Would I Really Want This Person To Work For Me?

First appeared in ‘Manager N.Z.’ (N.Z.)

Behavioural interviewing is based on the belief that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The best way to gauge if a person is going to perform well in a new job is to look at the way they have performed in their current and previous posts. I agree. How could you not? Especially when you look at the alternatives;

“The stress interview sorts the men out from the boys. Put people in a stressful interview and you’ll see what they’re like in a stressful job”. Oh yes. That’ll work then. Why not pull a gun on them and be done with. There’s a story a friend tells of his stress interview with a major bank.

“What if you had to deal with someone who had raped your sister!” screamed the first interviewer.

“But I haven’t got a sister.”

“Hypothetically” came the retort.

“Well hypothetically I would put this fact out of my mind. I would treat each occasion as objectively as possible not allowing my feelings to impair my judgement. I would make no assumptions. I would attempt to love and respect this person as an individual. I would try to understand where they were coming from. I would treat each situation on its own merits…” You get the point. You ask hypothetical questions you get hypothetical answers. You put people under stress at an interview they react like they would if they were put under stress at an interview. It doesn’t translate to life outside the interview room. Unless the job does involve being shouted at in an interview room – maybe the interviewer was rehearsing a hostage situation? – No it doesn’t work does it? If you want to find out how people perform under stress at work a great line of questioning might be “Can you give me an example of a stressful situation you’ve been involved in at work? Tell me what happened? What did you do?”

Another alternative is the ‘good cop / bad cop’ interview – which is truly bizarre. A person you may have know for the past twenty years turns into Torquemada for twenty-five minutes. What does this interview prove? You tell me. I have no idea unless it’s a spin on the stress interview. I detest it when interviewers put on their “I’m a real interviewer” head and refuse to be themselves, laugh or even smile. I know it’s a serious business but come on….

There’s the casual interview. “Hi – just a chat. Let’s get a coffee and sit over there.” pointing at two strategically placed chairs – set at the prescribed ninety degrees to each other, no armrest, low coffee table. There are benefits to this. I like it when that tone is right, both are relaxed and there’s genuine information being passed between each other. Unfortunately most candidates dislike it intensely. It’s an interview; it’s for a new job, a better job. They want some formality not a chat with a senior executive in immaculately ironed black jeans.

So what can you do? Well if you have to conduct an interview (and I’m not convinced this is the best approach in ninety percent of cases) then do it properly. .

Tell candidates what’s going to happen. Tell them what areas you’ll be discussing. Tell them how long they’ve got. Don’t surprise people. If there’s a position as a System’s Analyst – ask them questions about that. You wouldn’t interview a nanny for your children and ask them questions on thermo-nuclear dynamics would you? Would you? Yet people get asked some odd things? I was asked how I would resolve the miner’s strike when I first applied for a computer programmer’s job. Other stories abound about “killer questions” – “Do fish feel pain?” was a classic some time ago. “If a mother and a baby were drowning and you could only save one, which would you choose” I was asked a very long time ago. With a little more life experience my answer now would seem to be along the following lines;


“Neither – then they’d both die?”


“That’s stupid!”

“Well you started it”

Look at the skills required for the job, look at the candidates – match them up. Choose the candidate who’s the best fit. The older I get the easier (some parts of) life gets. I know this is easier said than done. I agree, but it’s a lot easier than playing some convoluted game that only interview panel members know the rules to.

It all starts a long time before the interview. Way before the advert goes out. As soon as there’s a thought about a job being available it begins. Define the job. Spell out the skills needed. Advertise these. Send out application forms that are helpful to this process, please. Ask candidates to supply examples they have gathered of them displaying the skills. Don’t ask for a set of six skills and send a form out that relates to other skills – “It’s our standard form” Personnel will say. Argue. Disagree. Refuse. Send out forms related to the job -it will save you so much grief in the long run.

Evaluate the forms matching the evidence (past behaviours) against the job (current criteria). At the interview you should merely have to fill in the gaps, or build on the examples, or (with any luck) choose between well-qualified candidates. Don’t have a list of questions. This can be staid, ridiculous and downright embarrassing. I was once asked if I knew the “Seven layers of OSI” (it was a buzzword to do with computers at the time).

“I’m sorry Mr Barry but I know nothing about OSI”.

He looked at me. He looked back at his notes “What’s the first layer?”

“I’m really sorry Eric but I honestly have no idea.”

He didn’t even look up “The second layer?”….

Decide who will ask questions about each of the skills required – teamworking maybe or management skills. Then explore those areas, look for examples, ask follow up questions, listen, listen, listen. Don’t show off. Let the interviewee guide you. The examples can come from anywhere as long as they meet the requirements. I once interviewed someone for a managerial post – ideally qualified but could supply no evidence of organisational skills.

“Never get the chance to do it in my job – just get given a set of tasks.”

“In your previous job?”

“No I’m afraid not.”

“Outside work?” I asked desperately.

“Not really, ” he said, “Most of my time is taken up with football.”

“Oh ” I asked – he looked more like Pavarotti that Pele.

“Yes – I’m secretary of the Boys’ teams”.

It transpired that he had to deal with twelve teams of various ages, arrange the fixtures, referees, pitches, kits, corner flags…. No organisational skills indeed!

It’s as simple as that. Then at the end watch out for that final question. Candidates can be too relaxed. They’ve seen the finishing line and anything can happen. Ask something open. Ask if they would like to reconsider some answer they’ve given maybe. Ask if they’ve anything to add. You never know it could bring results. There was a candidate doing reasonably well until that last question. “I’m glad you didn’t ask me anything about equal opportunities”. He started to dig the hole.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well I couldn’t never work for a woman again.” he kept digging. “I worked for one once but, you know, they’re different aren’t they. No, never again”.

“Interesting. Would you like to tell us a little more?……..”


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