In the August 27, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is frustrated by interviewers who don’t want to talk about the work that needs to be done…

I think your suggestion to “do the work in the interview” is literally right on the money. Nothing else shows how you’ll contribute to the bottom line. But a lot of managers just won’t put a challenge on the table for you to work on during the interview. It’s like pulling teeth to get them to think that way. (Of course, it’s also a test of whether they understand their own job, how candid they are and whether they’re worth working for!)

What do you think of a manager who cannot or will not pose a challenge he’d want you to tackle if you were hired? What’s the next step if this happens in an interview?

Nick’s Reply

The job candidate who takes a job like this usually winds up sucking canal water. I’ll explain that in a minute…

Sometimes a true story of a job candidate’s experience is far more instructive than my opinion. So I’ll recount a story for you.

broken-jobsRichard was an executive at a major pharmaceutical company, working in research and development (R&D). A colleague tipped him off that there was an opening for an R&D manager at the pharmaceutical company she worked for, and he was invited to interview.

Richard met with the Vice President of R&D for the entire operation–a scientist who had been with the company most of his life. The interview went very well. The two men hit it off both professionally and philosophically. As the meeting wound down, the V.P. asked Richard if he had any questions. Richard recounted the story to me:

“I decided to follow your suggestion and I asked the V.P. if he could please lay out a live problem or challenge he would want me to handle if he hired me. This clearly struck him. The V.P. put his hand up to his lips and really thought about it seriously. This went on for a few minutes while we sat in silence. You’d think this was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t at all. It actually felt perfectly right, like I had stimulated the big picture for him. This man, a brilliant Swiss researcher who is known all through the industry, was really thinking.

“Finally, he put his hand down and leaned toward me with a friendly smile and said, ‘You know, that was a very good question and I really can’t think of anything right now.'”

The meeting ended, the two men shook hands and went their ways. To answer your question, there is no “next step” in a situation like this. You’ve just witnessed one of the most important signals a hiring manager can give you: There is no job here.

Three weeks passed. Having heard nothing, Richard called his friend at the company to ask if she could obtain some feedback about the interview.

“Oh, your meeting went very well from what I heard,” said the insider friend. “But they didn’t get back to you? The V.P. decided to cancel the position. He decided not to fill it.”

Richard called me next.

“You’ll never guess what happened… They might have decided not to fill the job for any of a number of reasons. But I could see it in the V.P.’s eyes while he was thinking about my question. My bet is that he decided there was no real job to fill when he realized there was no challenge that he could discuss with me. Call me presumptuous, but I think our discussion made him cancel the position. Imagine if I had talked myself into that job–there was no job. Just an open position!”

Asking a manager to lay out a live problem for you isn’t just a way to challenge yourself and to set the stage to show what you can do. It’s also a very loaded question that can reveal much about the employer and the position itself. Just because a position is open doesn’t mean, as Richard points out, that there’s a job with a future.

Companies often fill positions just because they have “head count”–budget to pay for an employee. The budget stimulates a requisition which stimulates a job description (which is often a rehash of an out-of-date job description). Soon the HR department is advertising for candidates, scheduling interviews, and preparing to make an offer.

The manager wants to protect his budget (Who wants to give up budget money?) and goes along with the process. But this is how “the work” becomes divorced from “the position” and it’s how serious hiring mistakes get made. It’s also how a job applicant winds up swallowing canal water.

When there’s no specific challenge the employer can tell you about, that means there’s no desired outcome for the job. Which in turns means there are no metrics to judge your performance. Which means the job is broken. And you’re screwed if you get hired.

If you ask the question Richard asked, and the employer lays out a challenge, will you be ready with a good answer? In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire, you’ll find these two detailed sections of advice and how-to:

    • How to do a Working Interview
    • What’s your business plan for doing this job?

How would you handle a live challenge from an interviewer? Have you ever encountered a broken job? (See the canal water link to find out what that is.)

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  1. What is amazing about this is that, in this era of downsizing, there would be companies hiring people they don’t really need. Or is it a case of they just don’t know WHAT they need?

  2. I have posed this question in two recent cover letters (propose a challenge or problem you want me to tackle if you hired me). I never received a reply.

    Some managers may not know what to do with questions like that or they may not know the details about the position they are recruiting for.

    If given a problem or challenge to handle, I would love to show a hiring manager what I would do. I’m still waiting for that chance.

  3. The position was in a pharmaceuticals R&D lab. When the VP could not present the candidate a problem to discuss, my first thought was that he could not think of a problem which would not reveal confidential information. I doubt he signed an NDA before the interview.

  4. I’ve used this interview strategy many times over the years, to generally useful results (sometimes I went elsewhere). But one experience still amuses me in it’s irony. A subsidiary (now out of business) of a well-known corporation was in the start-up phase of building automated assembly of electronic components. They accepted my proposed solution to their problem, hired an engineer just out of school at 1/2 my likely salary, and expected him to implement a fairly sophisticated solution. For obvious reasons, he failed. The engineer proclaimed publicly that this was my fault, until he realized he was embarrassing himself. Some companies deserve to go out of business …

  5. Most major corporations insist you go through the dreaded and wasted job boards and squeeze-you-through-a-straw on boarding processes while refusing to think that maybe they might be dealing with a professional who wants (and knows she) can cut to the chase. Corporations who behave this way, in my experience, always find ways to screw (pardon the expression) their current employees and placate the professionals that may want to join them.

    It will be refreshing one day to find the one place who is willing to pay market wages for their professionals, who “get it.”

  6. I’ve had the experience of a company giving a test problem, and then not reviewing it with you with the actual hiring manager – and then they tell you “this is not exactly what we were looking for. goodbye”

  7. @Dlms: And people wonder what’s wrong with so many companies.

  8. @MWilson: I try to caution people not to “deliver” so much in the interview that the employer can rip off the idea and implement it without you. I love your story of comeuppance. What a gang of idiots. Then it was your fault!

  9. @Dave and @ Job Hunter: Maybe I’m just in a bad mood this morning, but so many employers are idiots. They can’t get out of their own way. Some personnel jockey pays a hundred grand to a retired personnel jockey who started an “HR Consulting Firm” – for an interview procedures manual that tells hiring managers to ask stupid questions and to ignore any shred of initiative a job candidate displays. This way all interviews are “fair.” And the employer winds up hiring a dud while the real talent walks away.

    What matters is this: There are some REALLY good employers out there that get it. Not many. But they are worth finding. They eat their competitors’ lunch.

  10. I remember seeing this article when it was posted several years ago. It struck me because I have seen my colleagues argue (successfully) that a person left the organization, therefore they needed a replacement. Shockingly, the replacement person rarely worked out.

    Fast forward to the present where for the last year or so many of these new placements need to go through me. A number of the hiring managers get really red-faced, and indignant when I force them to answer the simple question you pose here: “What challenges will this person solve for the organization and why are those challenges important?”

    Unfortunately, some managers go around me to the overall chief who just wants to get people out of his hair. Amazing that those hires haven’t worked out well.

    Thanks for the article. It is essential for both the job seeker and the hiring manager.

  11. @MWilson: How sad (and pathetic) that the solution you proposed was considered “not workable” because the engineer they hired to implement it was not competent to do so. And, the engineer blamed you. You are right–they deserve to go out of business.

    On another note, if I did have a chance to propose a solution to a problem/challenge in an interview, it probably would not be the “perfect” solution, but it would be great to get a chance to talk with a hiring manager about the work they wanted done instead of having to answer stupid job interview questions.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this post! When I interviewed for my last job, the owner started bad-mouthing the person I’d be replacing. My suggestion of fixing a problem they had with late tax payments was met with a chilled response. I took the job anyway but knew within three months what a mistake it was. I discovered I stood in a long line of people who came before me. There was a job to do but the broken element was the boss who pushed people into that canal rather than jumping into it myself. I’m still searching for that really good employer and paying closer attention to my gut during the interview process these days.

  13. @J.C.: Canal water works best after you taste some. :-) Sad to say, but true. Glad you’re past that phase and on to draining the canal next time, to see what’s at the bottom. (Sometimes, you find pretty cool stuff.)

  14. @dlms and @Nick

    Giving a “test project” is fine by me but it is rendered useless if you can’t talk to the hiring manager about it. Especially if you do it with a hand tied behind your back – you aren’t 100% familiar with their terminology, process, etc. In a recent experience of testing, I had talked with colleagues about how I got rejected. I think it “poisoned the well,” so to speak. Other colleagues would have applied if my experience hadn’t been so bad. I would have also encouraged others to apply.

    At my current job, they gave me a test and actually sat with me to go over my answers and give me a chance to explain my answers. I think half the battle is knowing if both parties can work with each other.

  15. I, too, have tried the “give a problem that you’re facing and I’ll show you how I’d handle it”. Like Dmls, many employers don’t know what to do with that…but they’d rather ask me what kind of animal I would be, or what color I am or some other weird psych question that is supposed to reveal what kind of worker I am and whether I can do the job. I, too, would relish the opportunity to show folks what I can do (though without giving everything away, as Nick noted).

    @Larry: I think sometimes companies will hire someone just because there is a vacancy. Sometimes it is done thoughtlessly; sometimes it is done deliberately (as in, the company knows the budget is tight, but the final budget or cuts haven’t been made yet, and the company has a history of punishing depts. that don’t spend every last penny of their budget. If you don’t, the money goes to another dept. that supposedly does need it, and then when that project or business comes in, you don’t have the budget to hire someone to do it.)

    What I think is worse is when there’s a position but no job description, and when you ask what you’ll be doing, you get a vague response or “let’s just get you started and we’ll make it up as we go along”. That kind of thinking is a recipe for disaster….and no matter how good of an employee you are, no matter how talented, how skilled you are, if there’s no job description, no guidance, no objectives, then the job is undoable.

    I don’t know why companies do this either. Then they complain about the lousy hires, about the skills deficit, about the talent shortage, etc. How about cleaning up your own house first, get it in order, put some thought into it, and stop relying on keywords, ATS, and HR to do your hiring for you. How about hiring the person who meets 7 out of the 10 criteria and training him/her? How about paying them more?

  16. @marybeth

    “How about hiring the person who meets 7 out of the 10 criteria and training him/her? How about paying them more?”

    The common complaint I hear is “we’ll train them and then they will leave in a year.”

    I think you answered your own question. It’s because companies don’t treat their employees well – pay being one of the items.

    I can understand that you don’t want to pay someone you have to train a ton of money off the bat. However, when they get up to speed, you need to keep their pay up with their skill/profitability. The “they’ll leave in a year” is just code for “we don’t know how to manage our employees so we are a crappy place to work”

  17. @Dave: You’ve hit on a very important cop-out by HR. They worry a new hire will leave after a year, but pretend the risk has nothing to do with the company’s behavior. The amount of deflection, excuses, “who, me?” nonsense is just incredible. And people believe it. Working together is a two-way street. Demonstrating loyalty cuts two ways (and pays off two ways). Bottom line: HR doesn’t want to pay for skills. Training is just another form of compensation. As Peter Cappelli (Wharton) has pointed out, employers shoot themselves in the foot when they pretend they don’t have to develop their new hires and employees. The expression “the perfect candidate” really means, “we take no responsibility for the success of our hires or our business – we just want to pay somebody to come do magic for us.”

    What a joke.

  18. @Nick

    And of course companies are more than willing to lay off people at the first sign of trouble under the guise of at-will employment. ;-)

  19. @Dave: I know, and I think it is really stupid thinking on the part of employers. If employers treat employees better (that whole loyalty thing cuts both ways), pay them better, offer better opportunities for advancement/learning new skills, then maybe people won’t leave. And with the economy still being in the toilet, many people won’t leave because there aren’t better jobs out there (but they will once the economy improves). That’s a risk you take with ANY employee, be it the kid in the mailroom to the CEO and everyone in between. They MIGHT leave. But they MIGHT stay, too. And if you never hire anyone because they might leave, then you might as well close up and go out of business. And what about those employees hired who do meet all of the criteria? It means that somebody else trained them…and you, the employer benefitted, yet you don’t want to train a new person because he might leave. It just doesn’t make any sense.

  20. @marybeth – and you’re absolutely correct. We have a family friend that just graduated top of his class with a PHd in Forensics, and triple majored as an undergrad. He can’t find suitable work and has trouble getting interviews even. Yet, we hear about a shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workers. You can’t tell me with a straight face that this guy wouldn’t be an asset to your organization.

  21. @Dave — PhD jobs are usually very specific and your “credentials” are only valuable in a limited number of locations/organizations. Note: I have a PhD in engineering, and am a hiring manager who hires individuals with and without PhDs. (Mainly engineering, some chemistry.)

    Oftentimes, the skillsets present in a PhD are trained in a skillset very different from the skillset normally present in someone who has a B.S. or M.S. (Note that I am saying trained and normally. As will all things, people can learn through experience.) And many organizations/positions simply don’t require those skills. This is not about a concern of having to pay the PhD more money. (Although I can see that as being a concern.) This is a skill-set issue. What you learn in a PhD (specifically a STEM PhD) is how to conduct independent research. That skill does not transfer well to some positions. And can sometimes be detrimental.

    As with all things, the “shortage” of STEM professional is not uniform. My understanding is that the job market in forensics is weak. (My wife has an undergrad degree in forensics before going on to medical school.)

    The person who can help your family friend the most is his PhD advisor. His advisor should have contacts within the industry (the network that allows one to be put in contact with hiring managers) or should be able to provide advise as to how best to market the forensics degree in other related areas (again, hopefully with a network to be put in touch with hiring managers.) That is part of what one is “buying into” when one decides to work for a particular advisor. In my years of hiring PhD’s (and watching them be hired), I can think of one PhD hire who came from any kind of jobs board (a needle in a haystack find). All of the rest (about 15 PhD hires) have come from referrals. Oftentimes from advisors. Actually, when I have an opening for a new, entry-level hire (whether PhD or not), the first thing I do is shoot an email to a number of faculty members (including my old advisor) who I know and work with.

  22. @Dave: Forensics is tough. A couple of years ago I attended a career/job search event at my alma mater. The career counselor mentioned that the CDO (the school’s Career Development Office) gets a lot of students weaned on tv shows like CSI and NCIS and who think they’d like to be a forensic scientist or work in the field. She said that she tells them that the field doesn’t have a lot of openings, and as an example tells students that there is ONE person who does forensics for the state in this part of the state, that he’s been there forever, isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon, and he handles forensics for 4 counties. It is good job security if you can get it, but with the state slashing budgets, it isn’t likely that each county will get its own forensic scientist. And she add that for that kind of job, a master’s degree is required (and nowadays, probably several unpaid internships to give you the experience and connections you’ll need to get a paying job). I don’t know what it is like in other states, or even what it is like in the Boston area.

    And I’m with you re the so-called STEM graduates shortage. I think that’s a myth; there are plenty of STEM graduates, but it is the labor market and employers who don’t want to bother to train new hires that are the biggest obstacle.

  23. Sooner or later it happens. A mid size firm had a live requisition out with a headhunter. After a search three candidates were surfaced interviews took place quickly. Candidates were told that current systems in house were great, everybody was making sales, engineering was cranking out a new product.

    Candidates were asked for a 30-60-90 day work plan based on the parameters of the “new product offering” and new focus on the top tier market.

    Then boom…a corporate blood letting Friday. Everybody’s job is in jeopardy, sales really aren’t where they should be, the rosy picture crumbled.

    The job requisition was canceled, the financial picture of the company which had been presented as bright and shiny is now deemed dangerous.

    Is it possible they were just searching for a new path, testing for ideas and plans. Its happened before, I’m sure it will happen again.

    What is the best response to requests for detailed 30-60-90 day work plans, we all will do them, is there protection of the ideas say by Copyrighting the plan?
    Disclaimers on the header or footers claiming all rights?

    We’re not babes in the woods in this game, but the rapid turn of events just blows my mind.

    Your thoughts.

  24. I have wondered the same thing–how much information should be provided when asked to submit a work plan.

    You want to give enough information so those hiring can make an informed decision but certainly don’t want to give away your ideas for free.

    Anybody know?

  25. Hi Nick, this is an oldie but a goodie, a situation I’m now facing. Interviewed last week at a very successful, bootstrapped private company for a very vague position. As I met my interviewer and the team I could see that there are a great many problems to solve and a lot of structure needed. Not sure if this qualifies as a broken job as there is clearly a lot I could do, but the element of measuring success at this point seems fuzzy. They plan to invite me back to meet with the CEO who may provide more clarity. The reason I’m still considering this role is that this is a very successful company whose future is still largely in front of it and it may be the rare position that allows me to jump from a product or sr. product manager position straight to a VP or hear of product title if things work out. Oh yeah, it’s also contract to hire, so I wouldn’t be sucking canal water for very long if there wasn’t mutual fit.

    Thanks Nick!