Are Your Interviewers Getting Fooled by Canned Answers?

Avoiding canned replies depends on asking the right questions.

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Jan 3, 2024

Job candidates are more trained than ever. From videos on TikTok to articles in Forbes, and everywhere in between, candidates are quite good at delivering polished, even eloquent, answers to interview questions.

That’s one reason why research finds that most hiring failures are the result of attitudinal problems, not a lack of technical skills. Assessing someone’s technical skills is so simple and straightforward that even interviewers with mediocre skills can pull it off.

Need to assess if someone can code in Java? Administer a Java coding test, and the candidate either passes or doesn’t. Need a financial analyst who can calculate a weighted average cost of capital? Ask them to write out the formula or give them a spreadsheet.

When it comes to assessing a candidate’s attitude, however, you’ll mostly rely on interviews. And if a poorly-trained hiring manager is interviewing a candidate who’s verbally adroit, there’s a good chance the candidate will pass the interview easily.

Let’s look at a real-life response a candidate gave to the question, “Tell me about a time you had a disagreement with your boss.”

“As people, we will always have disagreements with our boss or other employees. If the person is unable to see things your way, you must deal with it in a constructive and positive way. You should always assume that the other person is operating in good faith and has legitimate and rational reasons for their viewpoint. You shouldn’t engage in gossip or backstabbing with other employees about the other person’s motives or intellect. Always speak with the other person directly and explain your point of view and try to understand theirs.”

When my team and I test this response with hiring managers, more than half of them typically consider this a good answer. But there are more than a few warning signs in this response.

For instance, in the study “Words That Cost You the Job Interview,” we discovered that low-performer interview answers use the word “you” almost 400% more than good interview answers. “You” language can signal someone who is not taking ownership of a situation and is often evidence of a psychological dissociation. Low performers’ answers contain 104% more present tense verbs. People who lack experience (or are evasive) tend to avoid the past tense to describe what they actually did.

In this interview answer above, the candidate exclusively uses second-person pronouns (“you”) and lacks the inclusion of “I” or “me,” which would make the answer more personal and reflective of the candidate’s own experiences.

Nor does the answer contain any past tense verbs. It consists mainly of general advice and uses modal verbs like “should” and “must,” which are not past tense. Such language can be interpreted as evasive, avoiding personal accountability and not clearly demonstrating how the candidate has applied these principles in practice. It also risks coming across as presumptuous, as if the candidate is advising the interviewer on how disagreements should be handled rather than reflecting on their own actions.

The answer is also overly generalized, using phrases like “as people, we will always have disagreements,” which fails to provide a specific example of a disagreement the candidate personally experienced. This vagueness deprives the interviewer of insights into the candidate’s actual behavior in a conflict situation.

Additionally, the candidate doesn’t share the outcome of the disagreement or how it was resolved. This omission is a missed opportunity to showcase their problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills. The use of absolutes like “always” and “never” in “you should always assume” and “you shouldn’t engage” also contributes to a black-and-white view, which lacks the nuance and maturity that employers typically seek.

The candidate’s response is, however, cogent and articulate. If a hiring manager lacked training on those warning signs or was only half-listening, they might think the answer sounded perfectly reasonable. We don’t know from the candidate’s response whether their attitude is a terrible fit for our company, but we do know that they didn’t answer our question.

Whether they were evading or trying to sound smart, we learned nothing about how they handled disagreements in their previous jobs. And it’s an awfully big risk to hire someone about whom you know very little.

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