How to run an effective interview debrief
2 Nov 2022 • 7 min read
As with every other high-growth company, we’ve evolved our own hiring process as we’ve grown Metaview. One area we recently decided to level-up was how we run our interview debriefs.
Before now, we ran debriefs in a pretty informal way — mainly due to the fact that the number of people involved in interviewing was low, and members of the founding team were often involved in multiple interview stages. But now that we have lots of different people involved in hiring, we need a better system that increases our chances (and our confidence) of making more correct hiring decisions as we scale.
So, we sought advice from two phenomenal thinkers on hiring in tech — Jan Chong, VP of Engineering at Tally and Jill Macri, Partner at Growth by Design Talent — and are now running debriefs that we feel have greatly improved the quality and confidence of our recent hiring decisions. If you’re struggling to make confident decisions after your interview loops, then this post (and 1-page guide) is for you.
What is the point of a debrief?
On the surface, the purpose of the debrief is simple: get to a decision on the candidate. In reality, while vital, that is the least you should expect to achieve from a high-quality debrief. There are four important outcomes that you want to design your debrief process around:
- Get the info you, the hiring manager, need to make as accurate a decision as possible.
- Calibrate the people on the hiring team on what good looks like, what’s important, and what’s nice-to-have in a candidate.
- Get buy-in (not necessarily agreement) from the hiring team on the hiring decision. Even if they disagree with it, they can commit to it if you are transparent about why it is being made.
- Provide a feedback-loop on the quality of the interview process itself. The quality of the signal discussed in the debrief will help everyone involved realize whether you/they need to improve the interviews.
Making a decision on the candidate is just the start. Debriefs are key to building a successful, always-improving hiring machine, and strengthening the fabric of the team.
That’s simple. It’s the hiring manager. Jill puts it exceptionally well:
This usually means they are also responsible for running the meeting, but that can be delegated in scenarios where you operate with dedicated moderators (like in a bar raiser program).
While the hiring manager has final responsibility for the quality of the debrief, the other interviewers also have important responsibilities without which it would be impossible to achieve the four goals laid out above. Specifically: (1) run good interviews that focus on the agreed-upon competencies, and (2) provide written feedback in a timely manner (ie, within 24 hours) alongside a recommendation.
If you’re looking to level up interview quality, then there’s software to help with that 😊.
If you're struggling to get interview feedback written in a timely manner, then Jill has two recommendations which we've found highly effective:
- Schedule the debrief ahead of time. Don't wait for the feedback then schedule the debrief. That way, it’s clear to every interviewer that if they fail to submit feedback, it will be called out and will slow down the process.
- Make sure 15-30 minutes in each interviewer’s calendar is allocated to writing the feedback on the day of the interview (the sooner the better).
The importance of the written feedback shouldn’t be understated. Not only does it force interviewers to synthesize their learnings, it also reduces the chances of less confident members of the team conforming to what others recommend in the heat of a discussion.
Running the debrief
Here’s how HMs at Metaview, and many of the top-performing companies in tech, run debriefs:
1. Pre-debrief preparation. HMs should go into the debrief meeting with a good sense for the areas of the candidate’s profile that need deeper discussion. So before the meeting they need to:
- Read the written feedback from the interviewers.
- Identify key themes and be ready to summarize them for the group.
- Know which areas they want to probe deeper on and have questions lined up accordingly.
2. Round the room. Each interviewer then shares a quick overview (1-2 minutes) of their findings and an assessment of the candidate. Nothing shared here should be a surprise to the HM. Jan recommends these overviews cover:
- Judgment on the candidate’s overall performance in the interviewer’s focus area.
- Particular strengths.
- Weaknesses or other areas of concern.
(For more on Jan's thoughts about how to run an effective hiring process, check out our conversation with her here.)
3. HM summary. The HM then summarizes the key themes, and shares their current thinking around the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and how they match up with their needs. This is a summary of the feedback being provided, so it usually starts with a phrase like "sounds like…”, or “what I'm hearing is..." and ends with the question “is that right?”. The goal is to:
- Be transparent on current thinking / leaning.
- Give interviewers an opportunity to flag that they have been misunderstood.
4. Deep dive(s). Deep dives should focus on (1) areas of concern where the extent of the weakness is important to the final decision, and (2) areas where there was not enough information provided in the feedback so far. This is, of course, led by the HM, and there are a couple of things to be mindful of:
- Don’t completely discredit “feelings” that your interviewers have, but ask questions that help them understand where those feelings came from. Probe them for examples of the candidate’s behaviors to support their judgment with questions like “Can you remember when you first started to feel that way about the candidate?”.
- Your goal is not (necessarily) to get interviewers to change their minds. Again, your goal is just to get maximum signal out of your teammates. In scenarios where this is tough, listening back to sections of the interview recordings is a game-changer.
- Even if you’re inclined towards hiring the candidate yourself, be honest on whether you have enough information on each of their strengths, too. You want your understanding of their strengths to be just as extensive as your understanding of their weaknesses. This helps you make a good decision, and demonstrates to your hiring team the importance of hiring for strengths (rather than just lack of weakness).
(Note: some organizations switch the order of 2 and 3.)
As often as possible, the decision on whether or not to make an offer to the candidate should be made during the debrief meeting with the rest of the hiring team present. Doing this is the most impactful way of ensuring goals 2-4 are met, therefore maximizing your ability to improve your hiring calibration and performance over time.
There will be times where this won’t be possible: perhaps if you’re hiring a low-volume role and have other candidates in the pipeline you want to see, or if there is a clearly identified flag where more information is required. But you should be coming out of these meetings with a decision more often than not. In Jill’s experience, the right level is around 80% of the time. If you’re coming in well below that, then that suggests your interview process is not on point. Either there is a lack of alignment on what interviewers should be looking for in their interviews, the interviewers are not well trained at eliciting the relevant signal, or you as the HM are not confident in what you need to see in the candidate (or some mix of the three!).
Even with excellent information, you won’t always have agreement between all interviewers. And that’s ok. While consensus can make things easy, we’ve also all seen that it can often be the candidates that divide opinion that go on to have the most impact. Going with consensus means that:
- You miss out on outliers. People with insane strengths in a particular area that may not have been seen in all of the interviews given each had a different focus area.
- You artificially give every interviewer's recommendation the same level of credibility. That is not realistic, and can actually make the barrier to becoming an interviewer too high (ie, if every interviewer essentially has veto-rights on every hire they’re involved in then you’re going to be very protective of who gets to be an interviewer).
- As long as the HM can use this opportunity to explain their decision clearly, then there won’t be any ill-effects of disagreeing with the recommendations of your interviewers.
Debriefs are not only a crucial step for arriving at the right decision for the candidate at hand, but also for improving your interview process and team fabric over time. Remember:
- It’s the hiring manager’s responsibility to run an effective debrief.
- Read written feedback before the debrief so you’re prepared to dig in where it matters most to your decision.
- Book the debrief into the calendar and create the expectation that written feedback is available for you to review in advance.
- After going around the room and sharing your current understanding of their recommendations, probe the interviewers for more info on the areas where you feel least confident in your evaluation of the candidate.
- Let the hiring team into your thinking when making the decision, even if you’re disagreeing with their recommendations. It’s one of the best ways to improve calibration among interviewers and generate the buy-in needed to set the candidate up for success.
If you think this approach to running debriefs would work well for you too, then download the 1-page guide here.
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