American View: How Can You Know Who’s Really Sitting Opposite You at an Interview?

I love a good job interview. Doesn’t matter which side of the table I’m on; building a rapport with my opposite number is exhilarating. Even if there isn’t a “fit” between the company and the candidate, the process of getting to know an interesting stranger and seeing the potential role from a markedly different point of view is always a thrill.

To be fair, I tend to annoy my fellow board members when I’m chairing an interview. I’d like to claim that this is an accidental by-product of my enthusiasm for the feint-and-riposte interchanges that make for a conversation great, but that only explains part of the problem. I value interview scripts, sure. Heck, I usually wind up writing all the scripts for panel interviews I’m on whether I’m the chair or not. That said, I prefer to capitalize on prompts from the candidate to expand on or to clarify something they hinted at. I’ve found that the answers that reveal the most about a new team member rarely ever come from canned answers to the scripted questions; the revelatory bits slip out when everyone is improvising.  

One of my favourite follow-ons to a candidate’s first answer is a why question, like “Interesting! Why did you do that?” or “Why do you believe that was the right thing to do?” These “clarifying” questions sometimes infuriate my more process-obsessed panel members because we won’t have a safe, inoffensive, judgment-free, rubric handy to “grade” the candidate’s answer. Nonetheless, I’m convinced it’s these off-the-cuff explorations of a candidate’s motives, meaning, and perspectives that provide us essential insights into a candidate’s character.

That said, I do believe there are some standard questions that are excellent at revealing a candidate’s real self and, therefore, should be included in every panel interview script. My favourite is “what activity brings you the most creative or personal satisfaction?”

Henry Cavil likes to paint Warhammer figures in his off hours. Liam Neeson goes fly fishing. Everyone has something they do outside of work that’s interesting and fulfilling to them. Show some respect.

This question often stops the interview cold, like we’d dumped a cooler of freezing water on the aspirant. I’ve seen some people completely blank at the prompt. Most people struggle to assemble what they think is a business-appropriate answer. That’s fine. I’m happy to give candidates’ space to work out their answer, even if (well, especially if) it makes my fellow panel members squirm. It’s worth the wait because the answer is always something done outside of work (*gasp* the horror!).

Learning this often stuns my junior panel members. In post-interview after-action-reviews, I’ll usually have a trainee express shock at the idea of being asked about something that isn’t exclusively related to the open position’s job description. To be clear, they’re not shocked at asking such a question, but of being asked. Put another way, they’re horrified by the prospect of being in the candidate’s place and not having an “optimal” answer prepared and practised.

That makes sense. I sat through all the same “how to interview” classes at university and, later, at various job seekers’ seminars as the other members of my hiring boards and the candidates lined up outside the conference room have. We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom on interviewing; it hasn’t changed in decades. As an example, consider this November 2021 article titled “10 Skills You Need to Ace Your Next Interview” posted on Indeed. What does it say a candidate needs to “win”? “Research … Preparation … Punctuality … Professionalism … Communication … Listening … Ask[ing] Questions … Confidence … Showing Interest … and Follow-Up.” That’s great advice … if the company is looking for a generic automaton bedecked in a cheap suit.

Where in Indeed’s list (I submit acidly) might we find the factors that accurately reveal a candidate’s compatibility with the company’s culture? How do these 10 “skills” convey a candidate’s crucial success factors like integrity, candour, responsibility, discipline, moral courage, empathy, respect, self-control, or maturity? I submit that they don’t because they can’t. The Indeed list – while useful – won’t teach a new job seeker how to get hired, so much as they teach how to avoid getting struck off the list before you’ve answered a real question.

“I appreciate that the global pandemic has altered many workplace traditions, Bob. That said, we still require the wearing of some sort of lower-body garment in the cubicle farm.”

To be blunt, I’m not impressed by a confident person who can show up on time wearing a Mark I blue suit. That’s just baseline, entry-level adulting proficiency, like knowing how to work the buttons in a lift or use a public lavatory without starting a brawl. Yes, these are important skills to have. Obviously, I don’t care how great a COBOL programmer you are if you’re unable to come to work dressed. I can’t mentor you in your role if HR deems you totally unfit for service.

So, how then do we get to what we need to know about a stranger? What I need to know as a leader and as a hiring manager is whether you’ll contribute to the team or worsen it with your presence when we hire you. This is not about judging a person on their technical skills or qualifications; we can sort those out through their CV and a few direct questions.

No, this is about who the candidate is as a total person. Will they contribute to team morale or degrade it? Are they the type of worker that neutralizes drama or creates it? Are they co-operative or combative? Trustworthy or a born sales weasel? There aren’t any “standard” interview questions that bring these qualities to light. I can ask something like “What is a process-to-process protocol that adds only port addresses, checksum error control, and length information to the data from upper layer?” and get either a right or wrong answer, but learn absolutely nothing about the person responding. [1]

That’s why I love asking the question “what activity brings you the most creative or personal satisfaction?” No one ever honestly replies “I adore tweaking the slide transitions in a PowerPoint deck … Getting a star wipe to synch just right with a public domain music clip makes my Muse headbang in ecstatic approval. That’s when I know I’m at the top of my game.” Yes, there are people who might say that … because they think that’s what you expect to hear. If a candidate is lying to make you happy, is that the sort of person you want on your team?

Some of the worse advice I ever received as a job seeker came from an “old pro” who recommending saying whatever it took to con the interviewer into hiring you, even if it meant lying about your technical qualifications. His perspective was that it was so difficult to get fired at a big business that once your boss found out she’d been scammed, it would be easier for her to move you into a different role than get rid of you.

Most honest answers – especially the unfiltered ones – will explore activities wholly outside of the workplace. I’ve had candidates glow with enthusiasm as they described everything from playing in a garage band to marathon running to video games to quilting. The activities that people choose to do purely for their own satisfaction are 99% likely to have nothing at all to do with the job they applied for. Why? Because we don’t pay people a living wage in America to “follow their dreams.” [2]

No, what matters is an honest answer. Doesn’t matter what it is. What I want to see is a glimpse inside the real person, not the “BUISINESSPERSON (Generic) (Office) (Smiling)” character that might as well be a still image from my stock photo library. Real life isn’t an overly abstracted b-school scenario; it’s chaotic, confusing, contradictory, and complicated. Real workers aren’t automatons; they’re people who are required to pretend to be someone they’re not for 40+ hours a week in exchange for enough pay and health insurance that they and their loved one’s don’t freaking die.

Sorry for ranting; I ran out of fake cheerfulness when we ran out of Pandemic Year 2. Ahem.

The entire point of performing an in-person interview is to get a “feel” for who the candidate really is. It’s not a fool-proof way to make an informed decision; nothing is. That said, it’s a far better technique than letting your AMS match and rank keywords in applicants’ CVs. More importantly, I believe going off-script in the interview is the most likely way to reveal some wonderful, intriguing, or delightful aspect of an otherwise generic candidate’s larger “self” than just conducting an impersonal A-level exam. Strive to discover who the other person really is before judging them. Give them an opportunity to surprise you.

At worst, you don’t get a coherent answer and you might have to reboot your applicant. All you’ve lost is time (and you can program a “recovery buffer” period into your interview script). At best, though, you discover that the stranger sitting across from you is a potential catalyst for your team’s esprit de corps. Someone who will improve the quality of work life for everyone else … even if it’s just through their infectious enthusiasm for competitive quilting.

[1] I was asked a series of questions exactly like that in an interview for a “non-technical project manager” job at Microsoft back in the nineties. The hiring manager seemed obsessed with technical detail about networking protocols and never once asked me any project management questions. My guess is that he’d already chosen who he wanted to hire and used a garbage “pseudo-technical” interview to justify rejecting everyone other than his drinking buddy.

[2] In an interview for a “knowledge manager” several years back, a reserved candidate came alive when I asked her follow-up questions about her passion for League of Legends. The exchange brought to life her infectious enthusiasm, making the interview a joy for everyone on the panel.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

Top Articles

Reforming upskilling strategies for the changing work landscape

Leaders across industries must upskill the workforce to deliver new business models in the post-pandemic era

Green or greenwashing?

Procurement must stamp out greenwashing from supply chains, to ensure that organisations’ products and goals are not just a “green…

American View: Why Do Cultural Taboos Frustrate New Technology Implementation?

Businesspeople seldom evaluate new technologies on capabilities alone; why do peoples irrational beliefs impede attempts to discuss worthwhile innovations?

Related Articles

Register for our newsletter

[ajax_load_more loading_style="infinite classic" single_post="true" single_post_order="previous" post_type="post" elementor="true"]