A friendly affair

An interview is potentially the beginning of a long-term relationship with an employee, so it pays to get things right. David Bernstein offers employers some tips

What is the purpose of an interview? It is, says Sir Ivor Crewe, Master of my old college, ’to encourage applicants to demonstrate their intellectual and imaginative abilities, in particular their capacity to think for themselves’.
Anyone who has interviewed will agree with him how difficult it is to judge potential. So into th

equation comes performance. Past performance/ in academia, exam results; in commerce, sales results. But another performance is being assessed, namely that in the interview itself. And the masterly definition of purpose is a useful yardstick for both interviewee and interviewer, reminding us the latter also has to prepare for the encounter.

There is no better starting place than the dictionary, preferably the Oxford English. The first recorded use of the word occurs in 1514 when it meant ’a meeting of persons face to face, especially one sought or arranged for the purpose of formal conference on some point’. Therefore the interviewer should define the point and stick to it, avoiding tricky and irrelevant questions.

The word interview originates in the French words entre (between) and voir (to see). This should encourage the interviewer to observe as well as hear, to read between the lines, judge body language.

By the 17th century the word was also used to mean ’a glance or glimpse (of a thing)’. The interviewer hopes to glimpse what life might be like working with the applicant and how their mind works. This requires carefully determining what key questions need to be answered. That does not mean each question has to be asked. For example, the applicant’s knowledge of the company may be revealed in passing.

You must be clear what aptitudes you are hoping to find – for instance, do they lie in creativity or innovation? Is the candidate simply an idea-getter or also an implementer? If the former, you will welcome evidence of an original mind at work – be wary of clichés since they betray a tired or lazy mind. If the latter, then you will relish added signs of practicality and concern for the long term.

The idea-getter and the implementer share the ability of making relationships, the process Arthur Koestler defined as ’bisociation’. To relate, you must be aware of things from which to make associations. The potential creative employee should have many interests – interests provide raw material for the imagination to work on, and a wide range can indicate unusual developments. Another attribute to seek is what an early US academic investigator of creativity termed ’conceptual flexibility… the ability to shift gear, to discard one frame of reference for another, to change approaches spontaneously’. The skill should manifest itself in the interview, given the right atmosphere.

The interview should be conducted with the occasional change of pace. Artefacts can be introduced for perusal, an ad, say, or a design item to be critiqued or improved on. An action photograph can be shown and the candidate asked to describe what happened before and after the shot.

Towards the interview’s end the interviewer can relinquish control by means of a couple of simple questions – ’What question have I omitted to ask?’ and ’What question would you like to ask me?’. Whether interviewing university entrance candidates or creative job applicants, in the words of the Master, the interview should ’take the form of friendly conversation, not ferocious interrogation’.

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