Hold Off on “Hybrid” Interviews

By Jen Meyers Pickard, Ph.D. and Lauren Bruce-Stets

After operating in a primarily virtual environment for nearly two years, it is certainly understandable that search committees want be in the same room, in community with one another, whenever possible. In our pre-pandemic life, the big, bonding search committee moment was participating in several days of semi-finalist interviews (often called “airport interviews”). Candidates would fly in for their hour-long interviews, meeting the committee in an undisclosed location. Committees enjoyed hiding out from the broader campus community to protect the confidentiality of candidates, eating free meals and snacks, drinking a lot of coffee and eating more snacks together.

Now that we are all experts at virtual meetings, it just isn’t efficient (or cost-effective) to ask candidates to appear in person for these first-round interviews. As we’re moving back to safe, socially distanced meetings, committees understand that virtual semi-finalist interviews make practical sense, but are experiencing the great tension of wanting to enjoy these pre-pandemic bonding moments once again. Committees prefer in-person first-round interviews. Or they often opt for “hybrid” interviews – with the committee together in one room but the candidate appearing virtually. For a variety of reasons, we recommend against these formats for semi-finalist interviews.

Consider the Candidate

Given all we now know, here are some of the compelling arguments for fully virtual semi-finalist interviews:

  • Video interviews are much more considerate of candidates’ needs and lives. For one thing, Zoom meetings save candidates time. We speak often with interviewees who dread having to take one or two (or sometimes three) days out of their busy schedules to fly in for semi-finalist interviews, which average about an hour in length with the committee.
  • Another factor is candidate confidentiality—taking time out of one’s schedule is often a dead giveaway that one is part of an executive search and must travel for interviews. Candidate confidentiality is often compromised by having to travel and appear in person when there are many chances that the candidate will be recognized.
  • Candidates have a hard time “connecting” with committee members who are all in the room together. On camera, their interviewers often appear the size of ants, and with masks on their faces it makes it nearly impossible for the candidate to feel a human connection. Even in high-tech conference rooms with an Owl-type camera that turns to focus on the speaker in the room, this technology can be disorienting and make the conversation difficult for candidates to follow.
  • A colleague of ours recalls debriefing candidates after virtual semi-finalist interviews when the committee was together in one room. The candidates expressed discomfort about being the “huge head” on the screen, and felt they couldn’t connect with committee members in a meaningful way when they couldn’t see or hear them very well. Candidates felt more nervous being the only one not in the room. This is antithetical to the welcoming environment that a committee wants to create.
Pro Tips for Engaging Candidates in a Virtual Interview

Having staffed hundreds of virtual meetings over the last few years, we have some best practices that lead to the optimal candidate experience:

  • Be welcoming. These semi-finalist interviews are often the first interaction a candidate has with anyone from the campus community. As such, it’s important for committee members to recognize that they are in recruitment mode as soon as the candidate joins the Zoom room.
  • Eliminate distractions in your Zoom box environment. This is essential not only to the candidate feeling welcomed into the campus community, but also ensures equitable treatment of all candidates – we want to make sure that each candidate receives the same undivided attention. In the way that it used to be “laptops closed” when candidates were in the same room with the committee, now it’s a matter of turning off your email and messaging apps to be fully present for the conversation.
  • During the interview, make eye contact, smile at the candidate and nod in affirmation as appropriate. Even though you’re on mute, laugh if the candidate makes a joke – they’ll see and appreciate your reaction. We’ve actually found that Zoom has amplified the committee’s ability to interact with candidates. When committees engage a candidate virtually sitting around a table, many members don’t have direct line of sight to the camera, limiting the connection the candidate is able to make with individual committee members.

Hybrid meetings are certainly here to stay. However, at WittKieffer we have found that semi-finalist interviews are conducted best when every person – committee members, candidates and search consultants – are virtual and have their own box in which to appear.