Finding the best talent using remote interviews

Social distancing and other pandemic precautions don’t have to slow down your search for talent. One organization offers tips for conducting effective remote job interviews.
By Carrie Kruse, CPA, CGMA

 Finding the best talent using remote interviews
Image by Jesse Zhang/Ikon Images

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition for talent for finance and accounting professionals continues. But the social-distancing guidelines prompted by the pandemic have made traditional in-person interviews impractical.

With the disruptions of the pandemic and ongoing implementation of new technologies, organizations have been forced to adapt and discover new practices for remote hiring and attracting top talent. It's a reality we've had to face within the Economic Development team at the City of Des Moines, Iowa.

In early March 2020, we had to quickly transition our traditional in-person interview process into a virtual remote hiring process just as we were gearing up to conduct interviews for a project manager role.

Those initial efforts were challenging, and we have learned several lessons along the way as we continue to operate and hire new team members in a remote environment.

In our effort to find the best finance talent available, we've identified the following best practices for remote interviewing and hiring based on the lessons we learned early in the pandemic.

PRE-INTERVIEW

Communicate early and often

Coordinate and schedule times for pre-interview technology tests, and schedule interviews with applicants. Provide the applicant instructions for downloading and using the virtual platform that will be used for the interview.

If you plan to schedule multiple interviews back to back, be sure to build in additional time and flexibility between interviews to account for any technical difficulties that may arise.

Also make sure that you are scheduling carefully. If your organization's virtual meeting software has a limited number of licenses, be cautious of scheduling simultaneous virtual meetings. Some software platforms and licenses allow only one meeting per license to occur at a time.

Check ahead of time with whoever in the organization is responsible for scheduling and starting virtual meetings to determine whether multiple meetings can run concurrently. If not, add licenses or plan accordingly.

Communicate the anticipated timelines with all applicants and, if necessary, delays in the hiring process, and give them revised timelines and expectations.

Test your technology

Test cameras, headphones, microphones, connections, and meeting invitation links to ensure they are all working. If you can, schedule a couple of minutes with each applicant a week or less ahead of the planned interview for a practice run on the virtual platform.

For many applicants, remote interviewing is likely a new process. Patience and empathy are key to a successful remote interview. Do not let technical difficulties that may occur along the way sway your review of an applicant's interview.

This step will only take a couple of minutes per applicant and gives your organization and the applicants a chance to test the meeting links. It also gives both the interviewer(s) and interviewees an opportunity to access the virtual meeting room and test the equipment. The test run gives everyone an opportunity to troubleshoot any problems ahead of time.

Have each person attending the pre-interview technology test do a sound check. This can be done by calling on each person to give a sound check and asking them to say, "Hello, can you hear me clearly?" If yes, have them ask, "Is my video coming through clearly?" If yes, move on to the next person. Troubleshoot any video or audio issues that arise during the test run.

Prepare remarks

If you plan to have a panel of team members on the interview, develop a script ahead of time to smoothly transition between individuals for introductions and transitions between questions. The script that we developed includes a warm welcome given by the team lead, a short summary and background on the position and the department, and an explanation for the applicant of the anticipated time frame for the hiring process.

The team lead then gives an introduction and shares a little about his or her history working in the organization. From there, the script provides a list in order of introductions for the rest of the interview panelists. This allows each interviewer to smoothly transition from his or her introduction to the next person on the list until each interviewer has made an introduction.

Having this script saves time in the interview and helps the team look professional, organized, and collaborative. Our script then lists the questions we want to ask the interviewee, with one person pre-assigned to ask each question.

Format for the medium

Review your standard interview questions and, if necessary, modify them for the virtual experience. Include a mix of job qualification, personality, and situational questions that the job will entail.

It is far more challenging to read body language and get a feel for an applicant's personality over a virtual interview platform. Our team found that adding a good mix of situational questions and personality questions with our more standard job qualification questions helped bring out more of the applicant's personality.

For example, we use the following set of questions that are twofold, seeking to learn about the applicant's professional and personal passions: What types of professional development and networking opportunities do you find most valuable? What activities or hobbies do you enjoy outside of work?

Applicants are often excited to share what they are passionate about, and these questions help bring out their natural personalities. We also developed several specific situational questions that were based on real experiences and challenges that our team members had recently faced to see how the applicant might respond to those situations.

The situational questions helped show if an applicant is likely a creative problem-solver and is able to think on his or her feet. Initial reactions and facial expressions to the situational questions can also give you a glimpse into the applicant's professionalism and personality and give you an idea of how he or she would manage the various types of challenges that some in the position will likely encounter.

DURING THE INTERVIEW

Honesty is essential

Be upfront with the applicant regarding expectations for the hiring process. Share what your vision is for the position in the short, medium, and long term, and whether you anticipate the job to be in a remote, hybrid, or on-site work environment.

With all the uncertainty and changes in protocols occurring as the pandemic unfolds, applicants want to know how your company is handling the pandemic and what level of flexibility the position will offer at various stages. If your organization's return-to-work strategy is still being developed or is evolving, be honest about where your organization is in the planning process and provide as much insight as you can.

Ease into it

After introductions, consider opening the interview questions with an icebreaker. Icebreakers help give you and your team, as well as the applicant, the opportunity to learn more about each other on a personal level.

An example of an icebreaker that our team recently used for a round of interviews that we enjoyed was as follows: What is a new hobby you've picked up recently?

We found it helpful to have the interviewer answer the icebreaker first to give the applicant a minute to think about his or her answer, which often helps relax the candidate. After the first person on our team and the applicant had given us their responses to the icebreaker, the rest of our team on the interview panel also answered.

The icebreakers really helped us see more of the applicant's personality and how that may fit into our team. It also helped the applicant see more of our personalities and what we would be like to work with.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW: CONTINUE TALKING

Be prepared to give feedback to applicants who receive a job offer, as well as to those who do not. Take diligent notes during each interview so you can provide applicants positive and specific constructive feedback.

No one likes to be on the delivering or receiving end of bad news, but delivering feedback is a crucial step in the interview process to maintain a strong pipeline of talent for when future opportunities may arise.

Taking the time to provide feedback shows your top applicants that your organization respects the time and effort they took to prepare for the interview and that you are invested in helping them be more competitive in the future.

This is also a great opportunity to share other positions in your organization that the applicants may be a great fit for, even if they didn't get the first job.


About the author

Carrie Kruse, CPA, CGMA, is the Economic Development administrator, City of Des Moines, Iowa. She chairs the AICPA Governmental Performance and Accountability Committee.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.


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