The Candidate Experience

I’ve interviewed formally at ten different companies in the past decade. These include Amazon, Microsoft, Google (twice), Yahoo, a tech consultancy, and five startups. I only go through an on-site interview for a job that I actually want. And yet, as I hit the sidewalk after an interview, I don’t always want the job anymore.  

This article is a reflection on some of the best and worst experiences that have tipped my own interviews in one direction or the other, including rage-inducing rudeness, blister-forming cluelessness, and laughter-sealed collegiality. It's also a guide to my resulting view on what is important in a candidate experience. Specifically, I believe that a great candidate experience requires:

  • Respect
  • Empathy
  • Access
  • Transparency

An excellent candidate experience includes more than these basics, but a process lacking any of these four will not leave candidates feeling enthusiastic.

Respect

I want to work with people who are consistently respectful. I’ve been stunned by the number of interviewers who fail to meet this very low bar. People who are disrespectful in an interview are doing me a favor by identifying themselves early, but it’s still a surprise every time. 

Aggression is by far the most common example of disrespect that I encounter in interviews. I was once asked by an interviewer at a large tech company to derive an equation that I had no idea how to derive. I told him so, and explained that this was not the type of thing that I had been doing or was looking to do. He pushed a marker into my hand and told me to go try, anyway. I was completely lost. I made some muddled attempts, but was obviously out of my depth. 

At this point, a reasonable interviewer would have moved on. Not this guy! He badgered me about this equation for ten more frustrating and miserable minutes. He asked how I could possibly have gotten this far without knowing how to do this. He wrote cryptic hints on the whiteboard and got increasingly rude when I couldn’t decipher them. I have no idea what he expected from me. I had tears in my eyes before he finally backed off. He finished up by writing out the answer and explaining it with a smug air of satisfaction. “Do you get it now? Do you?” 

Why would I want to work with someone who treats others this way? He had plenty of reasons not to hire me, but no reason to make me feel awful.  

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Clearly, this was not a person that I would feel comfortable approaching for help as a colleague. He was hardly an outlier, though. I’ve endured similar scenarios in at least three other interviews that I can remember. That’s four out of ten companies! I wonder whether my five-foot-tall, blonde, female presentation attracts an above-average amount of aggression. I have no proof that it does, of course, and while I’m great at what I do, I can’t prove that, either.  

Disrespect can be non-aggressive, too. Years ago, at a big tech company, my interview included a technical presentation. I brought my slides on a thumb drive. I explained to my host that the recruiter had asked me to leave my laptop home, for security reasons. The host sighed and told me that I could give my talk using his laptop, but he emphasized that this was inconvenient for him because he’d been planning to catch up on his email during my talk. I ended up apologizing to him for preventing him from ignoring my talk! 

I later discovered that disengagement was part of this team’s culture. Everyone attending my talk stared at their laptop screens from start to finish. Their confused questions afterward underscored their lack of attention. How could I expect to collaborate effectively with people so disrespectfully absorbed in their own minutiae and uninterested in meeting a potential new colleague?  

In a stark and pleasant contrast, I gave a different technical presentation recently as part of one of my startup interviews, to an audience that was device-free and highly engaged. They asked insightful and curiosity-driven questions. Even during the part of my talk that I knew (and acknowledged) was weak, this group was respectful in their probing. Our hour together was peppered with laughter. I walked out of their conference room hoping for the opportunity to work with such engaged, fun, and respectful people. 

Empathy

Interviews involve an inherent power imbalance. I want to work with people who can demonstrate that they understand this, by doing what they can to make my interview experience comfortable. If they do this for me during an interview, they’re likely to do it for me when we are working together. 

My favorite examples of interviewer empathy are simple: Offers of water or a snack, and a restroom break. These are no-brainers, but they’re notable when they’re absent. Who wants to introduce themselves to someone they’re hoping to impress, by asking for a restroom break like a grade schooler? Asking me proactively shows me that you understand that I am human, and that you’re aware that you’re in a position to help me feel more comfortable.  

In the opposite direction, one of my male interviewers once proposed walking to lunch at "a place not far away." I was wearing pumps. We walked, and walked, and walked. He led me on a “shortcut” which took us down a grassy hill, through a muddy thicket of trees, and then along fifty yards or so of a gravel path. In my pumps. I struggled to keep up with him, and at times just to keep my balance. Days later, I mapped our route to discover that we’d walked a full mile! It should have been slightly less, but I had requested that we skip the off-road shortcut on our return trek. 

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If this interviewer didn’t notice that I was struggling on our walk, how could I trust him to notice if I was struggling with a project or teammate? I have a voice and I know how to use it—now even more than I did back then—but I also prefer to be met halfway.  

Access 

Access is required for assessing whether a job opportunity is a good fit. As a candidate, I want access to the office/workspace, to the people I’ll be working with, and to the product I’ll be working on. 

The set of people I’ll be working with are the most important element of an opportunity, for me. At smaller companies, it’s been common to interview with the set of people I’d be most closely working with. A few small companies have even given me the opportunity to meet with one or all of the people I’d be managing. I appreciate this for myself, but also for the team. I would want to meet the people interviewing to be my manager, too! Providing this access shows me, the candidate, that these companies value input and opinions from their teams. It also gives the candidate the clearest possible view of who they’d be working with. 

By contrast, my recent interview at a big tech company included two would-be peers, and four people in completely different divisions of the giant company. The latter four were kind and solicitous, but they couldn’t give me any insight into the team or product I was evaluating. I later learned that I had fundamentally misunderstood the open role all the way through the interview process, despite asking many questions.  The job description and interview implied an IC role, but in fact they had intended for me to build out a team! I doubt that this huge disconnect could have persisted if I’d had the opportunity to meet with more than two people directly connected to the hiring team. 

Access also means seeing the physical space I’ll be working in. I don’t care about this for reasons of my own comfort (within reason). I care because an organization’s space reflects its priorities. 

One office I used to work in had dented walls and broken furniture piled in the corners. It was generally a messy-looking place, but I didn’t care. I was there for the technical challenges and to experience a small company, and I loved my role.  One of my colleagues, though, a designer, had difficulty hiring and retaining talent there. She frequently said that it was hard to convince a candidate that product design was a priority when design was missing everywhere else. 

I understood her point intellectually, but it didn’t really sink in viscerally for me until recently when I interviewed at a startup that had just moved into new offices. The place was sleek and modern, open and bright, all glass and shiny whites. Bright pops of brand color added warmth. This company’s office space actually looked like its product, which unsurprisingly was also beautifully designed. A designer interviewing with this company would have no trouble believing that they prioritize design.   

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Beyond design, an organization’s space is a reflection of all of its priorities. My former company with the office space in need of touch-ups, for example, valued frugality.  The awards given to individuals on behalf of this company, displayed proudly on people’s desks and often dating back many years, indicated the company’s strong sense of community and people’s commitment to staying there. The guy who walked past the conference room dressed in a head-to-toe bunny outfit (I interviewed on Halloween) signaled to me that this company encouraged quirkiness and fun. 

Transparency 

Transparency is critical for minimizing the power imbalance between candidate and company, and for building trust. Without trust, a candidate can't have a good experience. 

Transparency can be as simple as telling a candidate directly what they’ll be assessed on. One of my recent interviewers opened up our conversation by stating that her role in my loop was to assess my ability to turn a business question into an analysis. I appreciated this immensely, because her first question was, “Tell me about yourself.” I was able to do this in a way that highlighted the skills she was focused on. Another recent interviewer started with exactly the same question, but without any additional context. Our conversation took a lot longer to hit a rhythm because it took me some time to figure out what was important to her. 

Transparency applies to the structure of the interview process as well. The most transparent processes are laid out clearly for the candidate from the beginning, in as much detail as possible. What are the steps in the process, and what is the expected timeline for each? Who will be involved at each step? 

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Outlining a process transparently also means not surprising a candidate with unexpected steps. Once, during lunch, my interview host asked me what type of food I’d like for dinner. I had already made dinner plans with a friend and I politely told him so. Instead of trying to sort out the miscommunication, he said, “What? Well, dinner is usually a part of these things. Didn’t the other places take you out to dinner?” Annoyed, I said, yes, they had, but they’d also told me about it ahead of time.  

My host left the dinner decision up to me. My experience there was already going terribly, so I’ve never been happier to turn down a free meal. Had I still been interested in this job, though, I would have been in an uncomfortable position. I wasn’t mentally prepared for the interview to extend through dinner. Furthermore, though I could have, not everyone even has the choice of spontaneously extending their day by three hours.

Transparency protects candidates from awkward decisions like either looking rude by declining dinner without explanation, or disclosing personal details (medical conditions, family logistics, breastfeeding arrangements, etc.) that might prevent them from tacking a dinner onto the end of an already stressful day. 

I’ve also been on the receiving end of the decidedly non-transparent decision to invite me back for an additional round of previously-unmentioned interviews. This happened weeks after my phone screen and on-site had been completed. I was expecting a decision from my recruiter during the phone call that she instead used to invite me back in. I was first shocked, then disappointed, and then annoyed. My enthusiasm for the team evaporated. I’m not interested in joining a team that can’t make up their mind about me. When I’m hiring, “maybe” means “no” every time. When I'm the candidate, the same rule applies.

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I’m about to start a new role in which I expect to be hiring. I’m sure I will also continue to interview people for technical roles beyond my own team. I hope that by articulating the things that are important to me in an interview experience, I can set myself up to provide the best possible candidate experiences for the people I’ll be meeting. After all, at least some of these people will end up as my colleagues. Top talent won’t tolerate a bad interview experience. A good experience, though, is recruiting gold.