Ask, Don’t Tell: The Key to Behavioral Interviewing Success

Now through the end of the year, ERE will be re-running some of the most popular articles from 2003. This article was originally published on June 2, 2003. Happy holidays! This happened twice this past week, so it must be important. It’s another strange and unusual case where behavioral interviews did not accurately predict on-the-job performance. First the background, then my abbreviated diagnosis. You might be able to relate to the following tale. Two managers, both at two relatively large companies, were very disappointed that a number of new hires were complaining about how difficult their new jobs were. “How could this have possibly happened?” they urgently asked. Both managers were quite taken aback, since they had clearly told their new charges during the interview that the jobs were difficult, demanding, and intense. The new employees had willingly and knowingly accepted the jobs under these conditions. According to the candidates, on-the-job reality quickly set in and the jobs were much more difficult than described to them during the interview. At least this is the story as told to me by their hiring managers. While the facts were expressed in an emotional and agitated state, my sense was that the scenario rang true. With further probing, more was learned. One complaint was that a new sales rep was never told that 50% of her job required aggressive field cold-calling, prospecting for new business. The other, a management trainee, complained that he was never told that the days would be long and physically demanding, requiring him to prioritize 20 to 30 semi-menial tasks at once in order to keep the branch up and running smoothly ? this while angry customers urgently waited to get their orders filled. Both managers indicated they went out of their way to tell all candidates about the reality of the jobs and how demanding they were. They both had been burned before, and knew that new employees rarely got the message unless they were repeatedly told of the challenges (a.k.a. horrors) inherent in the job before accepting offers. While they lost a number of promising candidates this way, they felt it was the best approach to minimize problems later on. What happened? If you’ve ever been involved in similar situations, you probably know the cause. Here’s my take. The four fundamental rules of good interviewing and recruiting were broken. Specifically:

  1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was not understood, and therefore ignored.
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  3. “Stay a cynic” (alternatively called, “Why you shouldn’t ever believe anyone who needs a job, ever”) was disregarded.
  4. “Ask, don’t tell” was not invoked. Candidates aren’t very good at hearing stuff when they need a job.
  5. Don’t talk candidates out of jobs, select them out. Then you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many you select in.

Actually, this is all pretty much the same rule with a couple of twists and turns. You can find more about Maslow’s theory using a Google search, but in essence it says, if a person needs a job, he or she will say anything to get it. (This isn’t exactly what Maslow said, but it is the result of understanding how basic human needs are fulfilled.) According to Maslow’s theory, once the need for a job is satisfied, then some other need becomes the motivator, and it does not usually involve working hard. However, if the person doesn’t need the job, then what he or she says is more believable. Under this condition, you can then safely ignore this rule. The “stay a cynic” piece is actually a very good rule for all interviewers and recruiters to always follow. This is a secondary result of Rule One. Simply assume that all candidates will say just about anything to get a job. It’s the nature of candidates, so don’t believe any of them. Instead, take responsibility to discover the truth yourself. This is just smart interviewing. Assume that what candidates tell you is colored by their underlying need for another job. Be more concerned about what the candidate has done in the past rather than what they tell you they will do in the future. This is really Rule Two, and it sets up Rule Three. Ask, don’t tell. Instead of telling candidates how hard the job is, find out how hard they’ve worked in the past and under what kinds of circumstances. Drill down. By asking lots and lots and lots of questions, paint a complete word picture of the jobs and projects that required extra effort. Determine their frequency, the environment, and the challenges involved. Always get examples. This forces candidates to prove their generalizations. Find out if they liked the job itself, or the boss, or the team, or everything, or nothing. Look for a pattern of hard work in situations comparable to the job you have available, which then indicates a core behavior. This is the only proof you should accept that the candidate will work hard in your situation. Don’t tell the candidate how hard the job is; find out how hard the candidate has worked on similar jobs and activities in the past. You’ll be surprised. You’ll find candidates both competent and motivated to do the work required. Be a cynic. Trust Maslow. As he indicated, once short-term needs are met, people aren’t motivated by them anymore. So instead, look for candidates who see your job as one that offers underlying personal satisfaction, not just another job. Now Rule Four comes into play. Don’t talk people out a job, select them out. If candidates have not shown a pattern of cold calling, or staying late, or putting in the extra effort on things you need the extra effort on, you can only temporarily talk them into doing it. Instead, look for candidates who find your job motivating and satisfying, not hard. Do this with everyone, even candidates you don’t initially like, and especially those whom you do like. You’ll be surprised. During the time you spend digging about looking for evidence to support your initial gut feelings, you’ll find many candidates who make a good first impression and have the right background, but who would never be able to handle the difficulties in your job. However, if you keep an open mind, you’ll also find a number of exceptionally talented people who are diligent, hard-working, tenacious, and committed, but who didn’t “wow” you right away or were a bit nervous at the start of the interview. Hire these people. They will make you famous.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).