Advice for remote interviewing with Aflac NI's Sarah Milliken

  • It could be fair to assume that nobody likes or enjoys job interviews.

    With Covid-19 and its subsequent lockdowns pushing the majority of interviews online, people probably like them even less. Well fear not! Aflac NI’s Leader of Talent and Culture, Sarah Milliken, is well-seasoned in being on the interviewer side of the screen, and she revealed to Sync NI her top tips for candidates interviewing remotely.

    All you’ll have to focus on is making your Zoom background look presentable and you’re good to go!

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    Body language and setting the tone

    Trying to gauge someone and build rapport with them when interviewing remotely is “definitely a new skill, even as an interviewer,” says Sarah.

    “Before, you were able to have some conversation with the candidate, when they’re walking into the room or you’re picking them up from reception. From a company perspective we always try and make the candidate feel comfortable by having a bit of a conversation at the beginning before you jump in and setting the tone of what the interview is going to be.

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    “From the candidate's perspective, it’s about how to build rapport and stay engaged, still having those non-verbal communication cues that you would have had in a room; keeping eye contact when possible, nodding when the interviewer is talking, and having no distractions.”

    On that note of distractions, Sarah advises to “get your phone out of the way, make sure that if your Outlook or Microsoft Teams is on that you close those, so that nothing foreseeable is going to distract you. It's about trying to minimise as many other distractions as possible.”

    Research research research!

    The thing that is always consistent whether interviewing virtually or in-person is doing your prep.

    “We would always say to our managers during their interview skills training, they should remember interviews are absolutely a two-way process,” Sarah continued.

    “We’re trying to find out whether the candidate is the right fit for us, but as a candidate it’s really important to find out whether a company is the right fit for you, particularly in the tech space, where there’s so much going on.

    “How the interviewers make you feel, what their company website looks like, what the tone of the interview is like all set the scene for what type of organisation it is.

    Aflac NI's leadership team

    “It's a question that most organisations ask, but really think about the ‘why?’ – why this role? Why this organisation? Don’t have an answer like ‘I looked at the website and it looks really good’ or ‘I looked at this job description and it sounds really interesting’.

    “Organisations want to hear that you’ve done your research, that you’ve learned a little bit about them, that you’ve aligned your own motivations to what the organisation is trying to achieve as well.

    “It’s not just about the tech stack but all the other things. Why this role over another role and why this organisation over another organisation? “It probably means a bit more prep because you have to tailor it every time you interview as a candidate but it definitely differentiates someone who is a bit on the fence to someone who is really keen and enthusiastic about the role.”

    Ask questions

    At Aflac NI, Sarah said she and her colleagues would always allow at least 10 minutes of candidate question time at the end “because interviews are a nerve-wracking experience and it’s probably more nerve-racking virtually because you can’t get a read of the room”.

    “You’re just looking at these faces on a screen,” she laughed.

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    “We’ve really seen candidates light up whenever they start to ask questions and we get a real sense of their motivations from the type of questions that they ask and how much thought they’ve put into it in terms of the process as well.

    “So absolutely do ask questions. It makes you sound engaged and gives the interviewers insights into you and what you’re interested in.”

    Don’t be intimidated by panels!

    Typically the team at Aflac NI would always interview as a panel. Sarah thinks that “whenever you use that word ‘panel’ people are filled with this fear that it's going to be seven people asking them scary questions!”

    She assured that Aflac NI “would typically have two on our panel and we try to make it conversational”.

    She also believes that interview panels can be a positive thing as “it gives the candidate some different voices and different perspectives, but it also means that as an interviewer your panellist can take some more detailed notes and vice versa.”

    When you think about it from the interviewer’s point of view, it gives them a good comparison at the end in terms of looking at feedback and collating those candidate answers.

    Take time to pause, reflect and repeat

    From a candidate’s perspective, we all have those moments where a little voice in your head goes, “I have totally gone off on a tangent here and I’m not even answering the question that the interviewer has asked me.”

    Sarah thinks “it’s totally fine to take a pause and just say, ‘Sorry, could you repeat that question?’”

    “It sounds so simple but I guarantee that everyone has had one of those moments going, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore’ and that’s totally fine!” she laughed.

    “It's something that, whenever I’m saying to the candidate at the beginning of an interview, ‘This is what we’re going to do today and this is what we’re going to walk you through’, I also say, ‘, if you draw a blank it’s totally OK, but know that you can ask for us to repeat the question.’”

    “Even as an interviewer that’s a skill in itself to know if or when a candidate may be struggling; being able to say ‘Listen if you need to take a minute, or can I repeat the question again?’

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    “It just helps with taking off that pressure we all put on ourselves during an interview. We’re not trying to catch you out, we want to make sure we’re getting the best out of you as a candidate and we’ve all been there.

    “It's a confidence thing as well because that little voice again makes you think, ‘ I’m going to be marked down if I ask the interviewer to repeat the question’ and that’s absolutely not the case. If you are, that’s maybe not a company you want to work for anyway.”

    If at first you don’t succeed…

    Come and apply again! Sarah says that from a candidate experience point of view, “we want candidates who may not be right for us right now, to feel like they want come and apply again!”

    “That’s all down to the experience and how we’ve treated them, and how they’ve felt throughout the process,” she said.

    “So if it’s been a really scary interview where you’ve had intimidating panellists who give nothing away and show no humility, it’s not an organisation you’re probably going to want to come back and apply!”

    Find out more about Aflac Northern Ireland on their website and check out their current job openings on Sync NI’s Jobs page.

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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