MANAGERS are finding themselves at an increasing disadvantage in the most important element of the recruitment process - the formal interview.

Smooth coaching in interview technique, whether by outplacement consultants, professional tutors or even the local JobCentre job club, has given many potential employees the edge over interviewers who may be responsible for only one or two appointments a year.

Answers to routine questions such as 'Outline your strengths and weaknesses' are well rehearsed. Interviewees have also learnt to tailor their responses to the job description.

Personnel officers may be versed in the latest theories and tricks of the trade, but finance directors?

Deidre Lott, financial controller for Securicor Cellular Services, admits to being caught out by one smooth talker. 'I was enthusiastic. He had talked things up in quite a big way. I was obviously not the only one. Three months later a company called and said a job he had applied for had become vacant and he left to become someone else's problem.'

Ms Lott, who interviews for several accountancy positions a year, was attending a short course in selection run by Robert Half, financial recruitment consultants.

The company also offers workshops for senior staff to brush up recruitment skills, from drawing up CVs to interview techniques. Jeff Grout, managing director, has experience of both sides of the desk as a result.

'Candidates are getting much more sophisticated in their responses. They are being coached to give a better and better performance, and it is essential for the interviewer to get behind that performance,' he said.

Structured interviews based on specific criteria for the job are recommended as the best way to find out more about what a candidate has to offer. They also help to eliminate decisions being made on first impressions, often within five minutes.

After a personal welcome, a cup of tea or coffee and an outline of the procedure, the interview will start with direct questions on the candidate's past employment. The opening gambit will not be a general description of the company and what the job entails.

Candidates told that the job requires someone who works well in a team and has experience of new technology will immediately say they are brilliant team workers who have just designed, built and run a new computer system.

'I always recruit the perfect candidate. But it must be the brother or sister who turns up for work because they are nowhere near the perfect candidate,' said one interviewer who had fed candidates the criteria for the job and appeared to get an exact fit. 'What if' questions should be outlawed, as theoretical questions merely produce theoretical answers.

'The best indicator of future performance is past performance,' said Mr Grout, who favours quite detailed examination of the candidate's employment record.

During the half-day session, financial managers are given the opportunity to tease out the correct responses from Mr Grout as he poses as a candidate for the job of finance director of a publishing house.

The group correctly identifies a lack of personal experience of management and training. A boast in a CV about introduction and implementation of a new computer system was exposed as being, in reality, merely the noting of consultants' advice following a purchase decision already made.

Digging by the group also finds out a reluctance to relocate for a job based in two locations more than 100 miles apart. But it fails to discover that the candidate, who has to drive regularly, is dangerously near disqualification with nine points on his driving licence.

'The CV is a series of claims. The job of the interview is to ensure that the candidate can substantiate them,' Mr Grout adds. Expressions like 'involved in', 'exposed to' and 'knowledge of' should be closely questioned, with an invitation to provide specific examples. 'Over-use of the term 'we' should ring alarm bells about what the person did,' Mr Grout said.

Closed, leading and loaded questions are to be avoided in an attempt to get candidates to talk more about themselves. More revealing details are likely to emerge in response to specific questions rather than bullied out of them by rudeness and blunt speaking.

For those whose job does not involve regular interviewing, instruction can help to even the odds against the smooth and experienced interview candidate.

Derek Williams, financial controller of Kontron Instruments, said he had no formal interview training but was responsible for the recruitment of about two senior staff members every year.

'I certainly will want to change the structure of the interview. I am concerned that I try to sell the company to candidates instead of finding out more about them.'

Joseph Silgardo and Jangoo Rabadi, managing director and general sales manager respectively for Jetair (UK), agree that questions should probe rather than skim widely across the surface at interviews. 'Mistakes can be very expensive,' Mr Rabadi said.

The end of the interview can be as important as the beginning if candidates are to be left with a favourable impression of the company.

Most interviewees want to know how they got on, what happens next - and when. A failure to keep them informed could result in the best candidate finding another job and also earn the company a bad reputation.

'You might not want to recruit that individual, but next year you may desperately want him or her at the next desk,' Mr Grout said.

Candidates likely to be successful or expected to proceed to the next stage of appointment should be encouraged, while the process of inevitable disappointment should be begun for those destined to be unsuccessful.

The techniques of interviews have been analysed by psychologists, new theories devised and recommendations made on how to interpret every word and body language gesture.

But even the most experienced interviewers can fall victim to one of the oldest dilemmas.

As Ms Lott reveals after receiving a morning of advice: 'My problem is how to stop recruiting people in my own image.'

(Photograph omitted)

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