I want to share a tale of a terrible job interview, as it made me think about how badly structured so many interviews are, and how applying some of the best-practice from the agency pitch process could lead to better outcomes all round.

Let me start by saying that the agency pitch process is far from perfect. As I discussed with the lovely Jenny Plant in my recent podcast interview,  it’s like asking someone to marry you after a couple of dates. (Although it was great to hear about AAR’s new Rapid Response solution for PR agencies).

Anyway, back to the interview. It was for a job I was super qualified for and would’ve been great at. I’d got through the first two stages, submitting my CV and carefully crafted, word-count restricted supporting statement, followed by a video showcasing my management style, and had been invited to stage three – the dreaded panel interview. On Teams.

I’d been told that the final stage was to talk more about my skills and competencies. I’d done a ton of homework picking out the most relevant examples from my career. I was more than ready.

But the interview started and after the initial pleasantries, I was told I’d be “asked 7 or 8 questions.” My heart sank immediately – doomed by the formality of the formulaic, one-size-fits-all questionnaire

And so followed a bunch of semi-closed questions that were overly complex, overly specific and reliant on the old HR cliche of “tell me about a time when (insert very specific thing) happened.” Some of these instances were so niche the only answer could be – well that’s never happened, and I can’t make something up here, so… (If you’re a regular reader of my blogs, you’ll know that much like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie). How about we talk about some of the things that have happened? Got loads of those.

Worse still, with no feedback after my answers (always *so* encouraging to see three faces staring blankly back from the screen after you’ve carefully explained a particular scenario!) there was no hope of turning this into a natural conversation. Wait, guys! This should be a meeting, not an interrogation.

I had to manage this the last time I was recruiting. My HR colleague sat beside me, robotically going through her list of questions, reading them out verbatim, barely looking at the candidate as she read them, not coming off script to dig into something further. And the weird thing was she was a lovely, warm colleague day-to-day, but just seemed to go into detached interviewer mode as soon as the candidate stepped into the room.

At my level of seniority and experience – and especially after 14 years as an interim and consultant – I’m now much more used to discursive, two-way meetings rather than formal interviews. A proper conversation about the challenge and how I could help. And you know what? They work brilliantly.

So why are so many permanent job interviews still like this?

And why persist with the utter unnaturalness of the panel scenario? I think this afflicts the public sector more than the private one, but cannot think of any other work situation that stacks the cards against someone like this. Of course, we need the views of more than one interviewer, but surely this could be done over a couple of sessions, when different managers ask questions most pertinent to their area of responsibility? It’s an anachronism designed for the convenience of the employer. In this virtual world, it’s now much easier to hold a couple of less formal interviews as you’re not dragging the candidate into the office multiple times. And as an added bonus, there are less diaries to co-ordinate.

Too many job interviews are still treated like exams. The big questions are never shared in advance to give the candidate time to prepare. It may be the most important meeting you’ll ever have, but god forbid you should have sufficient time to consider the specific things the interviewer wants to explore. Nope, you need to pull something out from your memory bank of dozens of jobs over tens of years IMMEDIATELY. With all details and statistics please! Whenever I’ve been interviewed for an article or a podcast, the interviewer has let me know what they’ll be asking me about beforehand. So why is this process still so one-sided?

It’s just all so unnatural.

Asking everyone the same, rigid set of questions, regardless of their background, does not level the playing field. It does the opposite. Only the candidate who exactly matches your prescribed list will succeed (unconscious bias, anyone?).

And this is where I come back to the agency pitch process. You give them all the same brief, you meet them halfway through to see how they’re getting on. When it comes to the final presentation, you have an open discussion and score them on a matrix basis – maybe three or four criteria for each relevant area – response to brief, strategy, originality, costs etc.  You don’t ask them all the exact same questions regardless and immediately move on to the next one when they’ve given their answer.

If you ever watch TV chat shows, you’ll know the worst ones are those who stick rigidly to their questions and talk mostly about themselves (e.g. Jonathan Ross) and the best ones have a proper conversation, go off script when something interesting comes up, ask follow ups and tell the interviewee when they haven’t got the answer they were looking for (e.g. Graham Norton).

As a hiring manager, if you take that approach to the interview room, I guarantee you’ll end up with the best person for the job.

It’s never failed me, and I’ve interviewed and recruited dozens of brilliant people over the years.