This article is part of a larger series on Hiring.
A panel interview is a discussion that involves a group of people, in the same meeting, who ask questions to a candidate to determine if the person being interviewed is right for the job. The foundation to a panel interview is in thoughtful planning, including preparing your team for a panel interview, selecting which team members will participate in the interview, and deciding which questions each interviewer will ask the candidate.
A panel interview is also referred to as a group interview, not to be confused with group interviews that involve interviewing multiple candidates for the same position at once.
In its best form, panel interviews allow the interviewers to combine their strengths, perspectives and experiences—leading to effective and comprehensive interview questions. When it doesn’t work well, panel interviews can prove to be a lengthy display of confusion and misalignment, which is embarrassing for both the participants and the organization.
1. Prepare Your Team for a Panel Interview
Interviewing can be stressful—not only for the candidate, but also for the interviewers. Before you schedule a panel interview, it’s important to properly prepare your team. It is best to share the job description with each of the interviewers, so that they become familiar with the requirements of the position before interviewing a candidate to fill the role.
Panelists should also be provided a copy of the candidate’s resume. Many companies are choosing to partake in blind recruitment, or stripping away identifiable information on a resume, in order to reduce the opportunity for bias. Even in these cases, panelists should become familiar with the candidate’s background enough to ask appropriate questions for the role. Each panelist should also be prepped on which areas of the business they should focus on and, ideally, be given standardized interview questions, to reduce hiring bias.
2. Choose Interviewers
When selecting who will interview candidates, it is important to keep in mind who the primary stakeholders for the position are, who the candidate might interact with on a regular basis once in the position, and who might be able to offer the candidate a sense of inclusion within the organization.
Representation matters and, for this reason, it is important to make sure your interview panel reflects the diversity of your organization and the world at large. Many interview panels include someone from Human Resources, the hiring manager, someone from an internal client group that the new hire may interact with on a regular basis, and another individual whose work product will be intermingled with that of the new hire (i.e., someone in Marketing might find themselves sitting on an interview panel for an individual interviewing for a Sales position).
The hiring manager generally acts as the leader for the interview, setting the tone and asking basic questions. The other members of the panel may act as the subject matter experts (SME) for areas specific to their skills base, but will mostly help the primary interviewer by asking clarifying questions. Interview panels are often between four and six people.
3. Schedule the Panel Interview
Since panel interviews involve multiple people and, therefore, multiple schedules, there must be appropriate time allowed to synchronize calendars. To ensure a smooth panel interview, be sure to ask each panelist, and the candidate, for a wide spectrum of their available times. If any of the participants are located internationally, special consideration should be given to the times of people in those locations so that interviews are not held too early or too late in any given time zone.
If you are conducting the interview virtually, then a video call is preferred to a conference call. Ensure that everyone has the meeting links and that they are working properly before the interview.
4. Set up a Room for Panel Interview
Panel interviews work best when participants are able to hear and see each other comfortably. Therefore, avoid very large rooms or incredibly long tables for a small number of participants. Round tables assist in the ease of conversational flow, while seating panelists behind a big table facing the candidate can tend to feel like an interrogation.
Remember, your best information will come from a relaxed candidate, so be sure that the setup is as informal as possible, with panelists sitting at comfortable angles for conversation.
5. Introduce Each Panel Interviewer
At first pass, introductions may seem like a trivial part of any interview. Often times, introductions are viewed as little more than a necessary formality. On the contrary, though, introductions not only serve as an opportunity to provide helpful information (such as name and title), but they also help to add context as to why the candidate is interviewing with a particular panelist.
Introductions set a tone, they establish trust, and are also a great way to reinforce your organization’s commitment toward diversity and inclusion. Each panelist should introduce themselves including their name and title, at minimum. A brief explanation of how their role or department would interface with the open role is helpful to add context for the candidate.
A further level of inclusion can be added to introductions by pronouncing your preferred pronouns after your name and title. This small action helps candidates understand better how you wish to be referred to and, in return, opens the door for others to be their authentic selves, as well. Allow others to state their pronouns as they feel comfortable.
6. Take Turns Asking Interview Questions
Since one of the advantages of interviewing in a panel format is immediate access to varying perspectives and experiences, then you should be sure to leverage the people in the room. The hiring manager will often act as the “lead” during a panel interview—facilitating the conversational flow and the line of questioning. But, it’s also important that other panelists ask appropriate clarifying questions as well.
Also, if the panelist is a SME (subject matter expert) in any of the portion of the discussion, they should use their expertise to ask questions about the candidate’s experience. Primary interview questions should be prepared, standardized, and reviewed ahead of time to the extent possible, so that the opportunity for implicit bias is reduced.
Remember, in order to avoid penalties and lawsuits, it’s important to ensure your interview questions and hiring practices are fair and don’t violate any labor laws. Ensuring that all panelists know which questions they are asking is key.
Pros & Cons of Panel Interviews
Panel interviews can be an effective step in hiring a fantastic new employee. In a competitive job market, where timing is crucial, conducting a panel interview is a great way to include key decision makers within one step of the process, versus four separate steps.
Most importantly, though, panel interviews provide an opportunity to explore perspectives, experiences, and expertise of several people in one space. If done correctly, this will add more fruitful dialogue to the interview and a shorter turnaround time for decision making.Also, panel interviews can help minimize overall bias, as there is not just one person filtering the candidate’s experience through a specific lens.
On the other hand, there are some pitfalls to be mindful of as well. You don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen at one time as this can make for a sloppy outcome and format. In order to achieve a successful result, the goals of the interview must be clear and each panelist must play their part to achieve the overall goal. In a world of limited time availability, panel interviews can be painful to schedule, as they tend to occupy large blocks of time—a precious commodity to busy professionals.
Frequently, panel interviews can be a valuable tool to assess whether or not a candidate could make a great hire by reducing bias, adding multiple perspectives, and leveraging expertise. Selecting who will participate on the panel, coordinating logistics around scheduling, setting expectations for asking questions, and jointly assessing a candidate will take deliberate planning. Building a strong team will serve as a foundation for scalable success and is well worth the time.