One-to-one interviews can be daunting enough. But it’s becoming more common for companies to hold panel-style interviews, especially for more senior roles.
Panel interviews help organisations streamline their recruitment process by giving key team members a chance to see how prospective candidates perform under pressure. If you’ve been invited to a panel interview and the idea of being grilled by an audience fills you with dread, this article will help you to prepare for a successful performance when it matters.
A panel interview involves an applicant answering questions from a group of people (the panel) who then make the hiring decision. Hiring managers use these interviews to gain perspective from other people in the business, reducing the risk of making bad hires. Their goal is to reach a consensus and make the best hiring decision possible.
Additionally, panel interviews may align better with a company’s values and culture than traditional one-on-one interviews. They can give interviewees a sense of what to expect from the office atmosphere should they be successful. Moreover, certain employers believe that if you can comfortably take on the panel interview, you’ll succeed in the role you’re interviewing for.
How do panel interviews work – and how long do they last?
Members of the interview panel are often those who will work closely with the interviewee should they be successful. The hiring manager typically leads the panel and asks the predetermined interview questions, often with a member of human resources helping to facilitate too.
All members of the panel are likely to ask follow-up questions to glean further insights about the candidate, but the predetermined questions are the same for each finalist. The more probing, ad-hoc questions will be different based on how the interviewee responds to the initial set questions.
In terms of duration, a panel interview can last anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes or longer, with an entire workday blocked out with interviews as opposed to several taking place over the course of a number of days.
Panel interview tips: How to prepare in 12 steps
1. Research the company
Before you attend the interview, it’s a good idea to get to know what the organisation is about and why you want to join them. At least one person is going to ask you the latter, so your response should demonstrate an understanding of their core values, their mission statement and their target market.
Don’t forget to relate these back to your own skills and experience, either – the panel will be looking for you to tie together the loose ends they’ve presented to you and how you can contextualise the ways you’d fit into the business. Look for clues in the about section of their website or LinkedIn company page. You can also use Google’s dedicated News search function to look up any recent press coverage they’ve received. Dropping in positive news stories about the company can show that you’re on the ball, and is sure to impress the panel.
2. Understand the role and its wider function
If you’re interviewing with a panel, it’s because there is more than one person with a vested interest in the function of the role. Go back and check the job description to find out who you will be working with and who you will report to. By researching associated roles, you’ll be able to anticipate their needs and communicate how you plan to support them, again showing you’ve done the required research that’s expected of you as an interviewee.
3. Become the ideal candidate
Review the job spec again, but this time, highlight the qualities of their ideal candidate. Prepare four or five anecdotes that illustrate your proficiency in each of the required skills to hammer home the attributes they’re looking for.
For example, when interviewing for a software development role, it will be useful to have a story about a time when you used your computer coding skills to improve an organisational process. Or, if the job spec emphasises particular soft skills – like communication or team working – a story about how you used your negotiation skills to resolve an office conflict will definitely come in handy. It’s not enough to just be able to tell, you should be able to show your skills by linking them with concrete examples from your previous job history.
4. Know what you’re up against
You’ll be more confident in any interview situation if you know what to expect. You may have an HR contact already, so it’s worth getting in touch to ask who might be on your interview panel. Usually, they’ll be able to give you a list of names. If not, do a bit of digging to find out who your potential managers or subordinates might be by searching for employee bios online or looking the company up on LinkedIn.
If you’re applying for a systems architect role, for example, the IT manager is likely to attend your interview alongside a member of the development team. Make sure your research is plentiful on any potential panel members to avoid being caught out by their presence on the big day.
5. Research your panellists
Once you have an idea who your panellists might be, it’s time to research each person and the function of their role. Personal LinkedIn profiles are a great source of information about an individual’s career history, professional achievements and current responsibilities. Show them you’ve put the work in by getting to know their background and having specific questions to ask each member of the panel.
How long have they worked for the company? What does their role involve? Do you share a similar interest or mutual connection? Finding common ground with your interviewers can help you forge a personal connection in a short space of time – and make sure you stand out from all the other people they’ve spoken to that day.
6. Assess individual concerns
Each panellist will be approaching the interview with their own set of priorities and concerns. Looking at the hiring process from their perspective will help you to anticipate likely questions. For example, the HR manager wants to know about how you will fit into the team, so they’re probably going to ask about your soft skills. On the flip side, an IT manager may be more interested in your technical abilities and have more role-specific questions about your skillset.
7. Make your introductions count
If you’ve done your research, you’ll arrive at your interview armed with the names and job titles of each panellist. But remember, even if you’re at the second stage of interview, don’t assume that everyone has met you before! Take a moment to introduce yourself to each person – make eye contact, shake their hand and find out their name and their role (even if you already know). And don’t forget to thank each panellist for taking the time out of their day to interview you. Start as you mean to go on and make a good impression from the second you shake hands; getting off on the wrong foot is enough to shake your confidence during the rest of the interview and something you definitely want to avoid.
8. Address the panel
In a panel interview setting, it can be tempting to concentrate all your attention on the most senior person in the room. But directing every response to the primary decision-maker, regardless of who asked the question, will quickly sour the atmosphere. Each person on the panel is there for a reason and their opinion counts – whether or not they will be making the final call.
Your response to one person’s question may also be relevant to another panellist. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to highlight your transferable skills to everyone in the room. When you’re asked a question, hold eye contact with the person doing the asking but as you reply, direct your response to the entire group and shift your eye contact between panellists accordingly.
9. Keep your answers short and sweet
A panel interview is made up of a group of people who are all fighting to get their questions answered. Your time is limited so answer each question as informatively but as succinctly as you can. Don’t brag or try to work in irrelevant achievements – if it doesn’t directly relate to the question you’ve been asked, leave it out.
10. Be prepared for follow-up questions
Panel interviews, by their nature, are notorious for generating follow-up questions. Unlike a one-to-one interview, a panel involves several people with different interests, so expect your response to one person to provoke an additional – and possibly tangential – question from another.
Don’t let these curve balls catch you out. Take a deep breath and consider each question carefully. If you don’t understand what’s being asked, ask for clarification. Taking the time to think before you give an answer will show that you’re confident under pressure but also that your responses haven’t been rehearsed beforehand.
11. Prepare for the awkward questions
It’s easy to get defensive in front of a crowd. But don’t let questions about gaps in your employment history, periods of unemployment or unplanned career moves throw you off. Prepare a positive, straightforward response to any tricky questions and practice until you can deliver them naturally. Keep your answers short and to the point – otherwise, you could end up saying more than you wanted to. Though conventional wisdom says that long interviews are a good look, everyone’s time is precious, so make sure you’re using it wisely while you’re face to face.
12. Close and follow up
Remember to acknowledge each person individually and thank them for their time before you leave the interview. Take the opportunity to pick up a business card from each panellist if you can too. It’s a good idea to follow up with everyone individually, later in the day. A brief email will be enough to reinforce those connections you made during the interview, without being overbearing.
A panel interview can shake even the most self-assured candidate. But try to remember that everyone in the room wants to find the right person for the job. With the correct preparation and a little informed guesswork, you can turn your worst nightmare into an opportunity to outshine your competitors and secure your next career move.
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