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Panel Interviews: How to impress an interview panel

Have you ever walked confidently into an interview room, expecting to greet one or maybe two interviewers, and instead been faced with four, five or even six people sat behind a long table? If you have, you'll know that it can be unsettling to suddenly have so many faces and questions to respond to.

If you haven't, welcome to the panel interview! The chances are that you will encounter one sooner or later. What can you do to ensure you're well prepared and don't get thrown by the experience of being interviewed by several people at once?

Why do Employers use Panel Interviews?

Employers use panel interviewers to make decisions that they believe will be more reliable and objective. In a single session, they can bring together several people who will be affected by the appointment and allow them to pool viewpoints. This process is intended to reduce individual bias and produce the best recruitment decision through consensus.

These interviews are frequently used for high level executive recruitment, where the stakes are felt to be high and misguided appointments could lead to major problems. They are often used in the second round of interviews, the first round having comprised a screening process rather than an in-depth meeting.

The education and non-profit sectors frequently use panel interviews too. The need for accountability is a priority, so the involvement of different interests reduces the likelihood of an inappropriate appointment. Increasingly, companies in the scientific sector are also using panel interviews as a standard approach.

Roles within the Interview Panel

Members of the interviewing panel usually include the immediate supervisor or manager for the vacant position, a human resources representative, plus individuals who represent other departments. Sometimes, a person currently employed in a similar role will be on the panel too. In the case of public sector or publicly funded organisations, a person from a funding body may also be present. People with specialist knowledge from outside the organisation may also be brought in.

Members are usually briefed in advance by the lead interviewer, who often acts as chair person. The lead isn't always the highest ranking person present. Each member's questions are (usually) decided in advance, along with the order in which they'll be asked. All members will receive copies of the candidates' applications, along with information about the position's requirements.

Your Challenge as an Interviewee

A panel interview can feel like an interrogation, simply because having a group of people watching you can be intimidating. There is far less chance to establish a rapport, because after you've answered one interviewer's question, the next interviewer asks a question that may be unrelated. Just as you start feeling comfortable with one person, you have to start interacting with somebody else.

This is also a problem if you get the feeling that a particular panel member is less sure about you than the others. Whereas you may feel you could convince them more in an individual meeting, the panel interview doesn't offer this opportunity.

It is also harder to develop a theme in the interview, or to enter a more detailed discussion of one of your strong areas of experience. This can be frustrating, for just as you are warming to a theme and are ready to divulge more information, the interview moves on.

The pace of the interview may be more testing than a one-to-one interview. As there is less natural flow relating to subject matter, it can feel as if you are being bombarded by disparate questions, with little time to recover between them.

Your Advantages

It can be helpful to demonstrate your suitability to several people at once. If you secure the position, there are several involved people within the organisation who you have already encountered. Even though you may not know their individual preferences for the appointment, they are all likely to be committed to the eventual decision.

The decrease in bias can work to your advantage too. This is particularly the case if you are an external candidate competing against an internal candidate (or two) for a position. You might otherwise be at a disadvantage because an interviewing manger already has a working relationship with the internal candidate.

Overall, the collaborative nature of the interview can be helpful, as it protects you from personal preferences - e.g. a manager preferring a female or male appointment, or an interviewer taking a dislike to you for unrelated reasons. In the panel interview, everyone has to justify their feelings to the other members.

Preparing for a Panel Interview

Research is Essential

There is plenty you can do to prepare for a panel interview. As with any interview, it's always a good idea to find out in advance who will be interviewing you. If you learn that the interview is going to involve an interview panel, then ask for the names of those who'll be sitting on the panel. It's reasonable to request this information. If the names are unfamiliar, find out what the person does. This will help you to anticipate some of the lines of questioning.

As with any interview, you should research in advance. This means visiting the organisation's website, reading the annual report, looking at news items and interviews elsewhere online, etc. You can also research the market place, looking at competitors' activities or services.

Review Your Application

It's especially important to look back at your own application and cover letter. It's surprising how many people can't remember what they've said until it's repeated back to them at interview. You can be confident that with a panel of people scrutinising your application, no detail will be overlooked.

Be thorough in identifying examples of achievements or positive experience that you can draw on for every aspect of your application. Each claim or statement you make needs to be backed up with evidence. You'll need to mention these examples very early in your answers, as there'll be little chance of giving detailed answers to follow-up questions.

During the Interview

Introductions

If you've done your research, you should already have the names of the panel members. Be sure to pay great attention to the introductions at the start of the interview. Establishing rapport during the interview will be hard, so make the most of this opportunity. Smile, shake hands and make good eye contact with each person.

If you mishear something, ask for clarification. It's also acceptable to ask who you'll be working with, if you don't already know. You do have to impress the entire panel, but a future manager is the person you must be absolutely sure of impressing.

Responding to Panel Interview Questions

When replying to any question, you should always direct your reply to the person who asked it. While you give that person most of your eye contact, you should always involve the other members by looking at them periodically too. Don't turn your body from a roughly central direction when replying, as you risk turning your shoulder against someone else.

If one panel member looks particularly disinterested while you're answering somebody else's question, ignore it. You can't afford to be distracted from providing a good answer and from focusing on the person who is most important at that moment. The bored looking member may be an inexperienced interviewer, or a peripheral member of the panel.

Remain Calm and Confident

You have to decide not to be intimidated by the panel interview format. It may seem higher pressure, but if you keep a clear mind, you can handle it. Never interrupt or talk over anybody, but remember you can ask questions at appropriate moments too. This may be your only opportunity to do so.

While it may seem like an interrogation, a panel interview is no such thing. The panel members have organised themselves to ask certain questions, but there is no reason to believe that they present an organised group of viewpoints. Some will never have met before. You have as much chance of influencing opinions as you would in an individual interview. Treat each person with respect and proceed from there.

A good tactic is to tell yourself that this is a meeting rather than a selection interview. If you have done your research and prepared your work examples, there is no reason why you can't get your points across in good time.


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