Navigating the intricacies of job interviews can be a daunting task for both interviewers and candidates alike. But Jeff Smith, BlackRock’s former head of human resources, offers a different perspective on this often stressful process. One that aims to create a more relaxed conversation with honesty, transparency, and mutual understanding at its core.
I heard Smith speak at a conference a number of years back and was reviewing my notes and thought it was worth sharing. While Smith’s experience is in HR, these tips can apply across industries and departments.
1. Foster Authenticity
Tip No. 1? Loosen up a bit. Smith champions the idea of authenticity in interviews. “I am a believer in being yourself,” he explains. “I think too much overthinking of interviews can lead to feeling or being stiff or not having a real view both ways.”
When candidates feel they can be themselves, they’re more likely to give honest answers rather than rehearsed responses. This authenticity can lead to a more accurate assessment of whether the candidate is a good fit for the company culture and a particular role.
An authentic interaction can also benefit the interviewer. It allows them to get a better sense of the candidate’s personality, which is often as crucial as their skill set in determining long-term success in a role.
2. Create a Conversational Flow
HR professionals need to move beyond the, “So … tell me about yourself?” if they want to really get good data. But first, setting a relaxed tone for the interview early on is key, tips Smith. “I am very conversational in my interviews while still having a set of five to six things like competencies and past experiences that I’m trying to assess,” he notes. “But I try to create a flow and comfort. I want people to feel comfortable. I’m not trying to trick anyone.”
This conversational style can be particularly beneficial for roles that require strong interpersonal skills or team collaboration. By engaging in a more easygoing dialogue, the interviewer can gauge a candidate’s communication skills, problem-solving abilities, and adaptability in real time.
3. Begin With Light Topics
Smith suggests easing into the interview by discussing lighter, less intense topics. “I take a little time to talk about things not related to questions about them,” he says. “Maybe I’ll mention some of the things I’m working on or my day or whatever and try to do it in a light way.”
Starting the conversation with less intense subjects can serve as an effective icebreaker, helping to establish a rapport that can make the rest of the interview process more comfortable and productive.
This approach also provides the interviewer with a glimpse into the candidate’s personality and communication style, which can be invaluable in assessing cultural fit.
4. Emphasize Mutual Evaluation
Jeff Smith — a former head of HR at BlackRock who started his career doing assessments at a consulting firm — underscores the importance of mutual evaluation in the interview process and to emphasize organizational fit with the company’s mission and culture.
“I always point out that this is a conversation and we are looking for fit in both directions,” he says.
Imagine you’re conducting interviews for a human resources manager role. After discussing the candidate’s experience and qualifications, you could shift the conversation by saying something like, “We’re looking for someone who can help us improve employee engagement and streamline HR processes. But it’s important that our work environment aligns with what you’re seeking. What are some initiatives or programs you’d like to implement if you were to join us?”
The question serves multiple purposes. First, it allows the candidate to envision themselves in the role, encouraging them to think critically about how they could contribute to the organization. Second, it opens the door for the candidate to discuss their own career goals and aspirations, which can provide valuable insights into whether the company’s culture and objectives align with their own. Last, it sets the stage for a more balanced dialogue, where both parties are evaluating fit rather than just one assessing the other.
5. Be a Listener
Working in human resources, Jeff Smith places a high value on listening skills during the interview process. “I make sure to be a great listener and show real interest in them,” he says.
“Often when people are having difficult conversations they are so focused on what they are going to say and so nervous, they turn off the ears and forget to listen. It’s most important to listen to how people respond in those circumstances and react to them — not just say what you want to say and call it a day.”
Active listening can be a powerful tool in the interviewer’s arsenal. It not only shows respect for the candidate and allows them to loosen up, but also allows the interviewer to pick up on subtleties that might otherwise be missed, like what topics really light up the interviewee and what subjects it seems like they want to glaze over because of lack of understanding.
And listening opens the door to picking up on what makes an interviewee unique. Acknowledging this with genuine compliments can boost the candidate’s confidence, making it easier for them to showcase their true skills and personality. This creates a positive feedback loop that can lead to a more successful interview outcome for both parties.
Jeff Smith’s HR Interview Approach
Interviews should emphasize mutual respect and authentic interaction. His approach, which includes fostering genuine conversations and active listening, aims to make the interview process more equitable and effective for both parties involved. Whether you’re an interviewer or a candidate, adopting some of these principles could lead to more insightful and meaningful exchanges, potentially improving the quality of hires and the overall interview experience.