Startup Hiring

Startup Hiring 101: A Founder’s Guide. Part 15 - Best practices for interviewers

Steve Bartel

Steve Bartel

CEO and Co-Founder

Posted on

April 15, 2024

Welcome back. In part 15, we’re going to cover best practices for interviewers and get much more granular. Let’s get started.

Remember always to be closing — your interview loop is a great opportunity for your candidate to continue to learn more about your startup.

If you have other co-founders or a founding team involved in the hiring loop, we recommend you walk your team through best practices on interviewing (takes approx. 20 minutes). Share these best practices with new hires as you build your team. A little bit of context can go a long way towards making sure your interviewers are getting the best signal, and your candidates are getting the best experience.

It’s probably worth emphasizing the importance of candidate experience. Delivering a positive candidate experience will increase your close rate and preserve your employer brand. A negative one (e.g., showing up late to an interview or treating your candidate poorly) can hurt your company’s reputation. All it takes is one bad Glassdoor review to cause some serious damage. Every person at the company the candidate interacts with, from the first outreach, to onsite, to hire, needs to understand the concept of candidate experience.

Below are the interview best practices we share with our team internally. These best practices were written by Gem’s very own Head of People, Caroline Stevenson, who spent six years at Dropbox building a world-class team before joining Gem to lead Recruiting and HR.

Feel free to copy/paste these into your own doc and share it with your team. If these best practices are more built out than what you need, definitely feel free to pair them down or tweak them as needed.

TLDR; best practices for interviewers

  • Interview prep best practices - Review the candidate’s resume before the interview, know what areas/questions you’re responsible for.

  • Interviewing best practices - Put the candidate at ease, ask probing/open-ended questions to make sure you get signal, avoid making assumptions about the candidate, take notes, leave time at the end of the interview for questions, don’t ever ask questions, directly or indirectly, around age, sex, sexual orientation, race, color, national origin, religion, genetics, or disabilities.

  • Post-interview best practices - Write (detailed) interview notes promptly, attend the debrief, do not discuss feedback with others on the interview panel before the debrief

Interview prep best practices

Review the candidate’s resume before the interview

  • You should walk into the interview knowing things like where they’ve worked, for how long, etc.

    • These facts might influence the questions you ask. E.g., the last company they worked at seems highly relevant to what we do - how might that help you tweak your questions. What about if they’ve never worked in tech before?

  • There might be extra context available to you on candidates before going into the interview. If there is, make sure to read it over. This might include information like - why the candidate is looking, how they were introduced to your startup, and what things are important to them in their job search.

Know what areas/questions you’re responsible for

  • Every role should have a doc with an interview panel and questions for each interviewer to ask the candidate(s). Make sure you know your part here! If you have questions, sync with the hiring manager.

Interviewing best practices

Put the candidate at ease

  • It’s normal for a candidate to be nervous, so you should try to put the person at ease from the moment you enter the room. If we can help candidates be less nervous, we have a better chance of getting a clear signal on their abilities and personality!

    • A good way to do this is to start with small talk to get them warmed up.

    • Offer the candidate a quick break if they need a drink or a restroom break (sometimes they might just appreciate taking a minute to re-group).

Introduce yourself and cover the agenda for the interview

  • Introduce yourself. What do you do at your company? How long have you worked here? How might you work with the candidate in the role we’re trying to fill? This will help give them context on who they are talking to and why you might specifically be in the interview.

  • Set the agenda. For example:

    • “I’m really excited to learn more about you today. I have many questions I’d like to ask, particularly around the way you think about (insert area here). I’d love to dive right in, but I’ll make sure to save some time at the end of the interview to make sure you have time to ask any questions as well. Does that sound good?”

Ask open-ended questions

  • Open-ended questions > yes/no questions

    • Open-ended questions allow you to get greater insight into a candidate's personality, ability to articulate, experience, level of motivation, communication skills, ability to solve problems, etc.

Make sure you get the signal you need out of the interview!

You want to make sure you can make a hire/no-hire recommendation at the end of the interview. Here are some tips on how to make sure you get that proper signal:

Instead of trying to get through a long list of questions, pick a few meaty questions you can spend time diving into with follow-ups.

  • Ask probing questions to dive deeper into answers, understand candidates’ motivations, and clarify any ambiguous signal or language.

    • Probing questions often begin with "what" or "how." Questions inviting personal reflection often begin with "do you" or "are you."

    • Questions beginning with "why" may put the candidate on the defensive - be careful with those!

  • Here is an example of how to ask probing questions

    • Question: “Tell me about a mistake you made?”

    • Answer: “Once, I forgot to send a critical email.”

      • Possible probing questions

        • Can you tell me more about the email you were writing?

        • What was the setting/circumstance in which you made the mistake?

        • How did you realize the mistake was made?

        • Once you realized the mistake made, what did you do? Was there a list of options you considered in how to rectify it? How did you decide what path to take?

        • Did you implement anything to make sure the mistake didn’t happen again?

          • What did you implement?

          • Was it effective?

        • If you could go back in time, is there anything you could have done differently to not have made a mistake in the first place?

        • Did you learn anything else from this mistake? Any other insights that came out of it?

  • Here are some other clarifying questions that can be used if you don’t feel like you’re getting the signal you need from weak or ambiguous answers

    • Could you please tell me more about . . . ?

    • I'm not certain what you mean by . . . Could you give me some examples?

    • Could you tell me more about your thinking on that?

    • This is what I thought I heard . . . Did I understand you correctly?

      • What I hear you saying is . . .

      • Can you give me an example of . . . ?

      • What makes you feel that way?

      • You just told me about . . . I'd also like to know about . . .

Don’t ever, indirectly or directly, ask questions around:

  • Age, sex, sexual orientation, race, color, national origin, religion, genetics, or disabilities

    • Where are you from?

    • How old are you?

    • Do you have kids?

    • Aww, cute kids! How old are they?

    • What year did you graduate?

  • It’s also illegal to ask someone how much compensation they’re currently making.

  • Here are some other questions that can be problematic.

Take notes

  • You’ll likely forget a lot of things if you don’t write them down! Take notes in the interview so you can reference them and use detailed examples when you write feedback.

  • Pen and paper is the best method when interviewing in person. Your laptop can be distracting (both for you and the interviewee).

    • If you MUST use your laptop to take notes because you find pen and paper ineffective, here are some guidelines to consider:

      • Ask the candidate if it is okay if you take notes on your laptop, and confirm it won’t distract them.

      • Continue to make eye contact during the interview. This might mean taking limited notes or being able to still maintain eye contact with the candidate while talking.

      • Turn off any notifications that might distract you (e.g., slack). Make it a point to stay present in the interview.

Leave at least five to ten minutes at the end of the interview for the candidate to ask questions

  • This is when you should be the most chatty (especially if you feel the candidate did well and want to spend a bit of time selling).

  • Feel free to leave more than five to ten minutes if you feel like you have the signal you need to recommend the interview.

If doing an in-person interview:

  • Make sure you find the next interviewer after you leave. Never leave a candidate unattended in a room or at lunch without making sure the next person is on their way.

  • You can find the interview schedule on the recruiting calendar or in the link in your calendar invite for your interview.

If you’re on VC:

  • Wait until the next interviewer joins the Zoom.


  • Lunch should be a time to get to know the candidate. This should be more informal. It’s not really an interview, and you shouldn’t ask interview questions during lunch.

  • Make sure to introduce yourself!!

    • Feel free to skip writing feedback for lunch, unless you get a solid signal that something is wrong (e.g., the candidates said something offensive) or a strong signal the candidate is exceptional (they told a story about something work/role related that really really impressed you).

Post-interview best practices


  • Write up your feedback as soon as you can (while it’s fresh).

    • Include details and examples of what you talked about with the candidate.

    • Don’t discuss your interview feedback with anyone before the debrief. This will bias the other interviewers.

    • Submit your feedback as soon as possible. This allows the recruiting team to move fast and others on the panel to have time to read your feedback before the debrief.


  • Make sure to attend the debrief. It’s important.

  • If you can’t attend:

    • Let the person running the debrief know.

    • Write very detailed feedback so it can be referenced in the debriefing.

    • Talk to the hiring manager (only after they’ve submitted their own feedback) to talk through yours. That way, they can champion you in the debrief.

Bonus Materials

  • Interview Skills Ladder — a great blog post on how to assess your current interview skills and also how to improve upon them.

  • As you grow, we highly recommend investing in Unconscious Bias training. At Gem, we worked with Paradigm when we were ~20 employees, and we found them very effective and work with them to this day.

Up Next

Up next in our series, we’ll discuss an alternative approach startups can leverage to hire founding engineers – “contract to hire”. Join us next week for part 16, called How Gem Interviewed our Founding Engineering Team.

In the meantime…


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