Using a Pre-Interview Questionnaire to Improve Your Screening Process

Resumes Can Easily Mislead

The resume is a commonly used source of information. Unfortunately, the candidate's resume omits any negative information because, by design, all information contained in a resume is self-reported. In addition, because there is no standardized resume format, candidates can, willingly or unwillingly, leave out key information that you might find helpful or even necessary in making a decision.

Resumes seldom provide insight into several important areas, including candidate expectations, motivators, or interests that can help recruiters and managers determine if the candidate is a job and company fit. In fact, because most resumes are less than two pages, they contain very little detailed information of any kind that reveal the candidate's actual ability to excel in the job in question. Add to all of this the fact that as many as two-thirds of all resumes are known to contain "misstatements," and it's obvious that relying on the information in resumes to make hiring decisions is, to be kind, a less-than-perfect approach.

Interviews Have Limitations as Information-Gathering Devices

The next source, the interview, is the most widely used tool for gathering information about the candidate. Although there are many types of interviews, by far the most commonly utilized format is the "behavioral interview." Most organizations utilize behavioral interviews because they force interviewers to talk about job-related experiences.

Unfortunately, behavioral interviews, too, only provide self-reported information about the candidate's past experiences and behaviors. Self reporting about past experiences can lead to a large number of omissions and even exaggerations. An additional problem with interviews is that because they are verbal, when they end, there is little to no documentation of either the questions asked or of the answers given.

Complicating these shortcomings is the fact that interviews seldom last more than an hour and with the ice breakers and the friendly chitchat included, only a small volume of information can effectively be gathered. Although extending interview sessions would allow more information to be gathered, that's often unrealistic given the limitations on a manager's and interview team's time.

References Are Limited Sources of Information

The final information source is reference checking. The information provided via this tool is possibly the most limited of them all.

For starters, most large organizations prohibit their managers from providing reference information in any detail. Even when references are allowed to provide information, liability concerns make it highly unlikely that references will provide any negative information about past performance (not that the friends and associates who are "selected" are likely to share the dirt).

That parenthetical comment alludes to weakness factor number two: the fact that the candidate frequently provides the firm with the names of the individuals to contact for references. While references can be valuable in some cases, it's important to realize that you're getting information from a relative stranger who isn't really familiar with your business needs or situation.

Simple Ways To Gather Better Information

Unfortunately, most aspects of recruiting — and certainly the information-gathering part of it — are driven by tradition. The tradition is so strong that when you suggest other ways of gathering information to most corporate HR professionals, you get immediate rejection.

But if you're feeling bold and you want to be an outside-the-box thinker, there are other approaches to gathering information that are quick and easy, and that provide useful information without a great deal of effort on the part of the recruiter or the manager.

My favorite alternate tool is the pre-interview questionnaire. This pre-screening tool is frequently used by executive search professionals. But for some reason, its use in the corporate world is rare.

Using a Pre-Interview Questionnaire

If you take a step back and think about the kind of information you need in order to make a decision on a candidate, the information sources we've been discussing all provide information in the same basic area of experiences and on-the-job behaviors. Those are obviously important, but if you ask any manager about the characteristics of a great employee, they will also mention such factors as their interests, what motivates them, and their career goals.

In short, managers are also seeking information related to job, culture and company fit. Now of course, you can ask questions in these areas during the interview, but why waste valuable recruiter and management time when the same information can be procured directly from the candidate through a pre-interview questionnaire?

A pre-interview questionnaire is series of questions that allow you to learn more about the candidate prior to the interview. It asks them to provide information related to their job preferences, career goals, preferred management style, and key motivators. This information can help you determine if the candidate is a good fit for the manager, the job, and the organization.

Generally this questionnaire is provided only to candidates who are selected for an interview. But in some cases, it may also become a quick "first cut" assessment tool to screen out a few candidates from the original interview pool.

Benefits of a Pre-Interview Questionnaire

There are several advantages to adding a pre-interview questionnaire to your information-gathering and candidate-screening process. Some of them include:

  • It saves manager and recruiter time, because they do not need to be present when the candidate is providing the answers.
  • Both the questions and the answers are written, so there is documentation.
  • It asks candidates to provide information that is relevant to their willingness to perform the job and their fit with the culture.
  • The information provided may allow you do reduce the number of interviews and even screen out a few candidates who are obviously not a fit.
  • It can be designed such that candidates "force rank" their preferences and interests, giving you insight into what types of activities they value the most.
  • It allows the candidate to provide additional information and to provide information specific for this job (since most resumes are not customized to a particular job).
  • If you utilize a question related to identifying their job acceptance and minimum pay criteria, you may be able to utilize that information to improve your offer acceptance rates.
  • If you have it approved by HR and legal in advance, you can utilize it without concern.

An Example of One Company's Experience

Here's an example of one companies experience using pre-interview questionnaires:

Often candidates are asked the same questions over and over about information that could be made available to the interviewing manager prior to the interview. Resumes are long and often short on the information we need to make a hiring decision.

A lot of the waste and duplication can be reduced by giving the candidate a pre-interview questionnaire. By giving a candidate a chance to list their specific technical skills required for this job and their job preferences just before the first interview, you give a manager a quick scan (and a reminder) of their interests and the skill sets this candidate claims to have…

[Our managers] very quickly saw the merit in using the checklist. The feedback they received after administering it was that it gave a more accurate picture for them, and in general they felt the candidate had a more fair opportunity to present themselves as the checklist acted as a guide and a memory jogging tool as well.

(I apologize to the author of this example but I inadvertently misplaced the source!)

Possible Problems With Pre-Interview Questionnaires

All selection and screening tools have some weaknesses, and the pre-interview questionnaire is no different. Some of its weaknesses include:

  • "Being different" by utilizing this questionnaire may initially startle some candidates; however, it may excite others.
  • Reviewing the questionnaires does take some time. After all, these questionnaires have no value if no one reads them.
  • Candidates can stretch the truth in the questionnaire (although the interview can help to clarify these points).
  • A firm's employees may spread the word to candidates on what might be considered "good answers" (although this can also happen with interviews as well).
  • HR must develop the pre-questionnaire.
  • Someone must be responsible for initially distributing the questionnaires to candidates and later for collecting them and distributing them to hiring managers.
  • Some candidates, especially those in high demand, may not have the time or may even refuse to fill them out (this, however, can also be an indication of their attitude).
  • Candidates can try to "guess" what answers you want on each question. However, the questions themselves can also act as a wake-up call to candidates if, after completing their interest and requirements lists, they realize that the job description does not contain their preferences.

Part 2 of this article series will appear next week. It contains a detailed example of a pre-interview questionnaire that you can adapt for use at your own firm.

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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