How to conduct a better job interview

March 27, 2012

I think that recruiting is one of the most under-appreciated functions of a business. Everything you are able to achieve in your business is dependent on the actions of your people. The right people can create a lot of value for you. The wrong people can destroy it. And the best way to have the right people and none of the wrong people is to only hire the right people in the first place. Firing is messy and expensive.

So recruiting is important. Yet most companies don’t treat it as a critical function of the business. They elevate strategy making. They elevate functions that seem to directly contribute to revenue. But actually, they ought to pay a lot more attention to recruiting.

One of the important steps in recruiting is, of course, interviewing. And I want to share some thoughts on how I think it can be done better. Because I think interviewing is often a very weird activity disconnected from anything important and from anything human.

To begin, I am speaking here about the interviewing of human beings. If you are hiring robots then stop reading this now. It won’t be relevant to you. As an aside, if you’re hiring robots, please stop. Nobody should have to do work that robs them of their human dignity. Of their sense of curiosity and wonder. Of their desire and opportunity to innovate. Every job – yes, even those that seem unimportant or basic or repetitive – should be designed to encourage rather than suppress humanity.

OK, great. You want to hire human beings. That’s a good start. Now you need to make sure that the way you interview people is designed to identify good human beings – the ones that will be good for your purposes. So here’s my very simple thought: Your mission during an interview is to authentically connect as a human being to another human being. You need to find out what they are actually like as a person. And they need to find out what it will actually be like to work in your organization. Now I don’t mean you need to know about their favorite sexual position (unless you’re hiring a sex worker). But I do mean you need to get an authentic feel for what they will be like to work with. And that’s not just about their technical skills – though it is also about that. It’s about what they value, how they think, how they interact with people. And they need the same from you.

Yet we create all sorts of weird contrived experiences during interviews that don’t help us find out any of this. Basically, we turn interviews into rituals. We go through certain steps as if through the magic of completing certain tasks, we will achieve the desired result. We let applicants bullshit us with their canned resume summary. We ask the easy obvious questions that also can only elicit the canned answers. We go through the motions. And we shovel the bullshit right back at the applicants.

That just doesn’t work.

Instead, we have to make people uncomfortable. We have to ask questions that are unexpected. Not to trick people. Not to trip them up. But to get them out of the bullshit zone and into the authentic human zone. We need to really get to know them. We need to see how they think, how they speak, how they react when they are in situations for which there was no opportunity to write a script in advance. We have to force them to be honest. And we must do the same. We must be very candid about what it is actually like to work in our organization. We must show the reality of the company – warts and all.

I have some specific ideas on what this actually looks like. For example, I find it helpful wherever possible to engage in in-the-moment problem solving with someone about a real problem I will need them to help me with if they join the company. Not a pre-written case that I give every applicant for years. But something in the moment that I’m trying to figure out. I also like to ask provocative questions. I know when I’ve asked one by the look in the applicant’s eye and their nonverbal behavior. A good question forces someone to pause. To think. They have to be real because they haven’t written a script for that answer. And so I get a glimpse of a real live human being. Exactly what I want. But I can’t tell you all of the ways you can achieve this human connection. You need to just figure it out. You need to be yourself and to force applicants to be themselves. How you do that is up to you.

I just have two more important comments on how to do this. The first is that you have to make sure you follow the law. I’m not advocating asking people about their age or gender… Don’t break the law. That’s dumb. Also, don’t be an asshole. Being uncomfortable is important in life and in business. Too much comfort gets in the way of innovation and even smart thinking. As I said, you need to make applicants uncomfortable (and be prepared to be uncomfortable yourself). But you have to be a caring empathetic human being. When someone is interviewing for a job, their livelihood is at stake (or at least they feel like it is). Some part of their dignity is at stake. So by all means, knock people out of their comfort zone. But be kind about it. I’ve actually found that when I help create an authentic human experience for an applicant, they usually appreciate it. Yes, it makes them nervous, but the conversation is electrifying. It wakes people up. It energizes them. When done well, it helps me get to know them and it helps them get to know me. Whether they get the job or not, it is a valuable experience for both of us.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: