From the September 22, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter (sign up, get your own!):

A manager’s question: How difficult is it to gauge character and personality in the typical job interview? No doubt this accounts for many of the pointless questions that are asked. Of course, the more manipulative a person is, the more likely they are to score the best answers to trick questions that reveal honesty and character. How do managers and job candidates deal with accurately assessing character?

Forum: Managers, how do you check a candidate’s personality? Her honesty? Candidates, what methods have you been exposed to? What do you do in the interview to demonstrate what a fine person you are?


  1. I’m not a manager, but I think I can give a little insight that has helped me out alot, in and out of the workplace. I don’t think 1 in a 1000 people have figured this out.

    You ever hear that phrase “You can’t cheat an honest man”?

    Well there’s alot more truth to that than meets the eye. It also means that people who were cheated or manipulated are people who were also trying to cheat or manipulate at the same time.

    The phrase’s logical conclusion is important too. It means that if you’re honest, its seems to be very difficult to cheat or manipulate you. I don’t know why this is per se, but it seems to work in my case at least.

    So if I have to give advice for finding an honest candidate, I would say…

    Be honest. Know what you want in candidate, and tell them what you want.

    It sounds scary and impolite, but whats so impolite for a manager to say in the interview, or even on an email…

    “ok let’s cut to the chase. I want someone who will increase my sales revenue by 10% without increasing costs on marketing. I want it done in 36 days, and I believe selling person to person works best. My competitors are eating me alive with the old lady market, and I was hoping to grab some of that social security money. Can you prove to me that you can make this happen?”

    I’m sure SOME candidates will step up to the plate, and when evaluating their answers, its best to evaluate honestly too, such as

    “well i don’t think that really makes because, blablabla”


    “hmm ok well that sounds pretty dayam doable, I don’t like this part, but I like everything else, come on aboard, i think you got something goin for ya”

    I think you’ll find some pretty interesting interactions, and as you remain completely honest, you’ll better “weed out” dishonest manipulative types from the sincere candidates.

    Oh and one thing I can’t stand is when people try to question me assuming I lied about something. I’ve had fellow employees, bosses and “friends” try to do that, and I immediately become suspicious of them. I hate it when they say things like “Are you lying to me? Are you saying because they told you to say that?” It’s really agitating. It makes me suspect that they would lie like that in my position. I don’t recommend treating others as if they are going to lie without any true justification

    If they were honest and upfront and just said “I don’t believe you, because..” that would much more likely lead to a much more fruitful conversation and not waste anyone’s time.

    This is why I totally agree with Nick that most HR interviews are manipulate and disrespectful. Every time I went into one of these interviews (or any other part of their hr process) I felt like a complete jackass, like they don’t care to waste my time.

    So i don’t recommend “beating around the bush” to find out if the candidate is manipulative. Just be upfront with what you really want, even if its “look I want someone who’ll obey my orders even if they dont seem all that smart, can I trust you to do that?” thats better than “Yes, you’re a team player, we push for excellence!” (uhhhh yeah…greaat…)

    I think the golden rule really does work here. If a manager wants honest employees, then he just needs to be honest with them from the get go onward. If candidates want to draw out honesty from the managers, they should be honest themselves first.

  2. Sam,

    Regarding your comment, I’m not sure I totally agree. Specifically, your comment “look I want someone who’ll obey my orders even if they don’t seem all that smart” really bothers me.

    I my case as a leader, I would much much rather have someone respond to this: “look, if I tell you to do something and it seems stupid, silly, or illogical to you, I want you to call me on it, not just blindly follow orders, ok.”

    I feel this way because, for one, the person who just obeys you may look like a good employee, but I can GUARANTEE you that they will tell EVERYONE else they talk to about your orders how stupid they think your orders were.

    If you say you want the best people and you say you want honest people, then the best people may be smarter than you and in my opinion, a direct report that is honest has a duty to not just follow orders. However, in many of our business situations today obedience is put way before actual honesty and if you do that the honesty of your reports will erode in direct proportion to how much they have to just obey whatever the “boss” says.

  3. Dear Jason,
    Sam is exagerating. However, his exageration negates his case. If he wants honesty and ‘cut to the chase’ then the manager has to have done a lot of thinking about what he wants in the beginning. Sam’s manager would not have come up with that dictat, but if he did you’d not take the job.

  4. Jason

    “Regarding your comment, I’m not sure I totally agree. Specifically, your comment “look I want someone who’ll obey my orders even if they don’t seem all that smart” really bothers me.”

    You’re taking me a little out of context here. I was just using that example to compare it to saying something like “Yes, you’re a team player, we push for excellence!”

    In this comment, the candidate is given some vague lingo, but in the first comment, the candidate knows exactly where he stands with the hiring manager. I think its better to know where you stand with the manager early on, so you can make better decisions for yourself without wasting any time.

    I agree that having employees mindlessly obey orders is unwise, and the comment “look I want someone who’ll obey my orders even if they don’t seem all that smart”” will probably encourage smart, honest candidates to reply

    “Well I don’t want to be someone’s complete subordinate, I don’t think thats good for business. I don’t think this job is for me. Thanks anyway”


    “Well can we discuss things a bit before you make your final decisions, like can I give you my input if I think some order isn’t smart or if I know a better way?” (if the answer is no, then the candidate is wise to leave, if yes, they can discuss further)

    On a side note, I’ve heard stories of managers first telling their employees “oh we want your input on anything you feel you have a good idea for” and then later completely putting down any suggestions made by employees, even insulting them for trying to suggest something different from what the manager wants. Morale and productivity suffered dramatically as a result.

    IMO, if managers are honest and upfront with what they really want, even the “not so appealing” stuff, it would save alot of managers and candidates alot of wasted time & grief.

    Most good employees don’t want to be a lapdog, and when the manager is upfront with his desire for a lapdog and gets few takers, it could encourage him to think “Do I really want a lapdog, or someone who could make me a lot of money?”

  5. My own experience as a hiring manager is that candidates’ personalities become pretty clear in an interview, even and perhaps especially without the use of “trick,” deceptive, manipulative, or those weird “if you were a tropical fruit, which one would you be?” questions.

    I ask about their work, how they solved certain problems, how they accomplished what they said they accomplished, and when I can how specifically they might solve certain problems I have–how, as Nick says–they do the work. Then I listen for both content and character. People will tell you all you need to know if you listen carefully and trust what you see and hear, not what you want to see or hear.

    And although we malign HR quite a bit, a good HR rep can be helpful in this regard as well. Good HR reps can tell when something just isn’t right with a candidate or when something positive stands out.

  6. Nick,
    I think this goes back to what you have been saying about ‘doing the job, not the interview’. Give the person a problem to work on, with reasonable expectations and let them show their stuff.

    I want someone that can solve problems, not just answer questions sitting in a chair.

  7. there are many great personality and skills tests out there… the hiring manger should spring for the 500 bucks and give the prospective candidate the tests. its impartial since most hiring managers that I met have the mentality of a gnat on bourbon

  8. Well, I’ll never forget the one time that I walked into a bar (yes, the old line to introduce a joke!)

    So I walked into a bar and experienced real-life humor. I spotted a hiring manager who once interviewed me. At his office, the man was an exemplary professional, tie and all. At the sports bar, however, he exclaimed with bare legs in shorts, beer mug slammed down repeatedly with expletive after expletive to rip to shreds the opposing team.

    I guess his behavior was consistent in that yes, he had quite an exemplary vocabulary at the office as well as at the bar.

    My test of evaluating personality is along the do-the-job lines of coming back during subsequent visits to show actual job competence. That includes the way the candidate carries on himself.

    My bar story took place in the 90’s. Nowadays, if you want to check out candidates’ personalities, you can turn to Facebook, Twitter and the other social networking sites. Even if they are used for corporate purposes, you still have some employees referring to customers as “retards.” So as work/life lines blur/blend you have that dimension of personality to consider. How bad do you want it? See

  9. Sam,

    Nice response. Well said, I agree completely.

    The question you posited in your first response could really find which applicants were the honest ones. But really good managers wouldn’t be totally honest if they asked that particular question, but that’s splitting hairs somewhat.

  10. Scott-

    personality and skills tests? Oh, please. Those are just a way for the people who need to judge job applicants to avoid actually doing any judging of applicants.

    No commercial test has been written that applies exactly to any particular job. The ‘test’ needs to be a specific task/question assigned by the hiring manager who is the only person in a position to know what the right answers are.

    Example: I once interviewed at a company with a good reputation that was undeserved, to say the least. They tried to determine analytical ability for software designers with a paper and pencil test involving drawings of un-labelled boxes and arrows which were supposed to mean … what? When I asked them why they used it they claimed that since they only hired people who did well on the test they knew that the test scores must be valuable. Without a control group, of course, the correlation was completely bogus.

    Interviewing and hiring can only be done with human judgment.

  11. Nick, isn’t this situation exactly why managers should network, too? Well-placed, trusted peers can often give you more than enough information without trying to filter out the potential bullshit from a candidate’s hand-picked reference.

  12. @Another Steve

    In some situations, I listened closely to the recommendations of peers. We got burned. Why? Because while that person was fitting for those teams, he wasn’t in ours.

    In other situations, I ignored the warnings of a candidate’s references. I triumphed. Why? Because I saw potential in the person. They first showed actual job competence. They then succeeded on our turf — the problem was they were never given a chance to succeed on the others!

    Yes, others’ recommendations do have value like those user review sites. However, some people believe everybody else’s judgement matters far more than their own. We have this thing at times that we believe only external forces save us, e.g., HR Consultants. Consequently, too many managers never get a chance to really develop their skills of evaluating and assessing people.

  13. This is one of the best discussions on this blog — thanks for the pointed comments all around! And this is a very important topic. I wish more managers would drop in.

    @Jason: Important side topic here. **However, in many of our business situations today obedience is put way before actual honesty and if you do that the honesty of your reports will erode in direct proportion to how much they have to just obey whatever the “boss” says.**

    I think the opposite is true too often today. Everyone is so big on “getting honest input” that we forget we have bosses for a reason. Sometimes, obedience is a necessity. While honest input from employees is very important, so is obedience to the boss. The buck has to stop somewhere, and one mind must coordinate the entire operation/project. Unless we think the boss can always explain all the reasons for a decision or action, sometimes the single best attribute of an employee is the ability to follow orders and trust authority. Yah, I know how that sounds. I grew up in the Sixties. “Question Authority” is tatooed on my forehead. But sometimes I think we go way overboard with the idea that the mark of a good employee is that he’ll challenge the boss, and that a good manager will always encourage challenges. A job candidate who reveals no willingness to follow and obey is a potential liability.

    I can’t believe I just said that. But I mean it.

  14. @G re: Personality Tests. THANK YOU. I think the single biggest error HR makes (next to being involved in recruiting and hiring) is using personality tests to hire. G, you nailed it. Employers would do well to study what these tests are and what they mean. They are descriptive. They do not predict anything about the n-th individual. Too often, tests serve as nothing more than “cover” for poor HR practices. Used sparingly and at the appropriate time, tests can be useful. But use them to make decisions about people? No, thanks.

  15. @Another Steve, @Glenn: Both sides of the “references” coin are valid. Glenn is right: references can be situational. That is, they are valid in one circumstance, but not in another. But I’d never hire anyone (or recruit anyone, for that matter) without talking to people who know the individual. That carries far more weight with me than even the job interview itself. It’s an art to talk to references and get a straight story.

    But as with tests, references still require the judgment of the user. Too many managers/HR folks I’ve known will justify a decision to hire or not hire by citing tests or references. While it’s fine to consider either tool “necessary,” neither is sufficient. Gotta use your judgment to pull all the info together, and then add more judgment.

  16. Nick,

    You are of course right that sometimes managers must do exactly that, manage, including giving orders. But I think an important difference between a good and a bad manager is that a good manager will earn the trust of his people, by explaining what he wants do get done and why, and involving them. Thus, his people will also trust his judgement those times where there is no time for explanations. A bad manager is one who just commands.

    As a corrolary on ethics, seven years ago I telephone-interviewed with one of the big oil giant companies. Since I am a geologist, I was of course interviewed by a HR rep whose background was in law :D I didn’t get further, because (OK, somewhat simplified:):

    HR: You must sell yourself better, don’t be nuanced! If you are going to sell an oil development project to your manager, you must focus only on the positives of that project, not the problems!
    Me: But there are uncertainties and risks in all upstream projects. Wouldn’t hiding them be to lie to my own manager?
    HR: Eh…umm…eh…

  17. Nick,

    I can’t believe you said that either.

    I guess I’m just really sensitive as a subordinate to having a boss who cannot explain why a particular action needs to be done.

    Conversely as a leader I hardly ever like to use the explanation “because I said so.” If I don’t have a good explanation for something, even if its just “because management requires it,” I don’t feel I’m leading correctly.

    If as a boss, my supervisor is open and honest with me about what needs to be done and what they want me to do, I will be their best lieutenant. If my supervisor micromanages me and the tasks I’m doing, I frankly can barely stand it.

    Its just a hot button of mine.

  18. @Karsten: I’m still ROTF… you captured the HR phoner…

    @Jason: I think I started learning a lot more than I knew about trust, authority, respect, cooperation and leadership when my kids became teenagers. They naturally question everything, and each time is an opportunity to teach, learn, grow. Sometimes patience in “the boss” is a virtue. Sometimes, just following orders is a virtue in the staff (or kids). It’s not always possible to explain, teach, justify. Sometimes the key element at play is trust, which a boss (and parent) must obviously earn.

    But as on a battlefield, everything sometimes depends on trusting and following orders – even if you disagree and, sorry to say, even if you know you are right and the boss is wrong. A kid who disregards instruction from the parent (or hesitates) can wind up hurt.

    That’s perhaps one of the most difficult ideas in management. Short of doing something unethical or illegal, an employee’s first duty is to take an order. Fundamentally, that’s what we are paid for. Naturally, we might disagree vehemently and in the most extreme case, quit. (And kids can move out.)

    Trust is earned. But where there is leadership, there is also the implied agreement to follow orders. It’s implied in any circumstance where a leader is accepted.

    Sounds a bit harsh, but employees can’t talk about great leaders without being willing to take the leader’s orders. Sometimes without question (until later, anyway!).

    Back to your comments, Jason – sometimes there is no time or opportunity to answer the question, “Why?” The real challenge lies in deciding what to do at that point, as the employee, before you have developed trust in your leader/boss. Do you do what you’re told, and ask questions later? (Hopefully, you’ve got trust by then, but not always.) And hopefully, this is a rare occurence.

    Maybe I’m getting too philosophical and talking too much in the abstract. I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying. But as a parent, I worry about that instance where someone has to lead, and someone has to follow without question. Likewise as a manager.

  19. Could I flip the question over? I recently had to identify whether a hiring manager was one of the good guys, even when he was trying to figure our whether I was. (I am, of course.)

    I went about it more or less the way I would have if I’d been the one doing the hiring. I asked for references, spent time with the person, talked with his colleagues, and tried to use my gut. This person has excellent sales skills, so in person I was sold. After each meeting, though, my gut was uncomfortable. In the end, I called someone I knew well and trusted, whom I knew would have know the manager through our professional association. This wasn’t a reference, this was a friend in the industry, whose network overlapped the manager’s. My friend shared impressions and experiences that confirmed my gut response. I didn’t take the job.

    Hiring managers and HR folks probably hate my approach, on the grounds that it’s prone to prejudice, hearsay, and so forth, not to mention the very unscientific gut reaction. What say you?

  20. Nick,

    You said,
    “It’s not always possible to explain, teach, justify. Sometimes the key element at play is trust, which a boss (and parent) must obviously earn.

    But as on a battlefield, everything sometimes depends on trusting and following orders – even if you disagree and, sorry to say, even if you know you are right and the boss is wrong. A kid who disregards instruction from the parent (or hesitates) can wind up hurt.”

    I think an unstated assumption here is that all the “authority” belongs to the manager, but really the ultimate authority in a manager-employee relationship is equal.

    A manager can fire the employee at any time, but the employee can quit at anytime too (thus “firing” his boss)

    I know this sounds like a lame and pointless equality, because the employee does have to eat, but think of it this way…

    If a manager loses an employee due to “irrational tyranny”, he has a big price to pay. A lost employee is a loss in productivity for a time being. The manager has to pay for the costs of searching for another decent employee, the manager might suffer a loss in reputation since word about this stuff goes around (esp to other employees, affecting their morale) All these negative consequences could place the manager’s job in jeopardy if he doesn’t straighten out.

    So if the employee turns out to be right, he can quit and have the manager take the real losses (and the employee can find a better manager and job using ask the headhunter!). Yes, employees have to eat, so they produce. However, managers have to produce, or they wont eat. Managers that continuously exhibit bad leadership don’t manage for long, as continuously bad employees do not stay employed for long.

    As far whether its smart to obey all the manager’s orders, I don’t have time to go into that, but I’ll say this: Always question authority, but if you decide to commit to an authority, stay committed or quit.

  21. @Sam: I think you sum it up pretty well. It’s all a choice. People seem to get hung up on bosses bossing. But it’s a choice. And as you say, if you’re going to commit to the authority, you have two main choices :-)

  22. I just read what G wrote regarding a software design applicant testing experience. I took a test just like that with a large company for a similar position. Although I did well on the test, I couldn’t see what they were learning from it. The test really had nothing to do with the job or the skills required for the job. They also made me take several more tests that lasted for hours.

    Since I had only learned what they were offering for hourly salary that morning (the recruiter wouldn’t divulge the secret amount), I used some of the testing time when I was bored to figure out that the whole thing was pointless. Working there full-time at the hourly salary they were offering would have earned a gross salary of about $24,000 per year with terrible working hours. Upon realizing this, I asked why I would want to work that hard mentally for less than the man who collects my garbage at the curb makes, and I left. I don’t mind terrible working hours as long as the compensation is decent.

    I agree with Nick that talking about or even solving actual job-related problems or situations is a far better test than these pseudo IQ tests some hiring managers fire at you. Even if I have a high IQ, I might not be the best person to help your business make money.

    As far as the personality tests are concerned, the test I’ve seen ask about the same questions. Smart people know not to choose answers like I don’t like to work with others or I always need to have my way in the office or whatever silliness they ask. I had to answer a personality survey to get my current teaching job. It is quite obvious that some of my coworkers did not answer their personality test honestly.

  23. Nick, great question! I answered your question on my blog:

    How to Check a Job Candidate’s Personality

  24. to all of you that are pro personality test. it is nothing more than another means of discrimination and opens a door to legal problems. the best workers i have ever had were persons who by all means were the most unpersonable individuals. all of whom just wanted latitude to be who they are. When given that freedom the far out worked any of the so called people with in the norm of personlaity standards. Yes they can sometimes be a handful to deal with but this is the human condition. So if you really wsh to run the gambit of having a legal discrimination case brought against you by all means continue with thinking a personality test is the way to go. heres a hint sit down and get to know your potential hire over the course of an interview. and then make a descision. fascist crap makes me wanna puke.