Smart Interview Questions That Are Actually Stupid

How many times have you really thought about the interview questions you use at your company? And not just the questions but the answers you seek?

For example, have you ever had a hiring manager ask: If you were a tree, what type of tree would you be and why? Even if you’re hiring a groundskeeper at a tree farm, this isn’t very relevant to the actual job.

OK, your recruiters and hiring managers probably aren’t asking such dumb, clichéd questions (anymore). But there’s a good chance you’re asking “legitimate” questions that are anything but. And just as good a chance that candidates are giving you “honest” answers that are also anything but.

Irrelevant and Illogical

What we think we want to know about, and from, a candidate is often irrelevant or illogical. 

  • Did the candidate memorize our mission statement before the interview? Who would unless they were in sales or leadership and trying to impress HR? You probably can’t even recite your company’s mission statement by heart. 
  • Does the candidate display feelings of idealism, values? Does the person share our mission statement? We strive to glean this information from candidates, but how in the world can you realistically measure this?
  • Does the candidate display loyalty and honor? Sorry, are we in the Marines?
  • Is the candidate passionate about working for your company? The “P” word is one of the most overused buzzwords there is in interviewing. Do you really expect someone to feel passionate about your tire or plastics business?
  • Does the candidate display hard-work ethic? Again, how do you realistically measure that?
  • Is the candidate looking to grow in the company, and if so, how? Are you still getting at this by asking where people see themselves in five or 10 years? Candidates will simply tell you what they think you want to hear. Most have no idea where they’ll be in one to two years! 
  • How does the candidate describe oneself? Fun question, but does this really have anything to do with the role? Probably not.

Many of us have rightly educated ourselves on how to remain legally compliant with our questions. But perhaps what we also need is training that focuses on realistic expectations when interviewing candidates. As this article points out, “If we want to hire smart people, we should stop asking stupid questions.”

Stupid questions aren’t just those that fail to help us assess whether someone is a great fit for a role. They’re questions that tend to elicit answers that are expected, obvious, canned, and clichéd. Which also means they are also often lies. 

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Keep It Real

We must start treating candidates like human beings. I know, that’s also a cliché — but it is a cliché not because we already do this but because we don’t. When will we treat candidates as people who are real, fragile, and vulnerable, just like we are ourselves? Think about how many candidates would appreciate having an honest discussion about a job rather than feel like they have to lie when you ask if they are able to work well under pressure, are attentive to detail, etc. 

We should be realistic. We should see how ridiculous some of our interview questions come off. We’ve got to infuse greater relevance into the interview process. Once we ask questions that are specific to the job itself, we will gain more respect from candidates — and they will be able to be honest instead of wondering if they said the “correct” rhetorical answer. 

As a result of today’s difficult times, we are certainly getting messages about having grace with our work associates, being patient, and allowing people to fail in order to grow. My hope is that these principles bleed into our interview questions. Once that happens, candidates will trust us more, be more open with us, and refer more candidates to our companies.  

John McCrea is an American singer and musician. He is a founding member of the band Cake. But that is not the John McCrea who wrote this article. "John McCrea" is a pseudonym for a talent acquisition professional who prefers to remain anonymous out of concern that the individual's employer may not react well to views presented here.

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