Interviewing

Interviewing - how effective is it and can it be in delivering the best or close to best candidate? We look at some of the more outlandish interview questions and consider if they are appropriate and if so how could they be used. We also look at the limitations of the process and some advice on doing it better.
Every now and again I really wonder about whether all the trouble round interviewing is really worthwhile. Do they really help sort the wheat from the chaff - how effective are they in getting the right person for the job?

This post is a bit tongue in cheek and I enclose some humorous examples of some questions we have both come across ourselves and heard of in the profession. Some of course may be urban legends. But hopefully they all help reinforce a point. Are interviews really effective? Or what can make a really effective interview?

Interviewing skills do of course vary - considerably. Sadly all too few managers will put their hands up and say they are poor at it or don’t really know what they are doing. This experience seems similar in some ways to that of purchasing. Everybody is used to buying things so doing it professionally and for a business - how hard can it be...? Professional buyers of course know this is not the case. Sellers also know that a professional buyer will get a considerably better deal for their organisation than someone who is not well versed in the tools and techniques round procurement. I would argue that there is an even bigger difference when it comes to interviewing, or taking it wider - staff selection. People are after all very complicated and predicting behaviours and future performance is never easy.

To set the scene here are some interview questions that we have both heard ourselves and also some others from the profession at large:

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  • Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 how weird you are?
  • If you were in a band e.g the Beatles which member of the Beatles would you be?
  • If you could be any superhero, who would it be?
  • An apple costs 20 cents, an orange costs 40 cents, and a grapefruit costs 60 cents. How much is a pear?
  • If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a liquidiser, how would you get out?
  • How many footballs can you fit in this room?

Some of the more technical ones:
  • If you had 5,623 participants in a tournament, how many games would need to be played to determine the winner?
  • You have a birthday cake and have exactly three slices to cut it into eight equal pieces. How do you do it?
  • You are in a dark room with no light. You have 19 grey socks and 25 black socks. What are the chances you will get a matching pair?

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We will I think do a future blog post on bizarre/strange interview questions. However for this post, the point is; will questions like these help in an interview situation? Whilst the obvious answer might seem no - how could they? There are situations where even questions like these may serve a useful purpose.

Surprised... Well, whilst these ones may seem on the bizarre side, in our experience many standard type interview questions if not carefully used and understood are also largely irrelevant. How many managers: plan their interviews; prepare questions they want answers to; understand what possible answers might tell them about a candidates future performance; take notes round what the candidates response was; carefully analyse responses post interview; have preprepared a model for how they will rank candidates based on interview; a model for ranking them for overall selection and of course have made an assessment right up front on exactly what skills, attributes, experience they need from the candidate...?

Sadly, in our experience not as many managers as we might like to think. Interviewing is hard work and managers are busy people so is it not surprising that they cut corners - or rely on that old favourite; gut instinct. Back to the example questions. How might they have any possible use in interviewing? Well, I would argue there are a number of ways that seemingly strange questions might have a utility. However to do so they need to be carefully considered in advance and with a view to actually telling you something about the candidate that is useful to them doing the job. By no means all jobs or interview situations will benefit from using such questions and to be frank we don’t tend to use them ourselves. However I believe they can have a use when up against a candidate that seems very well prepared and you feel like they are almost replaying a well rehearsed script. Asking a question that is unexpected and forces them to consider a response that they wont have been prepared for can be revealing. Most of such questions (and I am certainly not endorsing the ones above in this, which are at the bizarre end of the spectrum) don’t have a right answer. Candidates can handle it well i.e through perhaps clarifying , showing some logic round a response, respond with some humour if appropriate etc; or not so well, where they freeze perhaps getting combative, defensive etc.

The point is - carefully consider the questions you are asking. Why you are asking them and what will possible responses will actually reveal, tell you. Candidates can sometime be very well prepared for standard responses - some will be even overly prepared given what the process is trying to do. Be aware of the limitations of the interview process. After all, the best performer may not be particularly fluent in interviewing. The interview process is also by no means fool-proof. To get better odds of success, be prepared to do the leg work up front. Also don’t underestimate the first few weeks of induction. It can make a big difference to a candidates performance - a good start can set behaviours into the long term. Sounds obvious but make sure you set expectations and manage performance right away.

So at the end of all this and given all the trouble round interviewing; is it really worthwhile...?