via webcam. Interviewers may need to exaggerate their facial expressions and body language. Interviewers may also want to take notes on a notepad, rather than on the computer they are using to ensure the candidate knows they aren’t distracted or doing other work.
Sheckells: Nodding with active listening body motions skills is important. For me, I talk with my hands – they are very animated all of time. I feel that people can feel my excitement as I gesture with my hands. Personally, I take a lot of notes both on the computer and on a note pad. I always let the candidate know up front that I’m going to take notes and it may be a little quiet before I go to the next question, but as their advocate, I want to tell their story appropriately. I want them to know I am engaged even when I have to look away and write up the notes to each response. I never want them to wonder what I’m doing (i.e. working on something else and not giving them the attention they deserve.)
Krinsky: First and foremost, keep it as professional as possible! Do not think that just because it is via video you can be any more casual or can do it from your kitchen table. You don’t need your dog barking in the background or kids walking in. It can be tough under these circumstances but it’s really important that you act as though you are in a face-to-face interview. As the hiring authority, you are a representative of your organization so it’s essential you be on top of your game.
For the candidate:
Cherry: Treat this the same as an in-person interview. If you would normally walk in and present a hard copy of your resume, be sure to send an email before the interview and attach another copy so the person doing the interview has it close at hand. Don’t be afraid to take notes during the interview.
Sheckells: I don’t want the candidate to be slouched in front of me, or laying on one arm as they talk with me. If they can’t speak clearly sitting up straight, with good posture, they will seem bored of the interview. I wouldn’t trust that they would treat our clients with respect.
Mattice-Zundel/Del Secco: Candidates should sit up straight, avoid fidgeting with their clothing and other items around them, and make sure to keep focused on the screen as if it were a person. Also position your laptop so that light is in front of you rather than behind. Sitting with a window behind you, for example, will make your face dark and the interviewer won’t be able to see your eyes. This is bad if building trust is part of your goal!
Krinsky: I always tell my candidates to have a fresh resume, something to take notes on and a cup of water next to them. The water is only in case they REALLY need it. I’ve seen a number of candidates slurping a Starbucks drink during a video interview or swig from a water bottle. BIG NO NO. If you begin to cough or your mouth becomes very dry, by all means take a quick sip of water, but this isn’t a casual conversation and you’d never walk into a face-to-face interview holding a sports water bottle, would you?
Cherry: And don’t forget to write a thank you note! All of the little things are still very important.
Do you think companies will go back to the old way of working, or is this “new normal” here to stay?
Cherry: It might for some, but our secret sauce is based on our personal interaction because we are an idea company. So, we will look to return to the office when it's safe to do so. In the future, it may not be necessary for every company to have one person/one office desk, but it will depend on how each group within each company functions best. Companies should evaluate what kind of environment lends itself to the greatest productivity and efficiency for them.
Krinksy: There was a time when companies had the majority of their employees working remotely. We started seeing this more and more in the early 2000s and by 2007-2008; it was very common for people NOT to have to be at an office daily. Employers found their staff to be more productive and with significantly better work life balance. That changed in 2008 when the economy took a nosedive. In an effort to try and gain more control of what was happening, they sort of “pulled in the reins.” They needed to wrap their arms around every aspect of their business to ensure nothing slipped through the cracks, thus they needed people to be “right there.” We saw a pretty dramatic change in the market and people began doing less telecommuting. My feeling is that if people are productive working from home and still accomplishing what they need to, some employers may consider allowing more work from home. It has a number of benefits, especially with COVID-19.
Sheckells: Any time there is an event such as this pandemic, a new normal emerges. We were pushed into working remotely 100% of the time; we ramped up fast and furious. It’s so nice to actually have the ability for all staff to work from home. We have learned how to use technology to keep human connection, which is great and I think we will continue to grow as we learn new and creative ways to stay connected.
Mattice-Zundel/Del Secco: COVID-19 has catalyzed an emphasis on employee wellbeing. Employers are checking in more with their employees, expanding organizational capabilities, and making mental and physical health a top priority. Employees will expect this type of understanding and care to continue even after the craziness dies down. Once the crisis is over, employees will continue expecting flexibility from employers and some employees may even argue that working from home is just as effective as working in the office. Employers - now is the time to think about how you are going to integrate employees back into the physical workplace, with these new expectations in mind. Identify areas that you can afford to offer flexibility, and create space for employees to feel stressed or anxious. And, do it sooner rather than later.
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