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Interviewing Instructional Guidelines

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
Get the Most Out of the Interview
       A. Before the Interview
       B. Getting Started
       C. Job Related Questions
       D. Information Not in the Application
       E. Open Ended Questions
       F. Probe
       G. Previous Work Experience
       H. Honesty in Describing the Work and Expectations
       I. Documenting the Interview and Selection
       J. Closing the Interview
III. Interviewing Errors

       A. Halo Effect
       B. Interviewer Talking Too Much
       C. First Impressions
       D. Homogeneous Workforce
       E. "Professional" Interviewee
IV. Regulatory Issues

       A. Merit Promotion
       B. OPM Certificate/Applicant Supply
       C. Paid Travel Outside the Commute Area
       D. When You Can't Reach the Applicant by Telephone
V. Prohibited Practices

       A. Persuading an Applicant to Decline
       B. Giving the Appearance of Discrimination
       C. Disperate Impact
       D. Harassment
Response to Non-selected Applicants
       A. Written Correspondence or Personal Call
       B. When the Applicant Calls You
Appendix A: Preemployment Inquiry Guidelines



  1. Basic FPM 332, Appendix I.
  2. 5 USC 2302
  3. 1978 Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures
  4. Fairness in Selecting Employees, Second Edition, 1988, Richard D. Arvey, Robert H. Faley
  5. HR Magazine, February 1993, Look at Who's Talking, K. Michele Kacmar
  6. HR Magazine, February 1993, Helpful Hints for Soul Searching, John A. Passante
  7. College Placement Council's Legal Brief, Preemployment Inquiries: And What Not.. To Ask, 1993
  8. Preemployment Inquiry Guidelines, Washington State Human Rights Commission
  9. U.S. Geological Survey Manual - 370.335.1, Appendix A, Merit Promotion Plan


I. Introduction

This is a guide to assist managers in hiring the best possible employees by getting the most out of the interviewing process. Interviewing as a selection device is being scrutinized more than ever in light of litigation surrounding interviews. This chapter shows how to get the information needed to make hiring decisions without falling into "legal" traps.

The foundation of a good selection process is defining the essential functions of the position and the environment in which the position operates. This step is important because all questions asked in an interview must be job related. Questions not relevant to the job are not only superfluous, but could be a source of litigation. Once you have identified the essential components, you can list the knowledges, abilities, skills, and other characteristics required to do this job successfully. With these in hand you can outline what information you need from an applicant to make a selection.
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II. Get the Most Out of the Interview

A. Before the Interview

To give applicants a good impression and help them feel at ease we suggest that you consider the following:

  • study the applications
  • let the receptionist have the applicant's names and your interview schedule.
  • start interviews on time.
  • pick a location that will be comfortable for the applicant; avoid having a barrier such as a desk between you and the applicant.


B. Getting Started

Applicants coming for an interview are usually anxious. An applicant who is relaxed is apt to be more candid, allowing you to get a true impression of him or her. While you are trying to put the candidate at ease, focus on conversation that does not have the potential for claims of discrimination. For example, you may wish to break the ice by asking an applicant how they found out about the job or a question about the agency for which they work. Avoid situations such as asking a candidate with an accent where he is from or asking a female applicant who mentions that she has children how old her children are or if she has found a good day care center; such inquiries can make you vulnerable to a discrimination complaint. Mentioning that you have children too or that there is a day care center on campus are probably safe comments. Though you are attempting to make the applicant more comfortable, you must remember that ice breaking is still part of the interview and that inquiries like these can be used by the unsuccessful candidate to attempt to show that you were biased. Keep this portion of the interview brief, one or two comments should suffice.


C. Job Related Questions

How does the question you are asking relate to the job? If you cannot put a connection between the two you should throw the question out. Interviews are classified as a "test" in the Uniform Guidelines and are subject to the same scrutiny as a written exam. Questions not related to the job will raise doubts about the reliability of your interview as an assessment device, and as mentioned above, potentially could involve you in allegations of discrimination.


D. Information Not In The Application

An application will give you information about an applicant's educational background and work experience, but it won't tell you what type of organizational environment the applicant requires to succeed. If you have defined what attributes you are seeking in a candidate you will be more successful in your interview. The following is extracted from an article in HR Magazine, February 1993, titled Helpful Hints for Soul Searching, by John A. Passante. Mr. Passante suggests that the following questions will help you focus your search.

  1. Independence. Must the individual do things his or her way, or is there some flexibility? (How much structure does the individual require?)
  2. Achievement. Does the candidate like to work on challenging problems or do something significant? Has he or she set the highest standards of accomplishment? 
  3. Variety. Is it important to do things that are new and different and to have a variety of experiences? (Looking at it from another perspective, can the individual handle change?)
  4. Leadership. Does the individual love power, abuse power, share power? Does he or she manage or lead? 
  5. Orderliness. Does the individual have well-organized work habits? Are things done according to a schedule and are matters kept in their proper place?
  6. Support. Is being treated with understanding, kindness, and consideration important? Decisiveness. Is it important to have strong, firm convictions or to come to a decision quickly, then stick to it?
  7. Team player. Can the candidate work effectively as part of a team to get a project completed? Is he or she able to give and take?


E. Open Ended Questions

Open ended questions usually begin with "how" or "why" and will elicit more than a "yes" or "no" answer. Notice the difference in the following questions:

  1. Did you like your last job? vs. What did you like about your last job?
  2. Can you motivate people? vs. How do you motivate your staff?


F. Probe

You can improve your interviews by asking follow-up questions on some subjects. For example:

Q. Why did you leave this job?
A. I didn't like the work environment.

Q. Why was this environment so difficult to deal with?
A. Management misrepresented the job when I accepted it.

Q. They misrepresented the job?
A. Yes. They said that if I took the receptionist's position, one day I would be promoted to a professional position and that never happened.

Q. Why do you think that didn't happen?
A. My supervisor didn't recognize my abilities.

Utilizing effective probing techniques will allow you to get beyond the pat answers to the real information which you seek.


G. Previous Work Experience

Obtaining information about how an applicant did in the past is the best way to forecast how well the applicant will perform in the future. For most applicants, asking for examples of work behaviors will help you predict whether they will be successful in your job.


H. Honesty in Describing the Work and Expectations

An interview is a two way process. While you are evaluating the applicant, the applicant is sizing up both the position and you, d eciding if they want to work here. It is important in the interview that you give realistic information about the pluses and minuses of the position and about your expectations. No one wins if you pick an applicant who leaves in a couple of months because "the job wasn't what they thought it was going to be."


I. Documenting the Interview and Selection

If there is litigation over your selection, a third party will be deciding whether there was fair consideration given to all applicants. You will be asked to support your decision. Since memories are fallible, you should retain documentation of your interviews so that you can explain the reasons for your selection. The notes that you keep should summarize the characteristics of each applicant and show that you covered the same general topics. Any interview notes or comparisons should be kept by selecting officials for six months or until any complaint is finally adjudicated.


J. Closing the Interview

Thank the candidate for their interest in working for the USGS and ensure that they understand what the next step in the selection process is.
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III. Interviewing Errors

A. Halo Effect

A common error made by selecting officials is looking only for one trait in an applicant and discounting the rest. For example, you have two applicants for a position, one with a degree from a prestigious college and the other with a degree from a local college. You decide the applicant from the prestigious college is "better qualified", but have you looked at other factors important to the work environment? How do they compare as team players, on initiative, or on motivation?


B. Interviewer Talking Too Much

The key to good interviewing is listening. You should try to say as little as possible and get the applicant to impart as much as possible. If you don't make this your objective you will have less information on which to make an informed decision.


C. First Impressions

Decisions are sometimes made too early in the interview. One study (Webster, 1964) showed that most personnel interviewers in their study made their decisions after just four minutes in a 15 minute interview. Again, you have less information to use to make a hiring decision if you make a hasty judgement.


D. Homogeneous Workforce

Too often supervisors will hire persons with similar strengths and philosophies. However, it is important to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your work group so that you identify characteristics needed to make a stronger team and to add to group synergy. Ask yourself what is the demographic composition of your work group? If all employees are the same demographically, it may be a reflection of the interview process.


E. "Professional" Interviewee

There are persons who are outstanding interviewees. They give a good first impression, say all of the right things, and sound almost too good to be true. The best way to guard against hiring a person who may not be as good as he or she sounds is to check references. Please refer to the Past Employment/Academic Training Checks for further guidance.
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IV. Regulatory Issues

A. Merit promotion

Although it is not mandatory that all referred candidates be interviewed, a selecting official or his/her designee is strongly encouraged to conduct interviews (either in person or by telephone) with each of the referred candidates. In some instances the distance may be too great to require an applicant to appear for a personal interview. In such cases, a telephone interview is adequate. At a minimum, selecting officials must uniformly consider the referred candidates using job related criteria and be prepared to explain and/or document the consideration they receive, in response to inquiries.


B. OPM Certificate/Applicant Supply

You are not required to interview all applicants referred to you from an OPM Certificate or in-house applicant supply file. Appointing officers may request eligibles to appear in person for an employment interview provided both travel time and cost to the applicant are kept to a reasonable minimum, with due consideration to the nature and level of the position for which eligibles are being considered. No applicant should be requested to report for an interview, whether or not travel is involved, unless it is reasonable to expect that he/she will be within reach on the certificate of eligibles and will receive bonafide consideration for appointment.

The Office of Human Resources Management will sustain objections to eligibles who fail to report for an interview involving travel only when (a) the agency furnishes convincing evidence that the interview is essential to the filling of the vacancy and (b) the request to report for interview informed eligibles that failure to report would eliminate them from consideration.


C. Paid Travel Outside the Commute Area

Survey Manual Chapter 370.572, dated May 7, 1993, gives instructions on how to request approval to pay for an applicant's travel to an interview. Prior to requesting this approval, management must conduct telephone or face-to-face interviews with all of the best qualified candidates certified on a merit promotion certificate or all candidates within reach for appointment from an OPM certificate of eligibles. As a general rule, payment for travel to preemployment interviews will be authorized only when meaningful distinctions cannot be made between the qualifications of candidates, or the position to be filled is so unique or highly specialized that face-to-face interviews are essential for final qualifications determinations. Though travel expenses will generally be paid for no more than three applicants, discipline chief's approval must be obtained to allow for more than five candidates to have their travel expenses paid.


D. When You Can't Reach the Applicant by Telephone

There are times when you cannot reach an applicant over the telephone, and he/she does not respond to a telephone mail message. If this occurs, you should contact your Servicing Human Resources Office as soon as possible. You or your Servicing Human Resources Office can send written correspondence to the applicant asking that he/she contact you or the Human Resources Office to arrange for an interview. The correspondence should state that if we do not hear from the individual by a certain date, we will assume that they are no longer interested in being considered for the position. This provides written documentation of the attempt to contact the applicant.
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V. Prohibited Practices

A. Persuading an Applicant to Decline

Under 5 USC 2302 (b)(3)(5) it is a prohibited personnel practice to influence any person to withdraw from competition for any position for the purpose of improving or injuring the prospects of any other person for employment.


B. Questions Giving the Appearance of Discrimination

Interviewers may not make inquiries concerning an applicant's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, marital status, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or political affiliation.

The same general questions or topics should be covered with each applicant. For example, asking female applicants if they can travel and not asking male applicants the same question is discriminatory.


C. Disparate Impact

An apparent neutral practice, question, or job requirement, while applied to everyone, may be considered discriminatory because of its negative impact upon a protected group. For example, if you decide that you will only hire a person with a bachelor's degree for an entry level technician position, your selection may be challenged due to disparate impact. Even though you have applied the same requirement to all applicants, it could disproportionally screen out women and/or minorities.


D. Harrassment

Harassment is derogatory remarks and otherwise offensive conduct directed at an individual that has the effect of creating a "hostile environment." You may be held liable if the harassing behavior is based upon race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, age, disability, or other protected classification.
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VI. Response to Nonselected Applicants

A. Written Correspondence or Personal Call

The Human Resources Office is responsible for notifying applicants when they are not selected for a position. This notification is usually in writing. There may be times when you have two or three particularly well-qualified applicants that you wish to notify with a personal call. However, if you call the non-selected candidates, be prepared to discuss the merit of your decision in greater detail.


B. When the Applicant Calls You

The key to responding to a nonselected applicant who calls you is to remember not to dwell on the applicant's negatives. Never injure the applicant's self-esteem. Indeed, often there is nothing "wrong" with an applicant; the selectee is stronger overall for the position. We caution you to give forthright answers to an applicant's questions. For example, if you have not made a selection for a position, do not say that you have hired someone else. Instead, let the applicant know that you are still soliciting applications or interviewing, whatever the case may be. Remember, you have discretion in whether you answer a question. If you are not the appropriate person to respond, refer the applicant to the person who can best answer his/her questions.
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Appendix A. 

Excerpts from Preemployment Inquiry Guidelines Issued by Washington State Human Rights Commission that apply to Federal employment. 
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