How to Conduct Interviews: The Best Practices with Sample Checklists

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This guide is all about how to conduct interview well and pick great candidates while avoiding the troubles.


Why it’s critical

First let’s dive in to the reasons why you need to have a skill to judge candidates. According to Geoff Smart and Randy Street, a single mishiring for $100K position costs about 1.5 million dollars.

A very rough calculation here: if your startup raised $5mm and then failed at hiring 4 times, you’re doomed in a year. I know the “in a year” part wouldn’t so accurate but the magnitude of damage caused by mis-hiring is not so far from the truth.

Secondly a mishire will bring your company a poison. It demoralize other employees, make it hard to focus (because they talk non-critical things all the time), lose customers to competitors, etc.

And more than anything, it wastes tons of your time. The time is the most important asset for you (and everyone) since it’s something you can’t buy back. Now you know why you can’t afford even a single mishiring.

Try. Avoid. Mishiring. No matter what. It literally kills your company. A research says 50% of hiring ends up being a mishire but it’s preventable.

The followings are hard lessons we learned through supporting companies.

You will be much better at hiring right people if you focus on these three things. Some of them are unconventional, but trust me, they work well.

Know what are your recruiting restrictions and use them as screening, check references no matter what, and do trials so you can have a deep understanding of candidates at work.

Culture, GTD, and Raw Intelligence


Many companies try and fail building company culture. It’s not just writing up “10 core values” on paper and hanging it on your office wall. You need to intentionally build a way your employees work*, and It’s not just a matter of internal management, it must apply to your recruiting processes too.

There are already bunch of resources about this topic, but one of my favorites is stories about Zappos. Lots of managers “hope” to hire and fire people based on cultural fit, but only few actually do. I highly recommend reading this book when you have a chance. If not, watch this 47sec video.

The former Zappos COO Alfred Lin joined as board of Airbnb few years back — as many you of you know Airbnb is also a company irrationally emphasizing on the importance of culture. The video is pretty long but recommended.

Building your own unique culture takes time. And you need strong belief in it while no one else (or just few) is believing. And it’s even harder to make HR decisions based on it. However, at the end of the day, whenever I see people staying or leaving for a company, the reasons are most likely related to a company culture both directly and indirectly.

Get Things Done

Get things done (GTD) plays important roles when you actually work together, but at the same time it’s the hardest thing you can tell without actually hiring.

The GTD is not something like shouting out your company’s culture or coming to your office earlier than anyone (it’s important to be punctual though!). It boils down to whether the person can really get things done. I’m deeply inspired by Elad Gil on this topic. Read this blog — it’s worth it.

He pointed out these are signs that candidates are NOT GTD (in his word, Get S**t Done).

  • Lack of urgency. Used to a large company environment where its OK if things take a few weeks longer.
  • Easily distracted. Heavy procrastinator.
  • Lazy / doesn’t work hard. Some very smart people are basically lazy. Don’t tolerate this.
  • Starts but never finishes things.
  • Lack of follow through — makes commitments but does not follow up.
  • Argumentative. Arguing incessantly about how to do something rather then just doing it.
  • Slow. Taking a long time to code (or do) something simple.
  • Perfectionist. Tendency to overdesign something and to spend 4 weeks building the perfect implementation versus 1 week building the thing that “just works” for 95% of the time.

The points above are mainly for startup companies, but in the today’s rapidly changing work environment, I’m sure this applies to almost any company around the world.

Raw Intelligence

You can rephrase the raw intelligence as a candidate’s potential. It’s common for many companies to skim resumes and screen candidates for your job. But don’t fall in this. In stead, focus on hiring someone who can learn very quickly. They will put more stuff on the table. You don’t need to take my words on this, but take the ones of the Facebook CEO.

The thing is, there are many cases that it’s more effective training new hires than relying on their past experiences. This is because (1) experienced people have own styles and that might not fit into your style (2) therefore they have less attitude/motivation to learn and adapt. It becomes tricky when you hire senior position, but that’s probably another topic we should explore in a different post.


Realized we didn’t mention “experience” or “education” here? As mentioned in the Raw Intelligence part, these could obscure your judge and make you biased (“wow she worked for Google! can’t be bad!”) Also these big companies have internal structures, so depends on company size, industry, style, etc. they might not fit into your company. Be careful about experience and education.

NOTE: These 3 elements are not equally important : the culture is the most important, then GTD, and then raw intelligence.

Hiring is more of an art than a science, so feeling is important. But be careful about how candidates fit in your culture, get things done, and learn & grow over time. If you clear all of these, chances are, you will hire great people and your company will end up being successful at whatever you do.


We’ve talked what to look at during a hiring process. Finally let us demonstrate some practices on interviews.


Figure out your budget, a compensation package for the position (stock option, etc.), relocation / remote option, visa support, etc. In real life, there will always be few or many restrictions when you want to hire someone for your company.

At the same time you want to hire the best of the best, so write down what you can and can’t afford so that you will be able to judge applicants at first sight save your time.

Reference check

Just do it. It’s that simple. It’s a part of employer’s work and the best way to find out a culture fit without getting biased by what applicants are saying. Also, if you tell applicants that you will do reference check with their past employees, they will be more honest.

Don’t be lazy on this. Ask questions that are mentioned above: culture fit with their past companies, how she get things done, and her attitude to learn new things.


It sounds crazy but most interviews are meaningless, because interviewers can’t tell what they truly care about (“does this person fit into our culture? is she capable of doing what we want her to do?”).

Instead, we recommend working with a candidate before hiring. I know this sounds strange but please read on.

What I mean by saying “work before hiring” is doing trials. For instance Automattic hires candidates with their trial methods.

Doing trials befit both sides : employers can make sure the fit and also get thing done by asking applicants to work on small jobs, prospect employees can earn money and also have a better understanding of the company.

Key Takeaways

Problem : Mishiring costs a lot.
– Avoiding this saves million dollars.
– Mishiring will take your time, a lot.

Solution : Focus on culture, GTD, and raw intelligence
– Culture : Use it to hire and fire.
– GTD : Focus on what she’s putting on the table, not what she’s saying. – Raw Intelligence : Don’t care much about experiences, but how fast she can learn new things.

Practice : Know restrictions, check references, and do trials.
– Know restrictions : Understand this not to screen.
– Check reference : Do it no matter what. It’s worth it.
– Do trials : The best way to see how candidates perform at work.

*probably better to write a new post only focusing on culture / how to interview since these are some of the most important topics of hiring.

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