Professional Conversations Reduce The Stress Inherent In Traditional Interviews
(And that will improve recruiting results)

93% of candidates report that their anxiety levels increased because of their fear of interviews. And 45% of jobseekers report that they have rejected jobs after a negative interview experience.

Fortunately, you can dramatically bring those ugly numbers down when recruiting for a critical job. Replace your standard interview with a more candidate-friendly type of interview that I call “a professional conversation among colleagues.”

Yes, Candidate Anxiety Will Hurt Your Recruiting Results In Many Ways

You, of course, call it an “interview.” However, many candidates consider the following descriptive phrases to be more accurate names. In fact, interviews have been perceived as… “grilling’s”, a firing squad, waterboarding, a stress test, or even interrogations.

As an interviewer, you might not agree with these labels, but you are not the one being cross-examined. So, I urge you, whenever appropriate, to develop and then substitute “professional conversations” for interviews. Because when candidates fear interviews, their anxiety levels go through the roof. And that high anxiety can unintentionally cause the following top seven major hiring issues to occur (mostly unnoticed). 

  • Weak interview preparation – For many candidates, the very word “interview” will cause them so much anxiety that they won’t be able to prepare properly. Less preparation time will mean they won’t “look as good as they should.”
  • Interview attendance will go down – A high level of anxiety may mean that some candidates will be reluctant even to schedule an interview. And still others won’t show up for a scheduled one. In fact, you may find that anxiety/fear is a major cause of ghosting.
  • Their Interview performance will be below par and misleading – In many cases, the anxiety can reach a level where a candidate simply won’t “be themselves.” And that means that they will underperform during their interviews. And that underperformance will likely cause you to miss out on many top candidates who otherwise would have been found to be impressive.
  • Interview process dropouts will increase –If a candidate’s stress level is high enough or the process is not sufficiently welcoming. Many candidates will simply prematurely drop out of your hiring process (because remaining at their current job allows them to avoid all additional interviews). In fact, up to 30% of candidate abandonments take place during the interview stage. 
  • More offers will be rejected Remember when your offered candidate finds your interviews unnecessarily stressful. They might extrapolate further and assume the job itself will also be equally as stressful. As a result, they will quickly turn down any offer. And they will be unlikely to apply again.
  • Anxiety will hurt your diversity recruiting – Because most diverse candidates start off any hiring process with a real fear of discrimination and not fitting in. Any other increase in a diverse candidate’s anxiety (like interview uncertainty) will directly reduce your diversity hiring results even more. Also, many diverse, ethnic, and global employees are much more likely to have unusual first or last names. The anxiety levels of these diverse candidates will increase whenever they anticipate that their names will likely be mispronounced during a job interview. And unless you have thoroughly trained each of the interview team to get both names perfect. You can expect that 42% of your candidates will be offended when their name is mispronounced.
  • Anxiety will hurt your employer brand reputation – Because internet employee comment sites like allow candidates to rate and comment on your interview process. Providing highly stressful interviews will definitely hurt future applications and your employer brand image.
  • You might also lose product sales – In cases where your current or future customers have had to participate in a highly stressful interview. You can safely assume that that negative experience will also impact their future purchases of your product/service.


The Most Powerful Differentiators… That Make Professional Conversations (PC’s) Effective

For professional conversations to be successful, you must fundamentally alter the structure of the current interview process. So that you take “a white glove” approach and that you treat candidates like the colleagues that they are. The first step in creating your own professional conversation template is to select the differentiators that you decide will be the most appropriate. Toward that goal, all possible design features you should consider are listed below in two distinct parts.

Part I – The Top 10 Most Powerful Differentiator Design Features

  • Change the name to professional conversation or career conversation Let every potential applicant and candidate know that you are doing something different. By changing the name of your traditional interview process to “a professional conversation (abbreviated here as a PC), or “career conversation”. Which incidentally will also simultaneously raise the expectations of your candidates about how they will be treated during your hiring process (this may force you to do it even better).
  • Initially, limit your professional conversations (PCs) to a few critical jobs – Some organizations purposely make the transition slowly. By first using professional conversations only when they are trying to fill executive and high-priority jobs. And then later, after they have gathered sufficient data. They expand the practice to other jobs where they find high candidate anxiety.
  • Make the goals of professional conversations different – One of the ways to ensure that standard interview PCs will be noticeably different is to ensure that their goals are significantly different. Start by making the primary goal of the personal conversation to be more welcoming and to keep the candidate comfortable with low anxiety. A second primary goal will be determining the areas where your company’s interests match the candidate’s needs. Other additional goals for a PC might include remaining positive, sharing ideas, and increasing the amount of control given to the candidate. And because the candidate has invested so much of their time in exploring this job. The conversation leader should also strive to treat the candidate like you would treat a colleague or a customer. In return, you should continually ask each candidate to act like a mature adult. And to be as honest with us as much as possible, even though it might make them uncomfortable. 
  • PCs must avoid the mistakes made in most interviews – There are many things that interview leaders often do that unwittingly increase candidate stress levels. Obviously, these mistakes should not be repeated during PCs. For example, many interview leaders start off by making it clear to the interviewee that they should consider themselves lucky to be here (where, instead, both sides have the opportunity to gain something valuable). Others bark out questions without explaining why the answers are needed. Often, interviewers provide no visual or verbal feedback to the candidate after they have provided a long answer. Finally, many interviewers essentially stop the interview when they find evidence of a candidate’s flaw instead of keeping up the search until they find all of the candidate’s strengths. Instead, they use a single discovered flaw to quickly reduce their hefty pile of candidates.
  • PCs minimize candidate surprises, which raise anxiety levels – During traditional interviews, the candidate is pretty well left in the dark about what will occur during their interviews. PCs are completely different. One of their primary goals is transparency and purposely minimizing candidate surprises about what will come next. That is best done by providing the candidate with an “interview preview” in advance. This preview highlights the interview process steps, goals, and timelines. The preview may also mention who they will be meeting with (by title) and the interviewers’ criteria for assessing each candidate. You can find more details about this interview preview and its associated “white glove treatment” here.
  • They will want to know about their responsibilitiesLinkedIn research revealed that the #1 thing that a candidate wants to learn about during an interview is “the responsibilities of the role.” So let the candidate know up front that their job responsibilities will be a primary discussion area during the PC. 
  • PCs have more balanced levels of communication – During traditional interviews, the hiring manager mostly controls what is discussed. However, in a PC, the structure is reduced. The candidate is asked to provide input about what they want to learn/discuss during the PC. Another goal is to improve communications to the point where you minimize unnecessary conflicts and that you maintain a level of civility and collaboration throughout the session.
  • “We will take the time to go over your ideas and your work.” – PCs are different from most interviews. Because rather than focusing on the resume and credentials. The head interviewer will instead focus on going over examples of the candidate’s best work and best current ideas. As well as the factors that would make up your target “dream job.”
  • “We will tell you the broad areas where we are likely to focus our questions” – Obviously, we can’t provide a candidate with the exact interview questions. However, in order to allow candidates to focus their interview preparation, we will provide a heads-up warning about the areas our questions will likely cover. Every one of our questions will be selected from our pre-approved “question pool” to ensure that every asked question directly relates to a specific job requirement. Also, strive to reduce their stress by reminding them that during the PC, they won’t be burdened with any of the anxiety-producing questions that can come up during unstructured interviews (i.e., brain teaser questions, or questions about convictions, their family, citizenship, or past pay levels). Finally, to minimize any possibility of offer rejection. One question that we certainly will ask: “Can you make a list of the decision criteria that you will use to select your next job?” Obviously, if you are the final candidate, we will use this information to sculpt your offer.
  • All of the candidate’s questions will be answered – A professional conversation is longer than a traditional interview (it can be scheduled for up to two hours). The candidate will know there will be ample time to get to know each other. But also to allow the company to answer each and every one of the candidate’s questions. It also makes sense to provide them with a contact person and a number that will always get a rapid response before and after the professional conversation.


Part II – Additional Differentiating Factors (That Are Slightly Less Powerful)

  • We might even give a real problem to solve – Many candidates agree that the best way to reveal a candidate’s on-the-job capabilities is to give them a real problem to analyze. When appropriate, let them know they may be provided with an outline of a current problem from this open job so that they could “walk us through the steps” they would likely use to resolve it. We have found that the opportunity to “show off” their problem-solving skills excites the very best candidates.
  • Tell them everyone will wear name badges – Worrying about remembering everyone’s name can be anxiety-producing. So, let each candidate know that the entire team will be wearing visible name tags throughout the professional conversation. 
  • We will sell our opportunities – Most interviewers will spend 90% of their time grilling the candidate and only 10% selling them on the job and the company. That’s a mistake. In a professional conversation with a top candidate that will be difficult to land, it’s optimal for up to 50% of the available time to be spent selling the candidate. So, you should inform your candidates that you are extremely proud of your company and what it offers to employees. As a result, you will spend some time selling the company and its career opportunities during the conversation. And because another goal is to excite the candidate. Attempt to excite each candidate as much as legal restrictions will allow. Highlight some of your best practices, plans, and products. To show both sides, highlight some of your needs and the challenges that the team and company will likely face in the future.
  • More teammates must participate In order to improve the chances that the candidate will feel important and wanted. The hiring manager should ensure that all key team members attend the professional conversation.
  • Hold the professional conversation in a comfortable setting –  Work with the candidate in order to mutually decide on the best time and location for the PC to continue reducing candidate anxiety. Those choices include meeting outside standard work hours and in a quiet public facility close to the candidate’s workplace or residence. Once a site has been selected, let the candidate know that we will send them a picture of it. It may help to reduce their anxiety further.
  • “After our professional conversation, you will leave with some takeaways.” – Most candidates leave an interview with little other than frustration and some remaining high levels of anxiety. Because we would understand the value of all of the volunteered time and effort that the candidate has put into our hiring process. You should strive to ensure that each candidate takes away something of value. That value might start with the addition of several well-connected colleagues. Learning valuable things about themself, our best practices, current industry problems, and how neutral outsiders project the candidate’s future career trajectory.
  • Guarantee that they will receive honest feedback after the conversation – Because over 70% of job seekers want feedback after a job interview. Most said that receiving feedback would make them more inclined to apply for future jobs at that company. It’s essential that you provide top candidates with honest, constructive feedback within 48 hours after the PC.
  • Always look for small ways to reduce anxiety – Knowing that the candidate will be provided with the opportunity to hold one-on-one informal talks with individual team members and/or peer interviews with the entire team will likely reduce a candidate’s anxiety level. Because they already know that they will be able to get “the straight scoop” from individual employees (who are less likely to lie/exaggerate than recruiters and hiring managers). And finally, because caffeine may increase their nervousness and anxiety levels. Suggest that candidates limit their caffeine on the day of the conversation. 
  • Use metrics to continually improve – Let the candidate know you constantly strive to improve in every area. At the end of the hiring process for this job (whether they get it or not). Tell the candidate that you will send a survey on how we can improve our professional conversation and overall hiring process. Ask them to please commit to helping you by being brutally honest when filling it out. 

Don’t kid yourself… interviews are hardly ever effective

It’s a fact that the typical interview has a painfully low predictive value In fact, Google research unfortunately found that most interviews were no more predictive than a coin flip. Academic research has further shown us that one of the primary reasons for the interview’s low predictive value is the high level of anxiety that many candidates enter the interview with. I have been researching how to improve them for decades. And during that time, I have found that, unfortunately, almost all recruiters and hiring managers treat interviews as if they were sacred cows. However, rather than being sacred, interviews are actually full of painful flaws. Most of which are not easily remedied. And if you don’t believe me about its problems. I urge you to review my long list of the top 50 things that are wrong with interviews (including death by interview). That list can be found here

If you only do one thing proactively create your own professional conversation template. Select at least 10 of the key differentiators or action steps to include. Then, try out your professional conversation template on a few candidates in order to get a hint of whether it has improved candidate satisfaction and/or your recruiting results. 

Final Thoughts

Despite the possibility of a career gain, going to an interview is all too often viewed by a candidate with the same trepidation as “going to the dentist.” So, the key lesson to be learned here is that despite the fact that many lead interviewers falsely believe that some level of anxiety during the interview is a positive thing (under the weak premise that it might allow you to see how a candidate acts under stress). Unfortunately, any small gain from creating anxiety is likely to be widely overtaken by the multiple costly impacts that stress will have on the candidate’s interview attendance and interview performance. In fact, hiring managers and recruiters should realize that because of today’s severe talent shortages. The dollar cost of failing to reduce stress before and during interviews has likely gone up by as much as 20% during the last year.

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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