The Biggest Pain Point in Hiring: A Practical Guide to Planning On-Site Job Interviews That Work

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.


You and your team have reached out to potential candidates, conducted multiple rounds of phone interviews, and selected a small pool of finalists. Now it is time to plan for an on-site. Where do you start?

Although the on-site interview is one of the most critical steps in determining the right candidate for the job, it remains the biggest pain point in the hiring process for many clients we’ve worked with. The most common problems we have identified include a sub-par candidate experience, unstructured interview processes, inefficient scheduling, and lack of clarity in how stakeholders will make a final decision. One contributing factor to these issues is that there are few resources freely available to help employers best organize on-site interviews. Another stumbling block is the investment of time and effort needed on the logistics side, let alone revamping the on-site process.

5 Best Practices for Better On-Site Interviews

Here, we share some easy-to-implement best practices for structuring on-site interviews that actually help you identify and hire the best possible candidate. These best practices include methods backed by academic research, as well as successful approaches we have used with our own clients.

1. Set Expectations With Candidates

First, we recommend sharing the structure of the on-site with candidates in advance. Be sure to cover the schedule (start and end times, breaks), interview question topics, and a list of interviewers. If you plan to administer a business case or another skills-based assessment, let candidates know in advance.

Try to give as much notice as possible with respect to the on-site interview date. Start thinking early about scheduling. After positive phone interviews with one or two candidates, start suggesting dates to block off for a potential on-site. In our experience, we have found that scheduling on-sites at the last minute can often delay the process by a few weeks.

Preparing candidates and respecting their busy schedules will not only help set them up for success, but it will also create a more positive candidate experience. A recent PwC survey found that 49 percent of candidates have rejected an offer due to a negative recruiting experience. Strong recruiters (whether internal or external) can help hiring managers create more positive candidate experiences by clearly communicating expectations for each step of the process.

It’s also worth remembering Carl W. Buehner’s advice that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Aim to start and end the on-site interview on a positive note. Have a point person welcome the candidate and walk them out after the interview. Make sure the candidates have water and bathroom breaks. Ensure the point person gives candidates a sense of when they should expect to hear about next steps (ideally, within one week). Also, try to end with a lighter interview. We are big fans of job knowledge tests, but it’s best not to make them the first or last thing a candidate does.

2. Put a Structure in Place

Next, we endorse investing time and effort up front in designing structured interviews. This includes determining interview topics, questions, interviewers (whether one-on-one or panel interviews), and whether to have lunch or coffee with the on-site candidates.

Try to determine early in the search which interviewers are a must-have and which are a nice-to-have for the in-person interviews. Coordinate scheduling with your must-have interviewers in advance. You don’t want to ask a candidate to fly back out because they missed one key stakeholder.

For senior roles, we highly recommend building in time for lunch with the candidate. This will serve as an informal, more relaxed interview where both parties lower their guards and have a more frank conversation.

In addition to planning your own question topics in advance, try to anticipate the questions the candidate will have for you. Often, candidates will want to know a lot about the job itself and the various departments they will be working with. One McKinsey consultant we worked with had recently turned down an offer because his prospective employer didn’t make time for him to meet with cross-functional departments that were critical to his success in the role.

Candidates may also have questions about relocating their families, if applicable. Some clients we’ve worked with will arrange meetings with local schools or team members who have similar-aged children, or they may set up a house tour with a realtor.

In general, a candidate’s concerns will be heavily context-dependent. Our bottom-line recommendation is to do your best to anticipate candidates’ needs and questions, and plan to address them accordingly. Moreover, all interviewers should set aside at least 10-15 minutes to answer candidate questions.

Finally, for days when you have multiple candidates at the final on-site, we’d advise keeping candidates in their respective rooms and having the interviews move around. This prevents candidates from getting lost and finding themselves in the wrong interview room — with another candidate applying for the same job.

For more expert recruiting insights, check out the latest issue of Magazine:

3. Prepare the Right Questions

To identify the right candidate, interviewers need to have the right interview questions and assessment methods in place. Before you can determine what the right questions are, you need to define the qualities necessary to be successful in the role. It’s important for all stakeholders to agree on what traits or skill sets are required for success in the role before preparing the list of interview questions.

For example, an education client of ours needed an incoming CFO not only to be a strategic thought partner and an exceptional problem-solver, but also to be an egoless leader with high emotional intelligence (EQ) who could fit in at the mission-driven organization. We first outlined a series of interview panel topics, including self-awareness and leadership, EQ, strategic thinking, and business analytics/key performance indicators. Then, we drafted interview questions for each panel to ensure that all key qualities were being evaluated. We also included an assessment in the form of an internal report and balance sheet to assess each candidate’s ability to read/interpret data and ask clarifying questions before jumping to conclusions.

Overall best practices for preparing the right questions include:

• Thinking about broad categories you’d like to cover (e.g., self-awareness, leadership, strategic thinking, cultural fit, table stakes, etc.) that are necessary for the role mandate.
• Determining interview questions in advance.
• Articulating “excellent,” “good,” and “bad” responses for each of the interview questions.
• Using a numerical rating system to assess responses.
• Having interviewers assign scores for specific questions, broad categories, and overall interview performance.
• Aiming to be consistent in how you assess candidate responses.
• Ranking on-site candidates from first preference to last preference based on your score.

While only a few studies conclude structured interviews have more predictive power than unstructured interviews in selecting the right candidate, we can highly recommend the structured approach based on our firm’s experience. Structured interviews ensure that all candidates are measured against the same standard, and they also help interviewers mitigate their biases by adhering to predetermined questions and agreed-upon criteria for “excellent,” “good,” or “bad” responses. Google’s former senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock, came to a similar conclusion in his overview of Google’s most successful interview processes.

4. Hold a Structured Group Debrief

Too often, interviewers share their thoughts with each other ahead of the final group huddle, or the first interviewer will signal to subsequent interviewers whether their interview went well or poorly. In some cases, the interviewing body won’t even schedule time for a group huddle.

The problem is, if you share your thoughts on a candidate with a colleague before their interview (and before they have a chance to process their own experience with the candidate), you will influence their evaluation of the candidate.

This is one of the most important (and easiest) problems to fix in your on-site. Before the structured group meeting, the interviewers should:

• Finalize their ratings for each candidate, including ratings for individual questions, ratings for individual categories, and overall candidate ratings.
• Rank candidates in order of preference.
• Write down the pros and cons of hiring each candidate.
• Appoint a moderator to manage the discussion, ideally the CHRO, chief talent officer, or a contact at the executive search firm you are partnering with.
• Avoid sharing their thoughts with each other ahead of the debrief.

Writing their individual conclusions down ahead of the group debrief will allow interviewers to cement their thoughts and help them stick to their impressions during the group discussion. While it is fine to change one’s scores after hearing other interviewers’ experiences, all stakeholders should feel comfortable to disagree with the majority.

The debrief moderator should be someone who was not involved in the interviews directly. This third party can ensure that the insights of each stakeholder — and not just the loudest voice in the room — are all considered in the review. We have also found writing down everyone’s scores and main points of feedback on a whiteboard to be helpful during the discussion.

5. Apply an Iterative Hiring Process

Finally, if your goal is to improve your hiring efforts, you need to start assessing the success of your on-site process. Document and file each candidate’s interview performance, and compare their interview scores with their performance at your organization once they are hired. This will help you keep track of your interview process’s results: Is it working as intended, or does it need to be adjusted?

Instituting an iterative process to continuously evaluate and improve your methods is a necessary step. What works for one position may not apply to another, and what worked five years ago may not be applicable today.

MaryAnn Kontonicolas is an engagement manager at ECA Partners. Atta Tarki is CEO of ECA Partners.

By Atta Tarki and MaryAnn Kontonicolas