Recruitment: a view from the panel

Following on from the blog posts I’ve been editor of for the ALT blog (thanks to Julie and Mimi as authors of the five-part recruitment series), I wanted to give my own experience of reviewing some 400 applications, conducting over 50 online interviews and appointing some amazing people to over 15 roles (some new roles, some replacement vacancies) during the last 18 months (since we entered lockdown and started working remotely, and an equal number of face-to-face interviews in the years prior too).

If you want to read the posts by Julie and Mimi from City, University of London, I’ll wait while you go. Start with their first post – preparing to apply. The series continues through the application and preparation for the interview, as well as the interview itself and to follow-ups and (hopefully) an offer.

The fifth and final post will be published next week (looking at what you can do after the interview, be sure to look out for it).

From the perspective of being a panel member or chairing the panel, here are observations or patterns of behaviour I’ve observed.

  • Nerves – Everyone gets nervous. Your nerves are not being interviewed, so don’t be shy in acknowledging them and asking for a question to be repeated or time to sip some water and think. A good panel will understand that it is an unusual situation you are in and that not everyone can relax or handle an interview in the same way. Being nervous is not a fault, nor is it easily ignored. If you find you feel an answer to an interview question wasn’t your finest moment, try and push it to one side, collect yourself, and go again on the next: don’t let one question determine how well your perform on the next.
  • Quiet time – Sometimes there will be a period of quite when you have finished with your response to the question, and the panel are still making notes or waiting for each other. If you have nothing else to add, don’t fill the gap with nonsense – know when to keep quiet. If you are confident of your reply and want to acknowledge that you’ve ended the question, and want to fill the quiet space as notes are completed, you could ask if your response covered what the panel was looking for? Some interviewers use the quiet space to unnerve the candidate – I do not like this. If the interviewers or organisation wants to play that kind of power game in an interview, then it isn’t the kind of culture or working environment I want to be part of. Look to these kind of style or cues as to how the interview is run to see how they run the business … you can tell a lot if you look hard enough! It might work in negotiating a discount when buying a car, for example, but has no place in an interview.
  • IT Fault – Unless you’re interviewing for a technical role and your proficiency at handling IT failure is part of the interview, the panel will understand and support you if you can’t get your screen to share, or your camera is somehow suddenly upside down. Even experienced Learning Technologists, for example, will have IT issues. Your computer is not being interviewed. You are. For online interviews, you should be given time before the interview to check the connection and features of the interview platform (Zoom, Teams, Blackboard, etc). If it still doesn’t work, don’t panic. Again, how you react is more important than actually getting it to work, so be calm and ask for help. If all else fails go camera-free or an old school phone call.
  • Preparation – It’s obvious when the candidate hasn’t prepared for the interview, just as easily as it is to see someone who has. If you know who will be on the panel it is worth looking them up and spending some time finding out, for example, how long they’ve been working there and whether they’ve risen through the organisation or joined at the level they’re at, etc. Any good interviewer should spend a little time introducing the role and where it sits in the general structure of the team, department, or organisation. If anything here is of interest, or you want to follow up, make a note of it and ask your question at the end.
  • Notes – If you’ve made notes during preparation, have them to hand and don’t be afraid to use them. Not everyone can remember everything and remember it at the right time. Don’t try and hide it if you use notes or want to make notes – by telling the panel you have notes it will at least tell me you’re still focused on the interview and not live-tweeting it!
  • Interview panel – Is the panel comprised of people you’d work with daily or from senior management, individuals you wouldn’t have much contact with. Do you think (through your own questions to the panel: these are so important – see later) they understand the role or the work, and can they answer with authority on the work, the timelines, etc? What is their general demeanour like, do the panel seem like they know or work well with each other, or are there subtle cues you can pick up on that, maybe, they don’t know each other very well? This could give you an indication of the type of working culture within the team?
  • You are interviewing them too – You may be the one interviewing for a role at their company, but this is your opportunity to see if you like the way they operate. Do they seem approachable and people you could work with? Are the questions and attitude aggressive or feel deliberately positioned to slip you up? Your initial/gut feeling could be the most important sense of whether you’d like to work with them or not.
  • Time – We can be conducting as many as 5 interviews on the same day, which makes the oprganising and running to time very important. If an hour is given to the interview, we have to keep to that timeframe to be fair to all candidates as well as to keep to our own schedule. Don’t waffle in your answers, don’t waste the opportunity to ask questions, and don’t try and keep the interview going when the panel chair has closed it down. If you didn’t get to ask your question(s), at least ask if the panel chair would be willing to answer them in a follow-up email? Don’t waste this opportunity. As above, this is your chance to see how they perform at interviews too, and how they handle this request. The chair of the panel will keep an eye on the clock, and so should you – nothing will break your stride or confidence more than if the chair has to interupt and move you on before you’ve got to the point. If you’ve been told you’ll be asked 8 questions, and you’ve 10 minutes left and are only on question 3 … you’ve got problems. Neither of you managed the time very well and you could be missing out on the opportunity to shine in later questions that you will now have to rush through.
  • Questions – You should have the opportunity to ask questions. In all my interviews I do my best to preserve at least 5 to 10 minutes for this at the end of the interview, for you to ask the panel your questions. Don’t waste this time. Questions about holiday entitlements or training budgets can come later if an offer is made – it’s more important to find out about the team culture or role specific tasks. Ask about the role, the team, ask something of the panel (“what excites you about the next 6 to 12 months of XYZ?” – there are plenty of websites to help you out if you get stuck for ideas), or something specific in the job description that maybe you’re not sure on or that really interests you. Don’t ask something that has already been covered in the preamble introduction or elsewhere in the interview (which means paying attention too), unless you are asking something specific about much more detail.
  • Collaboration – Sometimes the best candidate may not ‘score’ the best in shortlisting or during the interview itself. Sometimes the best candidate is the one who exhibits the kind of approach and attitude that fits the culture and team dynamics, and can reasonably demonstrate the ability to do the job. Any good interview panel will ask you something about collaboration or team working – no one works in isolation ALL the time, and at some point, you will have had to work as part of a larger team. Even a job working remotely will still require interaction with colleagues, managers, senior stakeholders, etc.
  • Examples of your work – Be prepared to give examples of how you work. A good interview will give you opportunities to provide examples or to demonstrate instances where you have worked as part of a team, where you influenced or effected change, how you handled a difficult co-worker, etc. Be prepared to do this. Rarely will a candidate not have any examples to share. If this is indeed the case, be ready to explain why.
  • HR – The interview panel is constrained by internal policies set by HR departments. Most of the time the main communication you will have about an application or interview will have to be through the official channels, but if you are given a name or contact details of someone related to the role or interview, then note them down and ask, through the proper channels, if it is OK for you to contact them directly for anything specific to the role. The same will also apply after the interview; any promise of an update in a certain timeframe will also be dependent on HR systems and permissions, so don’t worry too much if you don’t hear immediately.
  • Home – If you’ve been given an online interview, especially in these strange times of Covid and working-at/from-home, then don’t worry about noise and interruptions from your home – any decent panel will understand this situation and not be bothered by it. Pets or children or Amazon deliveries all happen during the day and can’t always be anticipated. Roll with it, make a joke and carry on. As I said, any decent panel will understand and join the joke (we’re in the same boat here too .. pets, children, the road being dug up a week early and suddenly impacting the background noise – we’ve seen it all and suffered ourselves too.

Above all else, the interview is a two-way process. I have been interviewed before and within five minutes of starting, I knew the role and organisation wasn’t for me. The manner of the interview was aggressive and not what I’d been asked to prepare for. The interview panel was different to the one I’d been informed about, and no one on the panel had anything to do with the job or department it was within. I was told upfront that the promise of reimbursement for travel would not be honoured, and the general demeanour of the panel was just plain bored and uninterested. If the panel has no interest in you or the role, then why would I want to work with them? How the panel behaves is as much an indicator of how they work as anything. And this was from a top-10 UK Russell Group university too, so you can’t always tell who will be the best interviewers or employers!

This is why I put so much effort into the interview panels I chair. It is tiring and takes a lot of preparation and execution time, but it is always time well spent. To be certain I bring out the best of you, the candidate, (online or not) I need you to be on your best too. Interviews are stressful for both parties so removing barriers for you to be relaxed and able to do your best is one of the main things the interview panel can do. The rest is up to you.

Photo by Dose Media on Unsplash