The Perils and Problems of Group Interviews

Full disclosure:  I hate these.  Either as a participating interviewer, or as the interviewee, I experience these as far less effective and useful than one on one conversational interviews.

For me, if I’m advising an employer, the objective of every step of a process should bring out the best in a job candidate, reliably, and intentionally.  And with group interviews, there is high risk of turning off a candidate or diminishing candidate performance unless the interviewing team has clear objectives and experienced leadership, specific individual assignments,  and is transparent with the candidate about how performance in the group interview will be evaluated.

If you are a candidate, you want to find out as much about the folks who will be in the room as you can.  Usually, you will be given an itinerary in advance, including names, titles, times, locations, and so on.  Look up every one of  them up on LinkedIn, research them on the organization’s website, and ask your connections how you would likely work with them or with their staffs if you get the job. Once you have done your homework,  prepare yourself based on what you learned.

And if you are ushered into a room with a group of folks who look nice and well-intentioned but not particularly organized or focused, at least heed the following guidelines.

  1. Ask if you may have the names and positions of the interviewers.  It isn’t an unreasonable request, especially for someone who plans to write thank you notes to each member of the interviewing team.  But you will need this for a more important reason—remembering names and roles as the interview progresses will become increasingly harder as it goes along.  The names are important for obvious reasons, but the roles give you context for the questions you are likely to be asked.
  2. Introduce yourself and summarize your interest and what you hope to accomplish in the available time. You can thank the assembled for giving you the chance to be there, too, and that’s a nice touch.
  3. Make sure everyone there has a copy of your resume and any other materials they might need.  You should have extra copies with you.
  4. If you need water or tissues, ask for them before you sit down and before the door is closed behind the last person in. It’s hard to believe, but entirely possible, that no one is in charge of this event.  It’s unlikely that the absence of basic comforts is a test, so ask for the water before your throat closes, and for the tissue before your nose runs or your brow erupts in sweat.  If you wait for the crisis, it’s your emergency, if you ask ahead of time, it’s their opportunity to be helpful, which is better. Regarding the tissue, it’s better to ask for a fresh one than to pull your handkerchief or personal tissue out of your pocket.
  5. Take brief notes.   In order to remember a point or the second part of a two-point question.  Also, those notes can help with your thank you notes. . . .
  6. Answer the person who asked the question. You can look around the table as you answer, but it’s the questioner you must circle back to and ask if you answered his or her question.
  7. Do not, in this interview, try to be funny or tell a joke, figuratively join the group, nudge-nudge-wink-wink with a subset of the group or the group at large, state a personal opinion unless asked specifically to state a personal opinion (and even then, be careful), or provide confidential information about your present employer or anyone else in the industry.
  8. Dress as if you are making a formal presentation on a stage in front of an audience. This is one step up from a regular interview.  If the group interview is on the same day as a regular interview, it’s still a step up.
  9. Expect that the subject is going to change a lot and this whole experience may lack basic continuity. People often come to these interviews with only one question prepared, and they are going to ask it no matter what.  Even if you already answered it, answer it again, in a slightly different way.
  10. Be briefer than you normally would; your job is to let everyone have time for his or her participation. Your answers should be slightly shorter than you think they should be.  They sound longer to everyone who is waiting to ask their own question.  The most frequent feedback on a group interview feedback form is that the candidate rambled on. Even if they really didn’t.
  11. When the clock signals the time is up and the interview is over, it will be over even if you are in the middle of a sentence, even if you are the best candidate ever, and even if you have much much more to say. Group norms are more controlling than individual norms and at least one person in that room has somewhere they must be in about thirty seconds. Finish it up fast and thank everyone, by saying “Thank you everyone,” and looking around the room at each person if you don’t have time to shake all the hands.   If you do have a minute or two, shake and thank, using names if you know all of them.

If you are fortunate, someone in the group has been watching the clock and as the time starts to run out, will ask if you have any questions.  Know that the person who asked you that is probably one of the leaders of the group, and you can direct your question to that individual.  Do not throw a hardball.  Here are my nominations for a good general question in a group interview:

“What’s the best thing about working here?”

And that’s about it.

Send thank you notes to everyone who participated, and yes, handwritten notes are still the best.  If you are the one who emails (instead of writes with pen and ink) those niceties, you may lose by that slim a margin.  Yes, it is true.

Most organizations who conduct group interviews are trying to be inclusive in the selection process, while not consuming a misleading amount of an individual candidate’s time, energy, or enthusiasm.  My best advice is to manage your risk carefully–it’s usually not the best place to let it all hang out and to give the performance of a lifetime.  That said, a/the real decision-maker, heavy influencer, or organizational sage could be buried among a dozen participants in a group interview, so holding too much back can work against you, too.




One response to “The Perils and Problems of Group Interviews

  1. Wow
    That’s great Cathy

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