Job interviews often feel unnatural and cold—but they don’t have to.
When you think of Thomas Edison’s inventions, you probably think light bulbs and phonographs. But did you know that he also invented the job interview?
Over a century ago, Edison developed a 146-question test to screen potential employees at his lab in New Jersey. His approach to formally testing candidates evolved into a blueprint for employers across the country.
We’ve fortunately progressed beyond Edison’s trivia-night questionnaire, which consisted of questions like “Where is the Sargasso Sea?” and “Why is cast iron called pig iron?” We now incorporate a much broader range of question types, including behavioral interview questions about how the candidate handled specific situations in the past.
But for all the progress we’ve made, we still tend to ask questions about what a person knows instead of getting to the core of who a person is.
That’s why interviews can often feel like interrogations, where you ask (or answer) question after question rather than having a conversation. It’s easy for the interviewer and interviewee to get so wrapped up in displaying the best—why they’re a great company, why they’re a great candidate—that we often forget we’re normal human beings. And as humans, we are hardwired for connection and learning each other’s stories.
And to be sure, the necessity of many interviews being held over Zoom doesn’t help.
How can we bring more authentic human connection into the interview? Here are tips for both the employer and the job candidate.
Tips for Employers
1, Bring stories to the forefront. As interviewer, seek to share and ask for stories throughout the interview. Stories are a fundamental mode of how humans connect with each other. They help you:
- Share more about yourself in a genuine way
- Convey the company’s purpose and values beyond just flatly stating what they are
- Learn more about the who the candidate is (versus rote questions about their knowledge or career history)
Bonus points if your stories incorporate (appropriate) humor. This helps break the ice and connect interpersonally. Plus, research has shown a connection between use of humor and leadership performance.
2. Sharpen your listening skills. Human connection is built on the give-and-take of conversation. If you’re just listening for the “right” buzzwords or waiting until your next question, the connection between you and the candidate will be weak.
Instead, stay in the moment and focus on the person in front of you. What are they really saying? What is their body language communication? Did you notice an interesting conversational path to take based on something they said? (If so, follow it.)
3. Don’t leave candidates in limbo. Once the interview is over, stay in touch with timely, honest communication about the candidate’s application. Remember that they are human too—and that waiting for word after the interview isn’t fun for anyone. The basic courtesy of great follow-up, whether they’re getting the job or not, shows that you care about people.
Plus, if you leave a talented in-demand candidate hanging for too long, they will quickly move on to a place that respects them more. This is why “time from engaging candidate to offer” is one of the hiring metrics we encourage you to track.
Tips for Job Candidates
1. Bring stories to the forefront. Just as we advised employers, use the interview as a time to share your best stories. What narratives show who you are at your core? A single good story can reveal more about you than an hourlong technical Q&A—and create a much stronger connection with the interviewer.
2. Sharpen your listening skills. It’s always impressive when an interviewee listens closely enough to ask unrehearsed follow-up questions. Listening closely and following up appropriately does double duty: It shows that you can think on your feet and it makes the interview feel more like a natural human conversation.
3. Put some thought into your thank-you notes. You are sending thank-you notes, right? While this is Job Interviewing 101, you can make your thank-you notes work for you by discussing something specific in the conversation that took place. In my experience, interviewers always appreciate this.
If you have trouble thinking of what to write, consider these questions:
- What was something new that you learned in the interview?
- What story were you especially interested in?
- What is something you felt you could have discussed further?
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With all the nerves and pressure of job interviews, human warmth is often a casualty. These tips make the interview itself less awkward and lead to better outcomes—whether you know where the Sargasso Sea is or not.