More Forgettable Interview Advice

Feb 25, 2009

People are always writing articles about the best interview questions. One author (who positioned himself as a hiring expert) actually advised, “In terms of ‘canned’ interview questions, my suggestion is to select a few questions you like and ask them.”

This is a fine strategy for making friends, but absolute nonsense for a recruiter (I had another word in mind, but it would have been politically incorrect.)

After some initial chit-chat, the only interview questions a recruiter or hiring manager should ask are ones that provide trustworthy and reliable data about whether the candidate has the skills for the job.

Canned Questions and Pickled Answers

Why do so many people miss the obvious? Anyone involved in hiring knows there is a big difference between acing an interview and acing a job. Furthermore, as we all know, working in a job we neither like nor have the skills for is a painful experience. I can understand this kind of clueless interview recommendation coming from an inexperienced hiring manager; but, should we accept this advice from someone who either passes himself off as an expert or who recruits for a living? After all, screening applicants based on job qualifications is the recruiter’s job, isn’t it?

What Do You Know and When Did You First Know It?

Asking the right interview questions requires knowing first what to look for. And, if recruiters have to resort to qualification questions like, “What is your greatest accomplishment?” or “How would you describe yourself?” or “What is your greatest strength or weakness?” it’s a sure sign they neither have a clue how to identify specific job skills nor how to measure them. Any determined applicant will rehearse answers to questions like these. Any experienced recruiter knows, at best, they serve as knock-outs.

I once worked with a “professional” recruiter who claimed he had a better way to ask interview questions. He drew close, looked around to see no one was listening, and whispered, “How would your best friend describe you?” (With great difficulty, I choked back a description I really wanted to use to describe him).)

I can just envision the flood of nasty-grams I am about to receive from recruiters in angry disagreement; but, I did not invent this stuff any more than Newton invented gravity. Best-practice interview techniques are supported by thousands of peer-reviewed investigations conducted by hundreds of experts. So, if anyone wants to argue, here is a list of roughly 200 universities. I’m sure they would love to hear your opinions!

Knowing What You Need

If knowing what to look for in an applicant seems so simple, why do so many people get it wrong? For one thing, it’s not as simple as knowing the results you want to achieve. Results do not tell you how a job was done — or even who did it — they are the scores at the end of the game. They do not tell you what the player did, when or why the player did it. Just knowing results leads to assumptions about the skills used to achieve them. You need more; otherwise your assumptions will lead to hiring mistakes. Let’s use Tiger Woods as an example.

Woods’ objective is to use the least amount of strokes to put a little white ball into 18 little holes. These holes are inconveniently located amid trees, sandy pits, hills, ponds, and grassy patches. The total number of strokes is the desired result; but, Woods is only partially in control. Between his first whack and last plop, Woods has to confront temperature, humidity, wind, clubs, lawn maintenance, equipment, other players, onlookers, physical conditions, and a host of other factors out of his control — any of which can affect his score. The same is true of job-holders.

Although we treat other people as if they are in total control of their performance, we reserve the right to make excuses for our own behavior. Psychologists call this fundamental attribution error. That is, you are totally responsible for whatever happens to you … but I am entitled to blame others for whatever happens to me. Attribution error interferes with hiring decisions every time we hear a candidate tell us he was unsuccessful. Fundamental attribution error addresses only one part of the human condition; halo is another.

Humans tend to use snippets of information to make sweeping assumptions about other abilities. This is called the halo/horns effect.

What? You misspelled the word disenfranchise? You must be a complete doddering idiot who needs help tying his shoes!

What? You reduced the overall consumption of paper clips in your last job? You are obviously qualified for our presidential suite!

How often have you heard someone suggest the first two minutes of an interview make or break a candidate? Do you honestly believe someone’s entire career-skill set can be measured in two minutes? The halo/horns effect causes us to make errors both for and against every candidate.

To summarize, there are many insidious forces actively at work whenever applicant, recruiter, or hiring manager meet: silly interview questions; fundamental attribution error; halo and horns; unclear expectations; and, assuming results and skills are related. It’s a mystery why more hiring decisions aren’t disasters!

Systems and Solutions

Think of job performance this way. Every employee has to confront certain kinds of situations. Generically, these situations require a combination of one or more of the following abilities: cognitive ability (e.g., mental horsepower); planning/organization; interpersonal skills; special skills/abilities; and, specific motivational components. It gets confusing when you try to evaluate more factors than these.

For example, if you have been trained in behavioral interviewing, you probably noticed that after four or five questions, you start getting the same answers. Or, if you asked a candidate separate questions about solving a difficult problem, making a tough decision or analyzing data, you begin to hear the same story. That’s because problem solving, decision making, learning, and analysis are often so entwined that it’s difficult if not impossible to separate them. Being impossible to separate means it is almost impossible to measure them individually. Instead, it’s better to look at them as a package called cognitive ability.

Ever hired a psychologist to administer tests to an applicant only to find the report awash in personality factors and character evaluations? Well, unless your psychologist has been trained in how to evaluate job skills, he or she can only do what they were trained to do: provide mental-health evaluations. Evaluating applicants’ mental health takes you right straight into conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act. All you really want to know is whether the person has the skills for the job.

And another thing: avoid fuzzy concepts like business savvy, budgeting, tough mindedness, or drive to achieve. Fuzzy terms and hiring mistakes go together. One rule of thumb is if you cannot measure a job skill in a few minutes, then it probably is so complex that it cannot be accurately measured until the person is on the job a few months. Take leadership. Has anyone ever seen a “leadership”?

Leadership is the ability to bring a collection of individual skills together at the right place, the right time, and under the right conditions. More often than not, the skills vary with the situation. Sometimes they might require interpersonal ability, sometimes they might require analysis and correct decision making, and sometimes they might require planning. Leadership is not something you can see in a few minutes. It is a result of many things happening over time. Even the traditional leaderless group discussions that so many assessors are so fond of suffer from halo (e.g., extraverted people tend to perform better than introverts).

Interviews as Tests

It helps to understand that every problem has three components: 1) a stimulus; 2) an employee response; and, 3) a result. If you have tracked this article so far, you should understand that learning all three components are important to knowing whether the applicant has the job skills you need.

Vendors who sell behavioral interviewing programs often train participants on how to ask for background information, to probe specifically for what the candidate did or said, and to verify the results. These activities go by many acronyms (BEI, BBC, STAR, ABC, and so forth); however, regardless of the term used, the most important goal in behavior interviews is gathering sufficient information about all three components so applicant faking is minimized and specific applicant skills are clarified. Accuracy leads to better hiring decisions.

Simulations, pencil and paper tests, case studies, planning exercises, and the like, follow the same stimulus-response-result pattern. The main difference is you control the stimulus and know the result you expect. That improves accuracy.


The recruiting field is awash in nonsense and bad advice. This leads organizations to hire too many wrong people and reject too many right ones. Experts estimate this cost ranges anywhere between 20% to 50% of base salary. Being passionate about a hiring methodology and knowing it is valid and reliable are not the same thing. If a product or report seems off-target, ask to see studies proving scores actually predict job performance, look at the vendor’s professional credentials to see if they belong to the right associations (SIOP), or simply ask if the product was specifically developed to predict job performance. A vendor making claims that sound too good to be true are no different than the emails announcing your lottery winnings. A little common sense and education makes a world of difference.

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