HR assumes that hiring managers know how to get the right information from a candidate. Hiring managers simply replicate what they’ve seen elsewhere.
Adding to the misdirection, the entire interview process is highly subjective, so it’s easy to rationalize choices made along the way.
This is why hiring managers ask so many dumb questions and end up with unsuitable employees.
Some types of questions I particularly dislike:
- Situational examples: E.g. “Provide an example of a time you faced a difficult decision at work and explain how you resolved it?”
- “Clever” questions: E.g. “How many bolts would you estimate are on the wing of a Boeing 747?”
- Weaknesses: E.g. “What is your biggest weakness?”
- Lists: E.g. “Share your top 3 digital marketing skills and top 3 areas for development.”
Woah! Aren’t those standard questions to ask in an interview? And don’t they help provide insights into the candidate?
Here’s my issue: these are bullshit questions that elicit bullshit answers.
They’re all standard questions for which the interviewee has prepared a scripted narrative. By asking these questions, you’re evaluating a candidate on their ability to anticipate what you want to hear and act out a part.
The second question in particular drives me nuts and is a red flag if I’m being interviewed for a role. 99% of the time the interviewer is on a power trip when asking these types of questions. (1% of the time this type of question is to evaluate reasoning within opaque conditions, but rarely does the interviewer do this properly.)
Consider the purpose of a job interview. It’s to discover what the candidate will bring to the role and what it would be like working with the person. Obtaining these truths often requires nuance.
For example, FBI agents don’t ask suspects for examples of legal and illegal activities. Instead, they probe by asking open-ended questions and allowing the suspect to talk. As the suspect talks, the interviewer digs to uncover motivations, behaviors and inconsistencies.
The first thing I do before interviewing a candidate is determine what I want to uncover. I’m looking for specific qualities and characteristics, but I don’t set up the questions in a way that give away what I want to hear.
One technique for doing this is to ask a candidate to explain a particular role on their resume and then probe into particular parts of the role that relate to the desired characteristic. The candidate thinks I’m simply learning about their work history. Meanwhile, I’m uncovering strengths, weaknesses, behavior patterns and development opportunities.
In addition to probing, I ask questions designed to elicit truthful rather than rehearsed answers.
For example, if I want to know a candidate’s actual or aspirational strengths, instead of plainly asking about their strengths I might ask them to name and describe someone they admire. Whether Winston Churchill or their mother, people often respect someone because they value their characteristics and behaviors. People tend to emulate the strengths of people they admire.
Another example, instead of asking directly about XYZ trait (for which they will simply tell you what you obviously want to hear), describe a hypothetical situation that would test that characteristic and ask how they’d react.
Other questions I use and why:
What about this job appeals to you? What are your career aspirations?
- Shows whether they understand the job and expectations are aligned.
- Demonstrates that they took the initiative to prepare.
- Uncovers what they enjoy working on, which is usually a sign of their strengths.
- Discover their motivations for applying and how long they plan to stick around.
What did you do to prepare for this interview?
- Did they just read the front page of the website? Or did they look at product offerings, read 3rd party research, speak to colleagues, etc.
- Their answer provides a sense of how much initiative they’ll take when working for you.
What part of previous role X did you enjoy the most? What did you dislike?
- People enjoy doing what their good at. This is a way to uncover strengths and weaknesses without directly asking.
What’s your preferred way to work?
- A vague question, but one that might help me understand their ability to work with others and whether they might fit within the company culture.
If you choose to be more direct, instead of asking WHAT, ask HOW and WHY. Their ability to describe how and why they activate the quality you’re seeking will illustrate their capability. For example, don’t ask about their presentation skills, ask how they prepare for presentations.
Bottom line: each question needs to have a purpose without giving away what you want to hear.
I can’t cover everything in this article, but the main takeaways I want to leave you with when interviewing a candidate are as follows:
- Know what you’re looking for.
- Figure out how to extract that information truthfully.
- Don’t take advantage of your position of relative power over the candidate.