Setting the Record Straight: The Purpose of an Interview

We often know how to prepare for an interview, but how much thought do we really give to the purpose - and our expectations - of attending interviews?

Two women sit at a round table facing each other.
Two women sit at a round table facing each other.

We often know how to prepare for an interview, but how much thought do we really give to the purpose – and our expectations – of attending interviews?

When I coach students and clients through the interview process, the focus is almost always on the types of questions they’ll be asked, the basics of preparing, researching the company, and meeting the panel requirements (any assessments, presentations etc). I realised, rarely do we delve into a conversation around the purpose of attending an interview. There’s an important distinction here. While preparing for the interview itself is important, it’s also extremely worthwhile reminding yourself why you’re attending, your expectations of how you’ll be treated and what a positive experience should involve.

So, what is the purpose of an interview?

When preparing students or clients for interviews I like to help them build their confidence by reminding them that the hard part has been achieved. By being invited to meet the panel, they already believe you can do the job. They wouldn’t waste their time meeting someone they didn’t believe could be of value to them in the role.

With that in mind, ideas around the purpose of the interview need to be adapted. For the interviewee this could be checking:

  • The management understand the role (especially if it’s a new addition)
  • There’s an alignment between core values and goals
  • There’s a cultural fit for you as a professional

When you’re invited for an interview, the panel are seeking to make sure you match up to what’s been presented to them on your application. The purpose from the panel’s perspective should involve:

  • Checking there’s a strong alignment between your personality and that of the wider organisation as a whole.
  • That you’re confident in your skills and able to articulate how they match the role you’re interviewing for.
  • You understand what’s expected of you, and the examples you use to answer questions will help them to achieve this understanding.

What an interview is not

While an interview won’t always be a walk in the park, and of course the panel will want to make sure they find out enough about you to make an informed decision, that doesn’t mean you should walk away feeling terrible, about yourself or your work experience.

This write up has been prompted by two recent experiences – one positive and one negative – around attending interviews. It led me to create a list of things that you should not expect from an interview.

An interview should not:

1.Ask you to jump through hoops

After a recent interview, I received a phone call from the HR team asking me to attend a second interview – the next day. When I attended the first interview I asked the next steps and was not advised this was expected. I was asked to attend at a time I wasn’t available, so I offered some alternative times but was told the panel would only meet me at the suggested time the following day (and could I prepare a 20-minute presentation while I was at it).

This is not a realistic demand on a potential candidate and shows a lack of respect and understanding for what is often required for interview attendance, especially if you’re currently working. It gave me some insight into how this particular team operated and led me to decide this wasn’t going to be a positive experience for me professionally.

An interview should not ask you to jump through hoops to ‘test’ your commitment. It’s unrealistic and unfair.

2. Belittle your experience or aspirations

Years ago I attended an interview and was asked the standard ‘where do you want to be in five years time?’. I replied with an honest (if a little ambitious) answer. I wanted to be working as a freelance careers writer and consultant on career development and education. At the time I’d just started writing for an employment site. It had given me new ideas for how I wanted to grow that part of my professional persona. The lead member of the interview panel – who was the director of the not-for-profit focused on supporting disadvantaged youth – laughed at my answer and told me I was too young to be thinking about consulting. Five years later as I completed my third careers curriculum consulting gig I had to smile at the memory.

No one should belittle your goals, aspirations or experience at an interview.

3. Be disorganised or poorly communicated

This goes back to my first point. Alongside this, I’ve attended interviews where the panel hadn’t organised a room booking and I was left waiting for some time while they organised a room, which then led to my interview being rushed as everyone was clock watching. Other little things to keep an eye out for include being offered a drink (water at the least), a handshake and eye contact when being introduced to the panel, being offered the opportunity to ask questions, and the panel being coordinated in how they ask you questions.

Just as much as the panel are assessing you for your suitability, an interview is also your opportunity to assess them. The people in that room will likely be your direct line manager and the colleagues you’ll work closest with. Make sure you don’t let your nerves take over and really pay attention to how they’re interacting with you. This is an important insight not to miss.

4. Make you feel uncomfortable, upset or disrespected

As a professional, I’ve worked hard for my experience and qualifications. I know the value I bring to the workplace and my CV is a reflection of this. If I attend an interview I know it’s because the panel feels I can do the job. So on that note, I do not expect to have my experienced picked apart or to be asked repetitive questions about my basic knowledge. Neither do I expect to be talked over, or catch a panel member yawning as I’m responding to their questions.

Again, this is an insight into the general culture of the organisation. It indicates a certain level of laziness and arrogance (they don’t feel they have to make an effort to impress a potential new employee) and is a decent sized alarm bell that this probably isn’t going to be a great work experience.

What should you do if you experience any of this?

That comes down to you as an individual. I’m at a point in my career where if the interview doesn’t serve the purpose I feel it should or makes me feel uncomfortable in any way, I simply withdraw my application. I’ve learnt the hard way from ignoring these red flags, and it’s a lesson I intend to pay heed to.

The point here is to make sure you understand what a good interview experience should be and feel like – regardless of whether you get offered the job or not. From there, you can make sure you’re taking in as much detail as possible to help you make an informed decision about whether or not you want to work for the company.

That’s the real purpose of an interview.

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