Effective panel interview preparation - are you ready?

Written by
Changeboard Team

07 Aug 2011

07 Aug 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Panel interviews need preparation

How many times have you been part of a panel as part of the interview process and cross-examined a potential employee? If you are from a larger corporation then the answer may be frequently. However, how often have you experienced them as the interviewee rather than the interviewer? The answer is probably rarely, if ever. Panel interviews are not the standard modis operendi for the recruitment process of HR professionals, particularly in the private sector. But surely, if you came across them in your career progression as an experienced HR professional, they would be a walk in the park?

Oddly enough, it's our experience as recruiters of senior HR professionals that this isn’t always the case. Precisely because they are unusual they tend to catch you off guard and the danger of a “rabbit in headlights” response becomes very real. HR professionals need as much support when preparing for a panel interview as an accountant, for example. 

Simon Geere, head of Alexander Lloyd’s HR division explains:

“HR professionals have their comfort zone on the other side of the table. When the tables are turned and they are the ones being subject to scrutiny it is as nerve wracking and challenging as for anyone else.” 

Panel interviews are particularly challenging, and being an different approach than standard one to ones, require more thought and preparation to confidently navigate.

Your background research

You may well have had the experience of being part of a panel in your professional capacity, representing the HR function. But, how do you think you would fare personally if the boot were on the other foot? The key point for a successful panel interview is preparation. While this is undeniably true for any interview, with panels it really comes into its own. You don’t just have one interviewer to concern yourself with, you have upward of three.

It's essential that you have researched each of your interviewers to obtain insights into their background and current position in the organisation. Don’t be afraid to use social media as part of your research – do they have a profile on LinkedIn? If so, do you have any connections in common, can you view their profile? Gaining an idea of the background of each interviewer obviously provides you with insights into their CV; look for commonalities between you. Have you perhaps worked for the same company previously, or have other links in common? This will assist you in developing a rapport and make your answers relevant when citing examples.

HR in the wider context

Understanding the interviewer’s position within the company hierarchy is vital as part of your preparation. As you know, panels are on the whole made up of professionals outside of the HR arena. The areas of concern of each panel member therefore are going to be different and it is vital therefore that your answers reference those areas. 

Simon Geere reasons: “This is your chance to demonstrate your business acumen and showcase your understanding of how HR benefits the other area of business.” 

As part of this, it's essential that you show an understanding of how the business makes money. This may be the relatively simple sale of products, but it may be complicated services or a global corporation that is a much more complex concern. Through this understanding, you will be able to demonstrate how the HR function can add value to the business in a wider context. 

Traditionally viewed as a cost centre, this is your chance to show how the HR function can contribute to cost savings and improving efficiency, thereby increasing cost effectiveness across the board. Don’t forget, you must emphasise in the interview how you have done so in the past and the benefits bought about as a result. Use the opportunities to sell yourself as they are presented. This is not a question and answer session about HR – this is about you.

Keep it relevant and concise

When answering such questions, and citing examples, do your best to engage the entire panel. Begin your answer with eye contact with the questioner, and then move across the panel. Keeping your body language open and engaged will assist in this, as will tying your answer to other areas of the business. For example, if the finance director asks you a particular question that is relevant across the board, draw in the other members of the panel who would also have an interest and relate the question to their area of concern.

This technique will help you to engage different members of the panel while demonstrating skills and past experience. While answering the question however, one of the quickest ways to lose your audience’s interest is to waffle.

Simon Geere reports: “One of the most common pieces of negative feedback that we receive about candidates is the tendency to waffle; too much time is spent talking around the point but not actually answering the question at hand.”

Focus your responses

To keep yourself on track, we recommend the SOAR technique. When answering competency-based questions:

‘S’ stands for scenario. Choose a scenario that most appropriately fits the question. It could be an enquiry about your experience in handling redundancies, or when you have implemented new strategies or processes, keep it relevant. 

‘O’ – ownership. Ensure that it's clear who took ownership of the scenario (hint: this should be you). 

‘A’ – what action did you take to resolve the situation and bring about a satisfactory conclusion? 

‘R’ – what was the result? How did the outcome have an effect on the company and other departments? This technique will help you to formulate an answer that is succinct, lasting about two minutes, contextualised and most importantly, actually answers the question.

Panel interview formats

Panel interviews can consist of upwards of three members who will represent different key areas of the business. The format of the panel can vary, dependant on the organisation. It will either be led by a chair who will ask the majority of questions with other members taking notes and perhaps asking one or two questions at the end. 

Alternatively, each panel member may take ownership of a certain element of the interview, and ask questions in turn. The least organised and by far the most intimidating is the free for all, with all members of the panel jumping in and little structure. This format tends to lend itself to the good cop; bad cop approach most satisfactorily, being designed to catch you off guard. 

Of course, part of the assessment protocol from the whole process is about how you cope in a pressurised environment. In a panel this loose, created through the dynamic of different personalities engenders a very challenging environment for the interviewee. You may breathe a sigh of relief therefore that they are not a common occurrence in the HR profession. However, considering the valuable economies of time and scale that are enjoyed from an organisation’s perspective this is a little surprising.

Perhaps with the continued drive for efficiency in processes they may one day be a common experience for the jobseeker.