How to Interview for Excel Skills

November 2, 2022

"Would you say you're an advanced Excel user?" the hiring manager asks during the on-site interview. "Yes," the candidate replies. "Great," the hiring manager says, before asking another "Tell me about a time" behavioral question. Later, that candidate is extended a Senior Analyst job offer and accepts. Their first week on the job someone asks the new employee to add a VLOOKUP to the daily pricing report. "Oh, I don't know VLOOKUPs, why don't you just do it for me?" the new employee replies with a smile. It turns out that while, yes, they have heard of the term VLOOKUP, they have zero idea how to use them and zero desire to learn. The same holds true for pivot tables, macros, making charts, manipulating data, and most other Senior Analyst activities.

The new Senior Analyst either bumbles along for a few months and quits, fails upwards into a promotion, transfers to another department, or has their analytical Excel work shifted to already over-burdened co-workers. Or perhaps they make an embarrassing and costly mistake, like the city of Framingham's 2011 $1.5M budget loss due to 'monstrous spreadsheets.'  This happens more often than you'd think. According to a 2006 study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 81% of people lie about themselves and their qualifications during job interviews. This scenario is completely avoidable, and here's how.

Understand The Skill Level Required

You don't need to be an Excel expert to hire one. While crafting the job requirements, determine both the spreadsheet skill level (beginner, intermediate or advanced) and feature knowledge required (analytics, reporting, data entry, automation). For example, two people may be advanced Excel users but both know completely different features as one person specializes in genome mapping and the other in actuarial science.

This skills chart may help narrow down your job requirements. Another option is to ask co-workers in similar roles more about their day to day Excel usage. Is it important to be at the beginner, intermediate or advanced skill level? What are some of the more complex must-know features? How many hours each day do they use Excel? Once you have some clarity around the job requirements you're ready for the interview.

During The Interview

This is the best question to ask to get a feel for your candidate's Excel skills: [b]what was an Excel file that you worked on that you are particularly proud of[/b]? As they're answering, take notes on any Excel functions or features you don't recognize. You can ask the candidate to explain them or ask a co-worker later. Also, ensure you understand the file's purpose before moving on to follow-up questions. You can do this by giving the candidate a one sentence summary of their project and asking if it's an accurate characterization. Choose a couple follow-up questions to ask from this list, or ask some things that interest you or that you're curious about. It's great if you can make it into a friendly conversation and seem less like an interrogation.

Excel Example Follow-Up Question Choices

  • How did the idea for your project come about?
  • What new features would you like to add?
  • Any complex formulas or functions used in the project?
  • What was some of the team's feedback once they started using it?
  • What was the net improvement (time saved, new insights into the business, increased accuracy)?
  • What if you had to make a major modification? Examples include change to a new year, a raw data layout change, expand it to a different department
  • Could a co-worker take over and maintain the file after 5 minutes of training? Why or why not?

As you ask these questions, you want to keep an eye out for a few areas. Did they create the file or maintain someone else's? Has there been any thoughts into optimization or improvements? Is it easy for others to use (documentation, color coding, automation with buttons)? What testing was done to ensure accuracy? Is it flexible and able to handle edge cases or scale up to accommodate org changes? Does it seem like it took a reasonable amount of time to create? Does the candidate know what they're talking about?

Or, Bring In The Expert

Often, a company will have multiple employees involved in the interview process. You can ask a resident Excel expert to join the interview panel and assess the candidate's skills. Discuss with them beforehand which skill level you're looking for and the spreadsheet job requirements. Get a feel for the questions they'll ask and if it's relevant to the role. A warning: sometimes technical interviewers squander their time slot grilling candidates on esoteric topics to stump them, or trying to impress them with ther own long stories of worksheet wizardry. If the interview format allows, try to have a second person in the room for another opinion.

Use Hiring Assessments

There are a wealth of hiring assessments available today. These can be used in tandem with the interview tactics described above. A good assessment will have real-world questions, an actual hands-on exercise testing their skills, be quick, easy for you to administer, and provide helpful score reports that rank all candidates. Check that it is automated from inviting candidates to the final reporting and ranking. Rate My Excel offers all of these benefits and more, but there may be alternatives that also meet your needs.