Jordan Applegate had been a part of panel interviews before, and he thought he knew what to expect from them. Long before he became the recruiting director of Sweetwater, an Indiana-based e-commerce site specializing in music gear, he was getting ready to do a panel interview at another company. He felt confident approaching the interview, but when he walked into the room to meet his interviewers, he was in for a shock. He wasn’t the only candidate in the hot seat — in fact, there were already five other candidates there waiting to be interviewed too.
“We were all competing for the same opportunity in the same room,” he said. “I don’t think any of us were prepared to be in a room with competing candidates. It was almost like each candidate was competing to raise their hand to answer the questions.”
It wasn’t a good experience and it’s a perfect example of what not to do when conducting a panel interview, said Applegate who now leads panel interviews himself.
“If it was for an aggressive sales position or something like that, you could potentially get a read for an individual’s assertiveness,” he said. “But as a hiring professional now, I wouldn’t encourage others to do a panel interview like that.”
When done the right way, panel interviews can be an incredibly useful addition to your recruiting strategy, helping you measure a candidate’s potential team fit and giving their future teammates a voice in the hiring process. If you’re thinking about conducting a panel interview, you’ll need to understand its purpose, what it can accomplish, and what components you need to make it successful. Here are a few tips from leaders in the recruiting world about how to plan the perfect panel interview.
WHAT ARE PANEL INTERVIEWS?
During the hiring process, interviews help recruiters get a clearer picture of how candidates talk, think and work. Different interview formats serve different purposes, and give interviewers insight into different facets of a candidate’s personality and work style. If a working interview tests candidates on their skill sets and task management, a panel interview tests how well they harmonize with their future coworkers, and gives their potential peers a say in who joins their team.
There are many advantages to panel interviewing that other formats don’t offer. Rather than leaving the hiring decision up to one recruiter, asking for input from multiple other employees can help leaders make more informed and equitable hiring decisions. Plus, employees may appreciate the transparency into the recruitment process that panel interviews offer.
What Is a Panel Interview?
But like any interview setup, panel interviews come with their own unique challenges.
“When there’s too many stakeholders, one interviewer can overpower another,” said Kim Nguyen, VP of people at New York-based fintech company Alloy. “We have to balance voices and representation. There’s biases that can creep into a panel interview.”
How exactly can panel interviews introduce bias into the recruiting process? As an example, Nguyen brought up hiring diversity and equity as aspects that could be hindered by a poorly planned panel interview.
“From my own personal experience, I get really intimidated if I don’t see anybody that looks like me,” she said. “As an example, if you have a woman candidate interviewing for a software engineering role, and if you have a panel of all white men, the candidate could be very intimidated by that experience.”
SELECTING THE PANEL
In a panel interview, the composition of the panel participants is just as important as the questions they ask. With the right people, candidates will feel at ease and see themselves fitting in with the company culture. With the wrong people, candidates might feel overwhelmed, or even ambushed.
“Interviewing is basically gatekeeping to a company’s culture — it’s a big responsibility,” said Nguyen. “They can either disarm and make someone comfortable, or put somebody on the defensive.”
“Interviewing is basically gatekeeping to a company’s culture — it’s a big responsibility.”
The questions you ask yourself in the early stages of planning your panel are key to determining its success or failure. Which people are the best representatives of this candidate’s future team? How big should the panel be? What does each panel participant bring to the table, and how do their perspectives balance or supplement those of the other panelists? Finding the answers to these questions will help you reduce bias and find panelists who truly care about finding the right candidate.
“You need to ask, is this person going to be invested in interviewing?” said Hailey Hastings, director of talent acquisition at Toronto-based marketing AI company Ada. “If someone is only putting two sentences in their scorecard, it’s not worth it for the candidate.”
PREPARING THE INTERVIEWERS
As soon as you’ve figured out your panelist choices, your next step should be briefing them on the panel expectations, the candidate’s background, and otherwise preparing them for the interview.
“We want people to understand what to expect, even before candidates apply,” said Nguyen. “We have interviewing training for recruiters, so we’re really setting the stage there.”
Each panel participant should have something unique to offer, so delegating responsibilities and question topics will help each interviewer understand the role they need to play. It’s also key to train your interviewers on proper interview conduct so they don’t talk over other panelists.
Nguyen explained that HR technologies have made training interviewers and organizing candidate information a lot easier. “We have an applicant tracking system that makes us able to share profiles and resumes really easily,” she said. “It’s essentially a way for an interviewer to see who’s talked to the candidate before, who is assigned to what topics, and how much time they’re spending on certain questions.”
PREPARING THE CANDIDATE
Your panelists aren’t the only ones who should be prepped for the interview. Getting your candidate ready for the interview is just as important — a well-prepared interviewee will be able to bring their most authentic self to the interview, which means you’ll be able to maximize the time you spend talking to them.
“At Sweetwater, we view recruiting as a type of customer service, but in this case our customer is the candidate,” said Applegate. “In order to create an amazing experience, clear communication and expectations need to be set.”
No candidate should feel blindsided by the interview experience. Make sure to provide applicants with information about what kinds of interviews they can expect, the interviewing timeline, and what criteria they’ll be assessed on. You can also offer to give candidates a tour of your company’s office, so that they’ll be familiar with their interview environment ahead of time.
“We also provide candidates with a prep kit before they get invited to an onsite interview,” Nguyen said. “We tell them, ‘Here’s what you should wear, so you don’t feel uncomfortable. Here are a bunch of demos to look at, here are some of the topics we’ll discuss.’ We also give them all the interviewers titles and names, so they can look them up if they want.’”
CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW
Once you’ve reached the day of the interview, start off strong by picking the right environment. Interviews are already a little stressful, and putting someone in a room with multiple people can potentially make the experience even more overwhelming. Focus on making the interviewee feel relaxed and welcomed before you leap into asking questions.
“It’s really important for us to keep the interview process as casual and genuine as possible,” said Applegate. “That way, you’re going to get the closest to the real version of the candidate that you’re talking to.”
If you’re concerned that a traditional interview location feels too formal or buttoned up, test out different interview locations or formats. For instance, Applegate says Sweetwater prefers to conduct panel interviews in the company’s cafeteria over lunch to give the process a more casual feel.
“It’s really important for us to keep the interview process as casual and genuine as possible ... That way, you’re going to get the closest to the real version of the candidate that you’re talking to.”
“That allows the candidate to let their guard down and get the nerves out of the way before we can transition into a formal interview,” Applegate said. “Sitting in a conference room with everyone in suit jackets across the table from a candidate really isn’t our style.”
Aside from the panelists, there should also be an HR leader present to steer the interview. Their job will be to direct the participants and keep the conversation on track so that all the necessary information is touched on.
“The HR leader’s role is to make sure each person who’s involved in the interview has the opportunity to ask questions,” Applegate said. “One practice we do that really helps is to create documents with a deck of questions for all the interviewers to write notes in. Individuals can also interact in Slack channels and raise their hand to jump in and ask the questions that they think are important.”
AFTER THE INTERVIEW
You’ve wrapped up your panel interview, and every panelist has had a chance to ask their questions and develop impressions of the candidate. Once all the important information has been gathered, it’s time to debrief with your panelists.
There are several factors that HR leaders need to consider when gathering feedback from their interview panelists. One of these is time — if too much time passes between the interview and the debrief, interviewers might forget details and takeaways from the interview. Try to follow up with your panelists as soon as possible once the interview has concluded so you can get the most relevant feedback.
“We try to do this within 24 hours post-interview, because we want that information fresh.”
“We try to do this within 24 hours post-interview, because we want that information fresh,” said Nguyen.
Another factor to consider when collecting panelist feedback is the potential for bias. When you have multiple people in a room talking to a candidate, it can be easy for interviewers to influence one another’s opinions. Holding a debrief meeting immediately after the interview reduces that risk, but you should also lay down some ground rules that will prevent interviewers from talking together about candidates before they share their thoughts with you.
“We also try to make sure that interviewers don’t talk about that candidate until the debrief,” said Nguyen. “So the ATS is really important — when somebody submits an interview scorecard, nobody else can see it yet.”
Panel interviews are a powerful recruiting tool — in a way, they’re a microcosm of a company’s larger culture, and are a great test of a candidate’s culture and team fit. Because of this, panel interviews can be fun and engaging in a way that regular interviews aren’t.
“I like panel interviews a lot because you give candidates an idea of the people that they will be working with, and through those people they can identify what the culture of the company is,” said Hastings. “It is really rewarding when we do have candidates that say they had a good time, they were excited, and that they had fun.”