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Handling A Panel Interview

by Tom O'Connor on March 3rd, 2010
Tony Blair before the Chilcott Inquiry-Rev1

Tony Blair appearing before the Chilcott Inquiry panel in January, 2010

A panel interview refers to the situation where a job applicant is interviewed by a group of interviewers in a single session. 

The panel members are usually drawn from a number of organisational functions, internally and externally. 

Thus, a typical situation might consist of a panel comprising 1) a HR person, 2) a line manager, 3) a technical specialist in your particular discipline, 4) a person from another internal function that may interface with the role, 5) a person external to the hiring organisation and 6) a chairperson who manages the proceedings. 

It is a practice frequently employed in the public sector. 

Beyond the normal elements involved in any interview, the panel dynamic introduces a number of extra considerations to be managed. 

Preparation for Interview
Firstly, one needs to anticipate a much broader range of questions. 

It is essential to inquire in advance as to who is going to be on the panel and use this information to anticipate what kind of questions you may actually be asked. 

For instance, you can expect:

the HR person to pose questions on general competency and behavioural matters,

the technical specialist to concentrate on specific knowledge & skill elements related to your specialty,

the immediate line manager to drill into your departmental effectiveness & your fit with the existing structure and staff,

the parallel line manager to examine your wider interfacing skills internally, and

the external representative to explore your general knowledge of business and the external environment.

In this way, your preparation needs to be widely cast, so that you can tune into the particular perspective being taken by each member of the interview panel. 

Interview Introductions
The atmosphere at a panel interview is usually fairly formal and the challenge in building rapport can be quite significant. 

The seating arrangement is often set out with the panel seated in a row behind a long table and the interviewee a number of feet away on the other side. 

The atmosphere can be a little awkward for everyone (this may be the first time this group of interviewers have been thrown together and they may be feeling just as apprehensive as the interviewee) and there is less opportunity for any small talk before proceedings begin. 

It is important for the interviewee to be conscious of this and have a plan to manage the opening. 

Thus, the interviewee, on entering the room, should not only make strong eye contact and shake hands with the panel chairperson but should continue on to the other panellists in the same manner, carefully noting each person’s name, before taking one’s seat. 

On sitting down, it is important to immediately sketch for oneself the name and relative position of each panellist – to ensure there is no mix-up in names during subsequent proceedings. 

Handling Direct Questions
Normally, the panel interview is structured such that the chairperson gives the floor to each of his/her fellow panellists in turn for a set amount of time. 

In answering questions, one needs to adopt a very active response style. 

Thus, one should begin by addressing the questioner by his/her first name and direct one’s eyes in his/her direction for the first 15 seconds. 

Then, while continuing to answer the question, one should proceed to scan along the panel, making eye contact with each panellist in turn for say 5-10 seconds before returning to the questioner again for the final 15 seconds. 

If, at all possible, this routine should be practiced and repracticed in advance of the interview, until one achieves a natural and relaxed style in so responding.  

Cross-Referencing Interview Answers
It is also important to link one’s answers between questioners. 

Say, for instance, early in the interview you are responding to a project management question posed by John, the line manager, and later on you are being probed by Mary, the HR person, on your communication skills; one thought might be to give an overt example to Mary of a communication achievement relating to the project management scenario earlier described to John. 

This serves 3 quite important purposes: 

– the consistency element adds to the credibility of your achievement 

– it leaves a stronger & more unifyied impression of you grouped around a select number of themes – rather than a mish-mash of disparate answers 

– it subtly reengages with John’s interest and will make a positive impression on him, especially if you use his name in making the back reference. 

Questions For The Interview Panel
Likewise, toward the end of the interview, when one is inevitably asked if one has any questions for the panel, it is important to have a question for each panellist and again, it is all the better, if one asks a series of related questions – leaving the impression that one’s mind is operating in a unified, sense-making mode.

PS. For more interview preparation pointers, please click on a related article or case study here.

One Response to “Handling A Panel Interview”

  1. Vince Laquidara says:

    Nice job Tom