Your guide to the job interview process: Steps, timeline, and how to improve it

Last updated:
February 26, 2021
March 16, 2023
min read
Brendan McConnell
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The job interview process is the most effective way for recruiters and hiring managers to identify which candidate is best for the job. That's because interviews provide the most direct opportunity to screen that candidate for exactly the types of skills and personalities they're looking for.

Because of this importance, organizations must take the time to refine and perfect their job interview process. This article will provide an overview of how to do so and tips on how to structure and improve your interview process over time.

What is the job interview process?

A job interview is simply a meeting between a job candidate and interviewer to determine if that applicant is the right person for the job. Interviews are a core pillar of recruitment and typically have the largest influence over which candidate is selected for the job.

Job interviews can vary significantly depending on the company, industry, and position. Typically, they involve meeting with the recruiter, hiring manager, and other managers working with the candidate, fellow team members, and senior leadership.

Therefore, the job interview process is the start to finish workflow that organizations use to screen and meet with candidates to determine suitability for the job.

It's much more involved and systematic than a single conversation or phone call and leverages multiple layers of interviewing to refine decision making. Each company will likely have its own job interview process, which will likely vary depending on the role and seniority.

In general, recruiters and managers will need to determine the following when creating a job interview process.  

  • How many meetings are needed to assess the candidate effectively?
  • What is the organization looking for? I.e., personality, skills, values, etc.
  • Who will be involved in the interview process? This might be the recruiter, hiring manager, executives, or team members.
  • What skills will be tested? How will you measure success?
  • How will objectively be ensured? How will candidates be measured and compared?

To answer the questions listed above, it's helpful to understand the job interview process's common steps.

9 steps to the job interview process

The following steps outline what a very thorough interview process might look like from start to finish. This will likely not be what recruiters use for every job opening, especially for fewer seniors positions.

We encourage recruiters and hiring managers to review this list and focus on the stages that will be most important to the desired outcome.

Here are job interview process steps:

1. Screening interview

This is typically the first direct contact with the candidates. It aims to determine if they have the basic requirements to do the job. This is accomplished by asking questions to find out more detail about their resume items.

Screening interviews are usually conducted by a recruiter or recruitment coordinator and help to shortlist candidates for more in-depth conversations.

2. Phone screen interviews

Phone screen interviews are used to narrow the pool of candidates and identify which ones should come for in-person interviews (or more in-depth interviews).

These are typically conducted by the recruiter or hiring manager and go into slightly more detail about the candidate's background, experience, and skills. This is also an opportunity to screen for personality and potential cultural fit early on.

Recruiters may also opt to use video interviewing at this or any other stage of the job interview process.

3. First in-person interview

Shortlisted candidates are then invited for in-person interviews with the hiring manager. This is an in-depth interview that asks probing questions about the candidate's skills, work history, availability, expectations, and ambitions at the company.

In-person interviews help hiring managers to get a deeper understanding of each candidate personally, allowing them to determine if they have the skills and personality that the organization needs.

4. Competency interview

Next comes an interview or assignment that tests the candidate's skills and personality. The scope and structure of competency assessments will vary widely depending on the position.

Common ways to measure competency include:

  • Personality tests
  • Situational tests
  • Tasks or project assignments
  • A presentation
  • A 30-60-90 day plan for managers.

Each shortlisted candidate is given the same test and graded using a standardized scorecard.

5. Second and third interviews

If the job interview process is more in-depth, the candidates may be invited for a second or third round of in-person interviews.

Whether or not these interviews are needed is usually determined by the seniority of the position, the number of stakeholders who will work directly with the new hire, and whether the team uses collaborative hiring.

These interviews might involve more in-depth conversations with management, staff members, executives, or anyone else relevant to the hiring decision.

Because this is far down the hiring funnel, second and third interviews are usually reserved for a very short list of candidates who are seriously considered for the job.

6. Invitation to a social gathering

Candidates who have made it to this phase of the job interview process are invited to a social gathering or dinner with the hiring manager and their potential team members.

This is an opportunity to see the candidate in a more relaxed environment and to watch how well they interact with their future teammates.

Social gatherings help gauge the candidate's cultural fit, communication skills, and rapport with team members. This isn't an essential interviewing step, but it helps close-knit teams and positions that require a lot of socialization and networking.

7. Final interview

After all of the steps above are completed, the candidate may be invited for a short final interview with the hiring manager. This is their chance to reaffirm their interest in the role, share any learnings or insights that might help the hiring manager, and ask any final questions they may have.

This is also an opportunity for the hiring manager to get one last impression of the candidate before a hiring decision is made.

8. Background check

Before an offer is made, the hiring manager and recruiter may seek to conduct a background check. Depending on the role, this might include checking the candidate's professional background, criminal record, or credit score.

This is particularly important for roles that involve handling large sums of money or that come with security clearances, to name two examples.

9. Job offer

If the background check goes well, then it's time to extend an offer to the candidate. Ensure this is done promptly to ensure that there isn't a significant lag time between communications.

Be prepared to have additional conversations with the candidate around compensation, benefits, and vacation time before final sign off.

The job interview process can be a fairly lengthy one, depending on the number of steps it takes to come to a hiring decision.

Therefore, it's helpful to have a target job interview timeline to ensure that candidates don't become disillusioned or disinterested.

Relevant: 5 creative job offers to surprise your candidates

The job interview process timeline

As mentioned, no job interview process will be the same. So, it's difficult to lock down an exact "ideal timeline." We encourage companies to review their recruitment metrics to determine how long is too long and which interview steps yield the best results.

With that being said, there are some general best practices and average time frames that help benchmark purposes.

First, it's helpful to note that the average time-to-hire for college graduates is 24.5 days. That timeframe for experienced professionals rises to 38 days. Senior management or executive roles can take significantly longer than that and may require months of searching and screening before a decision is made.

Here is how long each of the interview process steps above should take on a more granular level.

  • Phone interviews. 15-30 minutes
  • In-person interviews. 45 minutes to 1.5 hours.
  • Competency assessments. 45 minutes to 1 hour

Senior or highly technical roles may require longer and more in-depth conversations in any of the above meetings. This can be determined on a case by case basis.

Once those meetings are conducted, there is typically a lag time before the candidate is rejected or moved to the next phases.

Here's a rough breakdown of what that might look like.

  • Application to phone screen. 5 days
  • Phone screen to an in-person interview. 7 days
  • In-person interview to competency assessment. 7 days
  • Competency assessment to a second interview. 5 days
  • Second interview to a social gathering. 5 days
  • Social gathering to a background check. 3 days
  • Background check to a job offer. 7 days

Under this timeframe, the time to hire would be 39 days.

Of course, there are many ways to improve and refine the job interview process to ensure that those 39 days are used as efficiently as possible.

How to improve the job interview process

Using job interview best practices can help recruiters and hiring managers to maximize their time and consistently ensure that they're selecting the right hire.

Here are some important job interview best practices:

  • Decide what skills you want the candidate to have early. Meet with the hiring manager and team to get a clear list of skills, job requirements, and experience that the candidate must have to succeed. Create an ideal candidate persona, and stay laser-focused on those attributes from start to finish.
  • Select interview questions wisely. Ask questions that directly relate to the must-have skills and personality traits that you're looking for. This helps to keep interviews focused and avoid muddying the decision with unneeded information.
  • Use structured interviews. Determine a list of set questions and follow-up questions that you'll ask each candidate. Create a standardized and objective scorecard that you will use to measure each candidate's answers. Review the findings after each interview, and compare results objectively using the scorecard.
  • Have important conversations with candidates early. This includes discussing job duties, compensation, benefits, company strategy, mission, and vision. Knock these conversations off as early as possible. This helps establish fit early in the process and determine if more in-depth interviews are worthwhile.
  • Decide what types of interviews to conduct at each phase of the process. Consult with the hiring manager and key stakeholders to determine what types of interviews will be required and who will be conducting them. Ensure that all interviewers are aware of the requirements and process and have adequate training to accomplish the desired outcomes.
  • Provide coaching for hiring managers and interviewers. Part of a recruiter's job is to ensure that hiring managers have the interview training they need to be effective. It's helpful to check in with all interviewers to ensure that they are comfortable with their given roles and provide training where needed.
  • Create and disseminate an interview checklist to interviewers. This checklist should outline all of the key steps that go into accomplishing a successful interview. The checklist should include instructions on how to:
  • ~Welcome candidates and make them feel at ease.
  • ~Introduce the interviewers.
  • ~Start with simple, icebreaker questions.
  • ~Transition to more in-depth questions.
  • ~Ask situational questions.
  • ~Discuss key responsibilities and team dynamics.
  • ~Field questions about compensation and benefits.
  • ~Pitch the company and culture.
  • ~Give candidates a tour of the office.
  • Monitor key performance indicators. Review key performance metrics around the interview process regularly that could indicate a potential problem. Problems to watch out for include: reports of a poor candidate experience, prolonged time to hire, increased candidate drop off, or short term retention issues. All of these metrics is a likely signal that the interview process has some issues. Identifying these signals helps to identify the problem.

The job interview process is a critical component of all recruitment efforts. No other hiring activity rises to the same level of importance as interviews.

Therefore, it's critically important that organizations take the time to refine and perfect their processes and ensure that all interviewers are trained and empowered to achieve the desired results.

As always, a process cannot be improved if it's not measured. Reviewing key metrics and refining the process based on the signals is the key to success in creating a winning job interview process.

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