How to Interview a Candidate You Don’t Immediately Click With

When hiring managers “click” with job candidates during interviews, it can feel like magic. When they don’t, it can be tempting to write the candidate off, going through the motions of asking pro forma questions until the allotted time has passed.

This instinct is often subconscious. But it’s powerful — and can be damaging to organizations in the long run.

It’s often easier for interviewers to connect with candidates who have similar backgrounds, pedigrees, credentials, or perspectives. In fact, research shows that implicit bias shapes hiring managers’ perceptions of candidates in profound ways. At the same time, research also attests to the enormous benefits of diversity. As organizations experiment with new ways to attract and retain underrepresented talent, the job interview dynamic merits further attention.

Fortunately, there are proven strategies for boosting your chances of clicking with an interviewee — and for breathing new life into interviews that appear to be on their last gasps.

Move your questions into a different domain.

If your questions about a candidate’s experience and credentials are being met with stilted or incomplete answers, move into a different domain. Instead of focusing on the past, turn to the future: Where do they see themselves 10 years from now? How will your organization look, feel, and function differently in a decade if they’re brought on board the team? Or venture into the realm of magic wands and hypotheticals: “If you were starting a company tomorrow, what would its top three values be?”

If a conversation about tasks, capabilities, and responsibilities is going nowhere, try pivoting toward interpersonal dynamics, which are key to getting things done in any workplace. This area showcases candidates’ emotional intelligence. Conversation starters might include: “Tell me about a workplace conflict you were involved in — how did you manage it?” or “What was a moment of pride you experienced recently?” or “How do you respond when a manager criticizes your work?”

Give them the driver’s seat.

Typically, interviews end with a standard question: “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?” This, of course, isn’t really an invitation to pose the burning questions that are really on a candidate’s mind — like “When can I expect to be promoted?” or “Is this actually a great place to work, or is all the talk about culture and work-life balance just lip service?” More often, it’s code for, “Here’s your chance to dazzle me with a question that makes you look smart and shows that you’ve done your homework on us.”

If an interview is lacking chemistry, consider handing the reins over earlier in the conversation, with an invitation that’s more genuine. Perhaps ask the candidate, “What should I be asking you?” or “What question do you wish I had asked?” Being the interviewee can feel powerless. Questions like this disrupt that dynamic and allow the candidate to set the agenda.

Give them a challenge.

Some people are uncomfortable talking about themselves, for reasons that may stem from personality, culture, or neurodivergence. When they’re aware that this is an issue for them, this can compound the problem. They may retreat further inward as their self-consciousness spirals, or they may overcompensate by name-dropping or raising their volume. If you suspect this might be the root of the disconnect, try shifting the focus from the person to the work.

One strategy is to fill the candidate in on a challenge that the team they’d be joining is currently struggling with, and ask what suggestions they have for tackling it. Since the problem is active and ongoing, there’s no pressure to come up with the “right” answer. Instead, you’ll get a glimpse into how the person thinks, their willingness to explore angles from all sides, the questions they ask, and the creativity they bring. Collaborative problem-solving skills are in high demand, and this can be an opportunity to assess them in action.

Steer them toward career development.

Today’s candidates prize career development. If your organization is investing in this area, describe some of your career development options to the candidate and ask which ones excite them the most. You can learn a lot about someone by seeing how they approach learning itself. What skills and capabilities are they most eager to cultivate? Are there other offerings they’d like to see on your career development menu?

Career development benefits individuals as well as the organization. When you bring in employees who are invested in learning and growing, their current skill sets are less important than the certainty that they’ll evolve alongside the business.

Get curious.

Leaders often rise based on their ability to make quick judgments. When it comes to interviewing job candidates, this can be a liability. If you’re not connecting with a candidate, resist the temptation to cut things short or check out mentally. Instead, go in the opposite direction. Embrace your curiosity.

You might start by getting curious about why the conversation isn’t flowing or the cadence doesn’t feel right. Challenge yourself to consider what might be at play: Might the candidate be distracted because they’re wearing jeans while you’re in a suit, or the other way around? Could this be their first in-person interview after years of remote work — or their first time being assessed remotely? What would happen if you paused for a longer period of time after posing each question, inviting the candidate to take their time answering?

If you’re struggling to muster genuine curiosity, double down on conveying that you’re interested and engaged. Open-ended questions like “What inspires you?” or “What’s something that you find interesting but others might find boring?” often elicit new energy, sparking interest that’s authentic.

Set the stage for success.

There are certain stage-setters that can improve your chances of connecting with an interviewee. If you know you have a tendency to connect more fluidly with people of a certain gender, ethnicity, or educational background, make a quick list of these “affinity biases” so you’re more fully aware of your need to work against them.

Prepare yourself by highlighting relevant sections on the candidate’s resume and silencing your phone. You can even prepare the candidate by sharing your questions ahead of time. Slow thinkers can be the deepest thinkers, and this gives them time to gather their thoughts and make their best case.

If you’re conducting a remote interview, consider letting candidates choose between a videoconference or phone call. People’s home office and technology setups may vary, and it would be a shame if a distracting Zoom background or spotty connection kept you from identifying the best person for the job.

Above all, it’s important to remember that recruiters and hiring managers are not just gatekeepers, but ambassadors for their organizations. If you’re not clicking with a candidate, chances are they’re also not clicking with you.

By working thoughtfully and strategically to bring lackluster interviews back to life, you’ll raise your chances of leaving candidates with a positive impression. At the very least, they’ll have good things to say about their candidate experience. And you may just discover an overlooked gem who’d be absolutely perfect for your team.

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