May 28, 2020
Having found ourselves in a world dominated by virtual interaction, we are all navigating new territory in the activities and communications we used to conduct in person. Over the past ten weeks, our Executive Search Partners have participated in more than 200 hours of virtual panel-style interviews – those interviews where a panel of people interview a candidate.
Little research exists to guide us in this new context but we’d like to share a few of the lessons we have learned from this virtual immersion experience to help guide you in conducting virtual panel interviews.
- Interviews remain important and imperfect. Interviews are an imperfect way of selecting talent yet they remain a key part of the talent assessment process. The importance of following the best practices that emerge from empirical research on interviewing remains true for virtual interviews. Interviews should be designed to assess experience, competence and leadership acumen that is aligned with success in the role. Situational and behavioural (experience-based) questions have been proven to be the most strongly aligned to future performance. And consistent lines of inquiry and responses rated independently by multiple raters can also improve objectivity.
- Bias persists in virtual candidate assessment. An online interview can provide new opportunities to compare and contrast candidates. While interviews can be recorded and replayed for reflection, this can also create an opportunity to make judgements about the candidate’s surroundings and style choices which have nothing to do with competence or experience. Bias plays a part in all interview contexts – in-person or virtual. This is why it is so important to address its effects early and throughout the process. Creating a safe environment for the discussion of bias in assessment is necessary even in a virtual world, so that the focus remains on assessing qualifications.
- Knowing what you are looking for is even more essential. During in-person committee discussions, the debrief of a candidate’s interview takes on a dialogic approach. This is much more difficult to accomplish in a virtual committee setting. Investing time before the interviews to agree on what behaviours or characteristics would be consistent with a strong interview response for each of the key competencies is always a best practice. In a virtual interview, where the opportunity for fulsome collegial debriefing is limited, creating this alignment in advance is even more essential.
- Virtual interviews are exhausting. If you find yourself needing a nap after a day of virtual meetings, you are not alone. “Zoom fatigue” is real. Candidates and committee members find that the mental energy that goes into continually scanning multiple images and intently listening and maintaining eye contact leaves them exhausted. Manage the mental demands of the virtual interview by limiting the time for panel interviews to 90 minutes. Schedule breaks between interviews and schedule fewer interviews each day. Another helpful tip is to use the ‘speaker view’ when possible. Also consider whether you can have fewer committee members participate in interviews with other members reviewing the recorded interview. This approach is less taxing for the candidate and can provide for a more objective assessment. You might also need fewer naps.
- More flexibility doesn’t mean less time. Scheduling committee meetings and interviews is simpler in a more virtual world where travel time and physical co-location is not required. But virtual interviews, committee discussions and debriefs are more time consuming than the in-person version. In virtual meetings, its easier to ensure that all voices are heard – but this also requires more time. Without the shortcuts that visual cues provide, and with the common challenges associated with the use of the technology, there is a need to invest in more listening and discussion.
- Different and more deliberate signs of engagement are required. We all look for visual cues to supplement our understanding of others. In interviews, candidates also seek visual cues to signal engagement and how well their responses are landing with committee members. While there is no way to replicate that in-person experience, taking time up front to allow each committee member to introduce themselves (slowly and by sharing more than just their name) is an excellent start. To further enhance engagement and create connections with candidates, consider having a subset of the committee ask the questions. Provide encouraging words following responses. And be sure to allow time for the candidate to ask questions.
- Technology performance and competence cannot be overlooked. Having all moved to a virtual world simultaneously and almost completely, many of the challenges of technology set up and proficiency have been addressed. But glitches still happen. To ensure a smooth experience, it’s important that all participants test the audio and video in advance, understand how to manage camera angles, backgrounds and views, and know how to mute and unmute their microphones. Practicing the delivery of prepared remarks without losing eye contact can also enhance the overall experience.
- Ambassadorial roles should be embraced. It can be easy to forget that candidates are interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. They are assessing whether your organization is an inclusive and welcoming place to be. That puts you in the role of Ambassador. In virtual interviews, candidates will look for signals that you are interested in them and what they have to say. Dress as if you are meeting them in person. Angle your camera so you are looking at them. Avoid multi-tasking, as tempting as it can be to respond to emails. Another tip is to be mindful of visual cues – candidates appreciate a helpful nod, or supportive smile. And don’t forget to welcome candidates and to thank them.
- Consider accessibility and accommodation. Asking candidates and committee members to identify any accommodations they need to fully participate in the search is especially important in a virtual context. Allow enough time to make adjustments that will promote equity in the process. Some accommodations uniquely enabled by virtual technology may include providing closed captioning, displaying questions on the screen, or ensuring that the faces of those asking or answering questions are visible for those that use lip reading to supplement their understanding.
- Preparation and practice improve the experience. Virtual interviews are still new territory for many leaders. To reduce anxiety, give committee members and candidates as much information about the format of the interview in advance. Provide names of those who will be in attendance, the length of the interview, the nature of the questions, and suggested time frames for responses. And, candidates, practice out loud in advance so that your content and timing are exactly what you want others to know as you present your best self virtually.
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