Should candidates take and read notes in interviews… or not?

by Oct 22, 2020

Would you take and read notes in interviews?

 

I posed this question to my LinkedIn network “Should candidates take and read notes in interviews… or not?”  Who would have thought that it could have generated such a heated discussion. The career and hiring sector is clearly not on the same page on this issue.

 

Some fully advocate for it. Others, in full transparency, like me, are not fans. I have been blessed with a reasonably good memory and even did some memory training, so I have personally always been able to manage without taking copious notes  – except for numbers. I am totally number blind.

However, today, with a post COVID brain I would sadly probably need to check my notes to remember my name.

 

Here’s why I’m not a fan:

✅ If you are taking notes, your head is down, you are probably not making eye contact with me and/or other interview panel members.
✅ You are not observing body language and reading the room.
✅You are putting yourself in a subservient position. Unless the job is for a Transcriptionist role. Interviews are a two way street.
✅ Note taking can become an emotional crutch.
✅ If you need to take notes the hiring manager or recruiter has not given you sufficient information beforehand. The exception could be if there is confidential data they may not want to put writing. They may not want you to take notes so probably best to ask first.
✅If you need notes to remember your questions, then that could be perceived as being inadequately prepared.

I have interviewed tens of thousands of candidates over the years and my experience of it is that it has rarely gone well for the candidate. Clearly for phone interviews it makes no difference. In online interviews it can be easier to hide your own notes.

 

Jury verdict

The jury was well and truly split on this sensitive topic!

Hannah Morgan, Career Sherpa, says “Maybe it is all in how you take notes. Casually taking notes while also monitoring the body language of interviewers is possible. You may miss a second, but I NEVER advocate head down notetaking. Don’t we all take notes during meetings? In my opinion, it is another way of showing you are taking the interview seriously. We all have personal preferences and should be aware of our weaknesses. Taking copious notes and not building rapport with the interviewer is a dangerous mistake.'”

Phyllis Mufson, Career Coach, agreed. “I’m not a fan, but if someone feels that helps them concentrate and control their nerves, why not. I don’t advocate it for my clients. I want them to be so prepared and confident that they can direct their energies fully into listening, observing and connecting, being present.” 

Phyllis was supported by Virginia Franco, Executive Storyteller “If note taking distracts from your ability to maintain a conversation or look someone in the eye for a majority of the time, I’d refrain.” 

But Ed Han,Talent Acquisition Geek, hovers somewhere in between “I’m a fan of note taking, as I feel that it demonstrates a preference for accuracy, but should be restricted to key points. You’re interviewing, not transcribing, after all.”

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Strong supporters

There were some strong supporters of note taking. Susan Joyce, Publisher and Editor of Job Hunt Org indicated “From my perspective, I am shocked that anyone on the hiring side might be offended by an interviewee taking notes. A job interview is an opportunity for BOTH sides to gather important information. And, gathering information requires note taking. Asking for permission is courteous and appropriate. But, if the answer is no, then I would not be interested in the job.”

“I’m surprised this topic is up for discussion.” said Richard Suorsa, Imaging Engineer. He added robustly “As a candidate, of course I take notes, and I don’t need your permission to do so. It’s not my job to nary avert my gaze upon you lest I miss a tic of significance. I’m actually more engaged to record a salient point to pull up later and free myself to fawn over you as you see fit.”

Josh Madrid, Recruiter “As a hiring manager, I don’t mind the candidate taking notes however it’s super frustrating when they stop you so they can finish writing down their notes. I don’t like it when I’m trying to tell you about our company/job and you ask me to stop, repeat that in sections so you can write it down. It SLOWS down the process and leaves little time for us to connect. I’m happy for you to reference your notes when you have questions you want to ask.”   

 

take and read notes in interviews

It’s all about the skill

There was a definite consensus around how you should take note and there is a right and wrong way to do it. David Kiss “I always take notes, but have learnt to do do it without breaking eye contact. I’ve found this skill highly useful on multiple occasions (not only on interviews…)

Aroon Wadvani, Channel Alliance Manager, “Taking notes if done right way doesn’t need to take the focus away from from the interview process. The idea is to not write down long sentences, but more capturing key words or phrases or relevant metrics.” 

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Greater interest or better memory?

One of the comments that was mentioned multiple times was that taking notes showed interest. Laura Smith Proulx Resume Writer recommends, “…taking interview notes, BUT in a subtle, high level fashion while conversing and listening. It shows strong interest in the role and an ability to think critically about issues facing the company – particularly when you think on your feet and shoot back some strategic questions about what they’ve mentioned.”

Does that mean that the non-note taker is less interested and less accurate or just has a better memory? Do we now as interviewers need to be careful of yet another bias here?

Neurodiversity

Kimberly Fortsun, social justice advocate made an excellent point about different communication styles. ” Think we need to encourage note-taking because normalizing candidates who don’t make eye contact or who need to take notes for their way of working will increase hiring neurodiverse candidates.” 

That is something I will definitely factor in going forward and to establish if the person feels more comfortable taking notes.  Someone also raised some points off line, after the thread was closed, that the whole process raise issues around diversity specifically physical ability. Visually impaired or hard of hearing, or some sort of manual impairment may also struggle has given me pause for thought. Someone on the autistic spectrum who may have a problem with eye contact will also find that a challenge.

Verdict

Overall, I was surprised by the result where a mere 16% agrees that it diluted interaction and 43% were strongly in favour. I also wondered if there was a strong connection with reduced attention spans in today’s high tech digital culture. Or perhaps I can’t imagine saying anything complicated enough in an interview that someone would need to write it down. There is also nothing to stop a candidate reverting after an interview with an additional email to ask for clarity.

What is a nice add-on which I personally like to do, is to take a few minutes to create a voice memo or note of my experience after the interview. Could be in the car, or a café or on a bench somewhere.  I look at how the panel interacted with each other, the names and role of each person. I reflect if they are a group, and the focus of each person’s role in the interview.

For an in-person interview I would definitely be noting the environment, including the décor, the condition of furniture and equipment, even the bathrooms. Observing how the employees looked in their environment (difficult during COVID I know, if they have to wear masks) can send “tells” about an organisation.

So candidates, the verdict was very much take notes if you find it helpful, just little memory joggers and do so without letting the process interfere with creating a rapport.

Message to interviewers

But to interviewers, myself included, I think I would even be inclined to ask a candidate now if they needed any special accommodation to make the process more effective for them. Someone mentioned recording an interview in the thread which could also be effective. Knowing as we do that the interview process is flawed in so many ways, perhaps now is the time to recalibrate the whole system.

But let’s not forget that any of our strong preferences are biases and should not be related to competence assessment.

This has been a great learning discussion for me. Thank you.

 

Find out how to mitigate bias in your organisations intreviewing process

 

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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