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5 ways to see if a job candidate is empathetic

Looking to add someone with emotional intelligence to your team? Here’s how to check for empathy in a job interview.

5 ways to see if a job candidate is empathetic
[Photo: fizkes/Getty Images]

Empathy is one of the key emotional intelligence skills and one that is highly sought after in organizations. Instead of immediately jumping in to give advice, empathic people have the ability to listen and offer comfort and support to those around them. As a result, people find themselves drawn to this person, as they tend to make others feel cared for, valued, and understood.

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These individuals can lower the stress level of any workplace, adding a significant measure of understanding among staff who observe and look to emulate their behaviors. Because of this, they increase the level of engagement and motivation of those with whom they work and interact.

But while empathy is a highly desirable trait, it’s not easy to assess directly in an interview. Being aware that empathy is a trait that is desirable, candidates with low empathy may try to answer in a way that makes them appear to possess it. Instead, interviewers need to be more subtle, setting up scenarios, and asking questions that are not obvious.

Here are five ways of checking for empathy in an interview:

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See how they interact with those who aren’t involved in the interview process

How candidates treat the people they see before the interview will give good clues to their empathy level. Did they warmly acknowledge and return smiles from the security guard, cleaning staff, or receptionist? “Establishing rapport is one of the most important skills when candidates are meeting people for the first time,” says Adam C. Bandelli, founder and managing director of Bandelli & Associates, and author of Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships. “People who practice this skill look to draw others into conversations by finding common ground [and] asking questions.”

Check their listening skills

While not directly related to empathy, people with good listening skills tend to have higher levels of empathy and emotional intelligence. When the interviewer asks a question, do they mull it over, get clarification, or do they seem overly anxious to jump in with an answer? Does their body language indicate that they are closely listening? Interviewers can choose questions that are deliberately ambiguous and would benefit from further clarification to further determine this.

Ask how would they react if a coworker had a personal issue

Perhaps a coworker comes to them and shares a personal situation that is causing them a great deal of emotional distress. Maybe their spouse or partner just left them, or they found out that someone in their family has a terminal illness. How would the candidate react? Would they first listen and try to comfort the coworker? Or would they immediately try to avoid or bypass the situation by advising the coworker to contact their supervisor or HR for help? “Empathy is a critical component of human connection,” says Artis Stevens, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. “A candidate who is able to empathize in an unscripted moment will lead with empathy if hired. It is important to consider this aspect of interpersonal connection in the workplace.”

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Ask what they would do if someone on their team seemed distracted and unable to do their job

Would they first try to find out what is going on with their colleague, or would they complain to their supervisor? What if the person was doing their best and still falling short of expectations? Is there any concern shown toward that person’s struggles, or do they make it clear they’re more concerned about how this situation would affect them and make them and their team look bad? Do they give some thought to how they could help their colleague perform their job?

Ask who they admire and why

This question will give you clues as to what is important to them and their values. A good answer is that the person has overcome adversity, helps others, or is involved in work or a worthy cause that benefits others. Or, do they admire the person just because they are financially successful, have beaten the competition, and financially are at the top of their field?

The interviewer may have to do some probing to find out what it really is that inspires them to admire this person, as the person may not be aware immediately. “Similarly, asking if the candidate supports a cause or nonprofit and why, can be very revealing,” says Sona Khosla, host of the Speaking of Purpose podcast and Benevity chief impact officer. “A person who is willing to give of themselves for the betterment of society,” she explains, “will very likely also be someone who contributes to a culture that fosters equity, belonging, and empathy.”

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About the author

Harvey Deutschendorf is an emotional intelligence expert, author and speaker. To take the EI Quiz go to theotherkindofsmart.com

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