Interview Guide: A Framework for Interviewing Knowledge Workers

October 27th, 2009 by jpassen Leave a reply »


To say that I think a lot about recruiting and hiring is an understatement. Before I co-founded a technology company that builds recruiting software, my business partner and I, started and ran a couple of recruiting firms, an RPO and over the years, managed dozens of corporate recruiting departments. In addition to helping countless other organizations hire, we’ve had to build quite a few of our own teams.  Along the way, we’ve developed a successful interviewing methodology that we’ve employed both internally and externally for dozens of our clients.

While hiring is one of the most dynamic business processes, one variable remains constant. Identifying the right people for skilled jobs is difficult. A modern workforce strategy should look not only to increase its hiring throughput, but also look to increase retention and develop lower-skilled employees into higher-skilled and more valuable ones. A well-run interview process won’t just reduce the risk of a bad hire it can also reduce the complexity and number of hires needed in the future.

A well-run interview process won’t just reduce the risk of a bad hire it can also reduce the complexity and number of hires needed in the future.

Ability at the Center

Ability is the primary element of modern workforce strategy.  The ability, or skill, of the individuals you hire and employ determines your company’s ability to execute.  If you run an accounting firm and do not have people with tax preparation skills you can’t do tax preparation for customers.  All of the components that compose your human capital strategy, retention, development and acquisition are related to the amount of ability your organization possesses and the amount it needs to reach its goals.  You acquire ability by hiring, you develop ability by training, and you maintain ability by retention.

Retention’s Relation to Character

Obviously, retention reduces the number of people a company needs to hire. And your company’s retention strategy is tightly linked with the character of the individuals you hire.  Character, as we will discuss later, is the answer to, “Do I want to work with this person?”  If you ignore character screening in your interview process, then you can expect to injure retention.  Companies screen for character, often times without really knowing it.  This is why in small companies the CEO always conducts the final interview and in larger ones people much higher up the ladder like to interview every person in their department: they are making sure that the person will mesh with the culture and not cause retention problems.

Talent’s Relation to Development

Where retention reduces the number of hires required, employee development reduces the complexity of those hires and alleviates some of the pressure placed on the hiring infrastructure.  Interviewing for talent correlates to your organization’s employee development strategy.  Where ability measures what someone is able to do, talent measures potential. As we will discuss later, talent is the answer to the question, “Can this person grow with my company?” By effectively screening for and gauging talent in the interview process you will eventually reduce the specialization level of future openings.  The less complex an opening is the more people that can do the job and the less it costs to fill.

Making the Determination–Interviewing For Ability, Talent and Character

ABT Triangle

When we interview we are trying to create a hypothetical environment to mimic a real-world situation.  This simulation will hopefully enable us to reduce the risk of making a bad hire by giving us a fair estimation of the candidate’s performance in our real-world environment.  What measurements will give us the best prediction of performance? The three critical measurements are:

Ability: “Can the person do the job they are interviewing for today?”

Talent: “How well does this person fit our long-term objectives?”

Character: “Do we want to work with this person?”

What is Ability?

Ability is the measure of a person’s skill and experience and correlates to a job description’s “must haves”.  When a company interviews for ability, they are trying to determine if the person can accomplish the minimum requirements of the position.  The simplest question to ask is, “Can the person do the job?” Another, perhaps more concise question is, “Can the person be effective in this role immediately?”

Ability determines the execution ability of a company.  To slightly oversimplify, the more ability a company’s workforce maintains the more it can get done.  Of course, ability is affected by things like work ethic and decision making.  But in theory, a company with three software developers can write three times more code than a company that has one software developer.

For some jobs, ability level might be the only concern: “Can they cut down a tree?”  For others positions, and this depends on the job as well as the company, there are two other measurements—talent and character.  Knowledge workers require high degrees of skill but also high quantities of talent and character.  For example, hiring someone to flip burgers may only require the ability to flip burgers since it does not require a great deal of talent or character.  On the other hand a Vice President of Marketing requires ability, but talent and character are probably just as important.

Since skill and experience are largely objective measurements, ability is then the easiest and least expensive to identify.  “Is the person ethical” is a much more subjective and nuanced question than, “Can the person write HTML?”  Since the latter measurement is largely objective we can use lower-cost resources (lower-level employees) to measure ability.  Once we have inexpensively confirmed that the person has the skill to accomplish the job responsibilities we can move to more subjective questions that require more adept interviewers.

Ability First

Only after the interview process has determined the ability level of a candidate is adequate should we focus on the more costly measurements of talent and character.  If the person can not do the job there is no reason to confirm whether they can grow with the job or if they fit the corporate culture.  Perhaps this sounds strong.  But for both candidate and company alike, spending time in interviews that test for cultural fit and growth potential before we know if they can do what is required of them day-one is a waste of everyone’s time.  Thus, the first step in the interview process should be to gauge ability level; it is the easiest and cheapest to identify and a “must-have” requirement.

What is Talent?

“How well does this person fit our long-term objectives?” This is an appropriate way to correlate talent’s importance to interviewing and hiring.  Every company has immediate needs, and those immediate needs, like tax preparation or Java coding, are what we look for in ability.  Talent optimizes these abilities and it should also map to long-term corporate objectives, like managing teams or launching an office.

In older economies talent had some importance but perhaps not as much as skill (if you need someone to chop down a tree, do you need them to design a saw as well?).  In knowledge-worker organizations problem solving and decision making are often as important as skill.

If you map talent acquisition to corporate development objectives you can actually build the higher-value employees in your company instead of hiring them from outside.  Look at why some companies hire college recruits: the ability requirement is low, but they hope to build ability through talent development.  For companies like consulting firms and investment banks it is more effective to build the talent for five years then to recruit someone with five years of experience.  In many industries we simply do not have the luxury of a five-year training window—so we can not solely screen for talent.

Talent can be measured with behavioral and problem-solving questions.  Behavioral questions measure a person’s past performance in certain situations, which give us a measure of their decision-making abilities. It takes a skilled interviewer and appropriate content to drive this stage of the interview cycle.  If you ask someone to name a time they were given a project with little supervision or resources and how they dealt with it, you get a very subjective response.

Talent Second

Talent is more difficult to identify than ability.  Whereas ability measurements like skill-testing produce results that are easy to measure (it is easy to see that 2+2=5 is the wrong answer), talent measurements require more interactive open-ended questions.  Not only do we need to spend more time with the applicant to gauge talent, we need a more skilled resource to measure it.  Thus the measurement of talent becomes more expensive.  However, talent is more easily identified than character so we should take care in identifying talent in the middle stages of the interview cycle.  If the person does not fit our development strategy, does not solve problems well or makes bad decisions it is likely a waste of resources to see if they augment corporate culture.

What is Character?

“Do I want to work with this person?” “Will this person have a positive effect on our culture?” Both of these questions are appropriate measures of character’s value to the interview process.  Like talent, character enhances the output of ability.  Someone can be very skilled, but if they are difficult to manage then the value of their skill is reduced.  Character also maps to broader human capital objectives in that it closely aligns with employee retention.  If you hire disagreeable people your turnover is likely to be higher than average.

Character can be measured by behavioral interviewing questions and psychological testing.  It is often not the response that is important, but the way the response is given.  An answer that says “yes” but has associated body language that is contrary to the answer is a character “red flag”.

Character Last, but Always

Of the three, ability, talent and character, the nebulous nature of character makes it by far the most difficult to quantify.  Due to this problem, the last stage of interviewing requires the highest value employees to competently measure character.  In a well-run interview process we desire to reduce the risk of a bad hires as well as maximize the time and effort of employees.  No one will say in an interview that they are not a hard worker or that they have a bad temper.  In light of this, character should be measured near the end of the interview process by very adept interviewers whose opinion will be trusted.

In saying that character should be measured near the end of the interview process, we do not intend to say it should not be looked for earlier.  Care should be taken at all stages to identify risk associated with character.  Although we can tolerate some deficiencies in talent and skill, deficiencies in character are almost always a reason for a no-hire.

Don’t’ forget, candidates are interviewing your company too.


Interviewing is certainly the process by which we make the determination to hire someone.  However, there is also a critical component to this process—creating interest in potential employees.  Just as bad filtration will lead to poor interview success (since we will be interviewing people that can’t do the job), a lack of effective marketing will lead to poor acceptance ratios in the Finish stage.

Every interviewer must understand that although the corporate goal is to reduce the risk of a bad hire, a candidate is trying to reduce their risk of taking a bad job.  Therefore, companies must take care to provide information to the candidate that will reduce the perception of risk.

Marketing must be a component of all stages of the hiring lifecycle.  At the “Face” stage, we can map marketing’s objectives to the interview triangle:

Ability: What will the candidate be doing?  Why is this interesting?

Talent: What growth opportunities will the candidate have?

Character: Why should the candidate want to work for the company?

Effective marketing will answer these questions for the candidate as early in the process as possible and reinforce them at all stages.  The later the stage in the hiring process when marketing actually begins the less effective it becomes.  If you save your marketing punch for the closing stage of a candidate’s offer its reception will be lukewarm.  Inserting a corporate spokesperson (ideally a future co-worker) into the interview process is highly effective in increasing offer acceptance ratios.

The company that provides the most information to a candidate in the hiring process will almost always beat a competitive offer.

Summary: Ability, Talent, Character


The “must haves” of a job

Enables business functions and execution

Mostly objective

Relatively easy to measure

Screened early in interview process


Optimizes ability (e.g. problem solving)

Maps to corporate employee development objectives

Objective and subjective

Difficult to measure

Screened at middle stages of interview process


Optimizes ability (e.g. work ethic)

Maps to corporate retention objectives

Mostly subjective

Very difficult to measure

Screened at late stages of interview process but gauged at all stages

Credit where credit is due.

I, by no means, thought of this content alone.  In fact, most of the original content was developed by Steve Hazelton, the CEO of Newton Software.  While I delivered the content most of the time, Steve spent countless hours conceptualizing, revising and improving this interview methodology.


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