Successfully Interviewing Physician Candidates for Your Team

Preparation and attention to detail in developing an effective interview group will go a long way toward helping organizations hire the best talent.

Imagine two football teams playing for the Super Bowl and one comes out onto the field in a discombobulated manner:

  • The players don't know their positions (or even who plays offense and defense).
  • Some players have never even practiced together.
  • No one knows who is supposed to be on the field or what plays to run.
  • Multiple delay-of-game and other penalties ensue because of poor execution.
  • One-third of the coaching staff is nowhere to be found.
  • The game is a blowout by the end of the first quarter — an opportunity lost.

This fictional scenario sounds ludicrous — that a team of highly paid professionals would play a championship game without preparing meticulously and putting the best players at each position. Unlike this bunch, the best teams maximize their talent (few have stars at all positions) while minimizing their liabilities (we all have them).

Yet, the physician interview group — another set of highly compensated professionals — often is assembled haphazardly without sufficient attention to detail. Although managers are happy to devise and follow careful processes when it comes to handling traditional business issues, they often fall short in this arena.1

Everyone should know who should answer what questions during the interview. ”Huh, I don’t know” is not acceptable; worse is giving a wrong answer.

Remember, while you are interviewing the candidates, they are interviewing you, and it is a competition. Like any competition, success demands planning and execution, down to the last detail. And, like the football team, they were burned because they didn't prepare. The worst teams consistently lack the ability to tackle their objectives, even if they have sufficient talent to achieve at least some of their goals.

How much time does your organization spend on effective interviewing? Think about how expensive it is to recruit top talent. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that it costs one-third of a new hire's annual salary to replace an employee.2

We've all been to lectures and have read self-help books on how to interview — as the candidate, that is. But how many of you have taken steps to help you assemble a better interviewing team? It's amazing how little effort is spent in teaching effective interviewing skills and preparing for such an important task.

IMPORTANCE OF INTERVIEWS: You have screened several candidates, and have conducted some preliminary phone interviews to decide interest, and now it's time to bring candidates in. It's the entry portal to your practice or hospital and a great opportunity to make a good impression and "sell your institution" to procure top talent. It's also a fine opportunity to make mistakes, look unprofessional and sit around scratching your head after the person decides not to come.

How could this happen? Most executives have had some formal training in interviewing; however, the typical physician has received no formal instruction in interviewing and putting a team together. It's impossible to expect an optimal result in any endeavor without planning.

As the "head coach," you must select and prepare your team. But, remember — like all teams, not everyone gets to play. That's life, and it isn't about including and pleasing everyone; it's about getting the best possible talent at your organization, using the assets at your disposal.

Assign tasks to each team member, realizing each has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Business and financial decisions should be discussed with administrators, not physicians who may not know the details. Avoid certain discussion problem areas (politics, religion, etc.).

Appoint a "point person" who is in charge of the interview. This doesn't need to be the highest-ranking or most senior member, but needs to be a responsible individual who will make certain the necessary things get done. A perception that "no one is in charge" reflects disorganization. This person should also be a "troubleshooter"— a personable individual who takes care of things when problems arise, takes candidates on a tour of the hospital and talks to him/her when interviewers are late (it will happen with physicians).

Have you ever been in a play? Learn some lessons from thespians. Get your act together and rehearse until you have it right. Everyone should have a "script" for the day and their roles defined; it's bad form to not have a plan. It's too competitive out there not to have details to offer the candidate if he asks. Everyone should know who should answer what questions. "Huh, I don't know," is not acceptable; worse is giving a wrong answer.

PREVIOUS: A Coach-Like Selection Interview

ASSEMBLE YOUR TEAM: Put your best team out there. We all have good clinicians or administrators who are very competent at their jobs, but they may not be appropriate for the front line of the interview team. On interview day, have them do what they do best — see patients. Think of your "star players" and what colorful personalities exist at your institution. Some you may encounter in an interview include:

  • The respected clinician who sometimes complains about a variety of topics and whose sarcastic sense of humor is an acquired taste.
  • The chatterbox who spends too much time talking about himself and not talking with the candidate.
  • The "social group" that uses the interview as a chance to socialize and talk about their hobbies, sports, etc., rather than talking to the candidate.
  • The chronically late physician or administrator who can't show up on time and is constantly being interrupted by pages.
  • The "communicator" who spends more time looking at his smartphone than paying attention during the interview.
  • The wise old sage who never fails to offer advice on the "good old days" of medicine and how medicine today is horribly flawed.
  • The well-meaning but naive physician who has not been taught what questions can legally be asked.

Make sure you're organized. Commit the financial resources to recruitment and personnel time. Assemble a mix of positions and responsibilities to provide different viewpoints. All members of the team should undergo a Myers-Briggs or similar personality assessment tool to make certain you have all the bases covered. If your INTJ candidate interviews with seven ESTPs, there may not be much connection.

Select a recruitment coordinator and someone with authority to negotiate and close the contract. Do your homework. Determine the appropriate compensation range, benefits and partnership opportunities.

THE INTERVIEW DAY: Open the interview and set the agenda, including the amount of time for the interview and tell the interviewee whom they'll be meeting. Provide information about your history/experience with the organization, but don't go overboard, because the interview isn't about you. But the candidate must know the organization is strong. So "sell" your organization by emphasizing the organization's culture, technology, leadership and future.

Focus on the position's challenges, opportunities and visibility. There are two types of interviews you should conduct, and they are conducted differently. The first is the supervisor interview, which has you in your role of chief medical officer, medical director, practice manager, etc. It also should include other administrative personnel the successful candidate will interact with daily. The details of how you conduct this are up to you, but make sure everyone on your senior team has time to meet with the candidate.

The other is the peer interview that will include co-workers. The two are different settings, with different goals; don't have the two groups overlap significantly. Make sure the peer group isn't too large, and select potential peers who have good interpersonal skills. It's also not a time for your colleagues to socialize with each other.

Know the information in the candidate's resume or CV. It's unprofessional and shows lack of preparation to be unfamiliar with the candidate's resume.

Be on time for the interview unless an unforeseen emergency comes up, and make sure your "troubleshooter" is there for damage control. Remember the candidate's time is valuable, too. Select a quiet place to meet and dress appropriately for the interview. Don't look like you just stepped off the golf course unless an informal venue has been arranged.

Small details count. Find out how to pronounce the candidate's name if it is unusual or the pronunciation is ambiguous, and ask the candidate's preferred name (not every Michael wants to be called Mike). Googling your candidate is permissible and prudent.

PREVIOUS: Highlight Talents During Job Interview Without Bragging

Be aware of your presence, so speak clearly, don't mumble. Above all, don't criticize other practices, hospitals or colleagues, if for no other reason than it's not appropriate to do. Also, the candidate may be interviewing with those folks (and someday you may be interviewing at those places). Make eye contact at least 80 percent of the time and avoid distractions such as cellphone interruptions, pages, phone calls and looking at email during the interview. Don't keep looking at your watch or clock, as that implies you have somewhere else more important to be; you don't.

Body language is important: Be aware of what you are doing with your hands, and don't play with jewelry, hair, pens, paper clips, etc. Sit and walk confidently, have a good, firm handshake, and maintain an appropriate "personal space." The candidate needs to be at the same "level" as you — a conference table is better than sitting across a large desk.

This is a no-brainer, but I've seen it happen: It goes without saying that your interviewers CANNOT ask any illegal questions, such as:

  • Are you a U.S. citizen?
  • Where were you born?
  • What is your birthdate?
  • How old are you?
  • Do you have a disability?
  • Do you have any medical problems?
  • Have you ever seen a psychologist or psychiatrist?
  • Are you married?
  • What is your maiden name?
  • What is your spouse's name?
  • Where do you go to church?
  • What is your sexual orientation?

Make sure your human relations specialist discusses all these and other potential disaster areas with your team. There can be no room for error here. Any team member asking any of these questions will paint your institution as unprofessional and uninformed.

The social lunch or dinner is an important part of the interview. Make sure you select a restaurant that meets the candidate's needs. Don't take a vegetarian candidate to a steak house, and note any special dietary preferences (gluten-free, allergies, etc.). If they bring children, make sure appropriate choices are available for them.

Arrange the group carefully. Avoid too many people and make sure not to ignore the spouse or significant other. The goal should be to socialize; don't talk business too much. Above all, don't drink too much and don't let the night go on too long.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW: Do an "autopsy;" talk to your team after the interview and get feedback — good and bad. What went well? What, if anything, didn't? Was the person polite and professional to everyone he or she came in contact with? The candidate may have been fine with you but was rude or dismissive to an assistant, secretary, etc. Remember, if the candidate was rude to staff during an interview, he or she will probably be rude on the job.

Use a standardized interviewer form to compile objective data; don't just sit around in the conference room afterward to discuss. Be quantitative rather than qualitative to make the best possible analyses.

Provide prompt follow-up — preferably with a phone call rather than an email. Offer to answer any questions or clarify any matters. But don't be pushy. The candidate likely has other offers to consider. Make sure you are available and answer your phone or email if you say you will. If you decide to hire the candidate, act quickly to secure a commitment; get an offer out and set a time frame.

Effective interviewing requires preparation, just like any other competition. Attention to detail, preparation, and putting your "best team on the field" will go a long way to helping you hire the best candidates possible to build a stronger team. Like any team, you will lose a few, but hopefully will win the big game when it counts. 

Matthew Neal, MD, MBA, CPE, FACP, FACE, is executive medical director of academic affairs at Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Hospital, and assistant dean for educational affairs and faculty development and clinical professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine in Muncie, Indiana. 


  1. Yeung R. Successful interviewing and recruitment. London: Kogan Page Ltd, 2008.
  2. Camp R, Vielhaber ME, Simonetti JL. Strategic interviewing: how to hire good people. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
  3. Clifford L. Interview others: how to spot the perfect candidate. London: A & C Black Publishers, 2006. 

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