Why The Four-Question Interview Still Works Best

Dec 14, 2000

In this age of intensive digital searching and testing, some people find it hard to believe that something as simple as a four-question interview to measure a candidate’s competency can be of any use at all ? let alone the single most valuable tool in a recruiter’s box. I can understand their skepticism. On the face of it, a four-question interview sounds like one of those flashy gimmicks that a would-be HR guru dreams up to add sizzle to his small, tough, and distinctly elderly steak. But in fact this particular piece of meat happens to be prime filet mignon. Over the past 25 years, I’ve been tracking hundreds of candidates that I’ve interviewed. I’ve watched them grow, develop, expand their capabilities, and get promoted. I’ve placed a few more than once. Many hired people from me both before and after I placed them. I’ve worked with a number of them in a consulting capacity. From this type of admittedly unscientific, but certainly interesting, field study, I’ve come to some basic conclusions about the whole process of hiring and interviewing. Each of these successful people has four characteristics in common, and each characteristic can be measured with one type of question. These included a track record of personal growth with a strong work ethic, an ability to motivate and persuade others (team leadership), the ability to achieve results consistent with the needs of the job (as measured by the achievement of similar results), and real-time job-specific problem solving. These four common characteristics are all you need to measure during the course of the interview. You can, with just four questions. But first, you need to know exactly what the job is. A good interview requires a true understanding of the job. To do an effective job of interviewing you must know what you are looking for. You must know what drives on-the-job success. If you don’t know this, than the interview becomes just a fishing expedition. Interviewers then substitute their biases, emotions, and stereotypes as a way to assess competency. The four-question interview becomes possible only when you know what it takes to be successful in the new position. You need to consider things like critical performance objectives, the scope and complexity of the assignment, the span of control, and the pace and sophistication of the company. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*> All of this is captured in the performance profile. This is the list of top 6-8 deliverables the candidate must accomplish in order to be considered a success on the job. It usually takes about 30 minutes to prepare one of these. Ask yourself, “What does the person taking this job need to do over the course of the first year that will brand that person a success?” If you don’t lock down the true job needs and put these in priority order, and then get everyone on the interviewing team to agree, you have lost control of the hiring process. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you ask lots of questions in the hope that you’ll find it. This leaves too much to chance and personal bias. If everyone is using a different measuring system, you’ve added time, frustration, and error into the hiring process. Behavioral-based interviewing is a good technique, but with limitations. Assessing competency is difficult unless you know how much of a particular behavior is necessary for success. This is arbitrary. That’s why multiple interviewers using behavioral techniques often come to different conclusions. Performance-based interviewing is an advanced form of behavioral interviewing without the limitations. When you know the performance needs of the job, you just need to get examples of comparable past performance. This way you don’t need to even define the requisite behavior. If you find people with the ability to meet the performance needs of the job, I guarantee they’ll have the correct mix of behaviors. Here’s a tip: It’s the answers that matter, not the questions. Most strong candidates are only average interviewees. It’s the responsibility of you as the interviewer to get the candidate to give you the correct information. You want all candidates to answer the four questions as accurately as possible, and get all the people on the interviewing team to assess them correctly. When you ask more questions, you just add more chance for error. You’ll discover that the answers to the all-important four questions will give you all the information you need to make an accurate assessment. In my next column, posted here January 5th, I’ll go into specific details about those vital four questions.

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