The rules of interviewing don’t work

The rules of interviewing don’t work


This is not a news flash to anyone that reads your website: The flood of resumes and job postings makes job seekers feel like cattle while they’re applying for jobs. We know the hiring process is even more impersonal and bureaucratic the farther we get into it. We can’t control this out-of-control cattle drive, but once we’re actually in a job interview (ring the bell!) how can we exert some control so we can stand out among even more competition? It’s clear the rules of interviewing don’t work! Companies have so many applicants to choose from that they hesitate to hire anyone at all!

Nick’s Reply

rules of interviewingWhen the rules of interviewing don’t work, agile job applicants change the rules. I’ll tell you the story of a job seeker I met during an intense 1-hour Talk To Nick consultation I did recently to help her break through an employer’s hesitation.

When the rules of interviewing don’t work

Jing came to the U.S. from China on a work visa only to lose her job during the recent downsizings. She has rare technical skills but suddenly found herself adrift in a very weird job market. (“We can’t find the specialized candidates we need! But we’re flooded with job applications!”)

For several months she applied the rules of interviewing she’d learned from her American friends. It was the same-old advice we all know — put the right keywords in your resume, recite your strengths and weaknesses, study up on the common behavioral interview questions, tell them you’re flexible on salary, let the interviewer lead, try not to be nervous, and so on.

Because of her job skills, Jing had plenty of interviews. But, she told me, it always ended after one or two rounds. She really felt she was following all the rules. She always got compliments after her interviews. So why was she getting no offers?

Control the interview: Make it a conversation

Jing is smart, insightful and grasps things quickly. But she couldn’t get past the barrage of rote interview questions — her language barrier put her at a disadvantage. So I showed her how to turn away from the rote Q&A script managers usually follow, and to have a slower, more casual conversation with the hiring manager instead.

Later, she told me that was the secret sauce for her. She felt she was coming off as very stiff and overly formal because she was doing her best to follow the prescribed script.

“In all my interviews I could not make myself relax and do my best because I was trying to follow all the rules my friends taught me about interviews. By changing my tone to conversational, the manager relaxed, it was friendly and we were able to really talk! That made me able to show my best!”

Two days after our session, Jing went on her next interview. At first the manager was uncomfortable with Jing’s accent, but Jing compensated by speaking more slowly. Then she then expressed her interest by asking the manager about his team. While he talked, she relaxed.

She asked the manager what he needed a new hire to accomplish. He told her that in spite of her weak English language skills, he was impressed with her communication skills and by her focus on the job tasks. The rest of the interview was about the work, and she had a good offer in just hours.

“I didn’t know I could control a job interview like that just by asking the manager to talk about himself!” Jing said to me later

There are many ways to control a job interview by breaking the script that makes interviews so awkward. Two of the most important are (a) change the subject, and (b) focus on deliverables.

Change the subject

Job candidates are naturally self-conscious in interviews because they’re on stage. They are the focus. They must perform by answering questions. This interview script, which the manager and candidate buy into, can create immense stress and actually weaken the candidate’s presentation.

A candidate can take control of the initial part of the interview and break the script by encouraging the manager to talk about themselves. In fact, research reveals that “letting someone share a story or two about their life instead of blabbing about yours could give them more positive memories of your interaction.”

(There’s science behind this tactic! Studies in social psychology suggest that when we express interest in another person they are more apt to like us. That may seem obvious, but few people know how to apply this fun fact of psychology to a job interview.)

With a big, friendly, curious grin, ask the manager, “So, what brought you to this company?” Or, “Have you found the challenges of your job have changed since you started working here?”

Be polite, be gentle and friendly, be curious, and — like Jing — be conversational!

By changing the subject temporarily, you can nudge a stress-inducing interview toward an engaging conversation that reveals to the manager how different you are from other applicants. That is, it makes you stand out positively. As long as you’re also ready to talk about how you’ll do the job, this brief respite can change your meeting dramatically for the better.

Deliver deliverables

A job candidate can also break the interview script — and control the meeting — by helping the manager think in terms of deliverables. (We discussed this at length in Stupid Interview Questions: #11.) Ask the manager, “What do you expect your new hire to deliver in the first month, 3 months, 6, 12 and then at 18 and 24 months?”

This is another way to make the manager talk and to put the focus on the job rather than on you.

Managers are hampered by the standard, rote questions they’ve been taught to ask. Helping them see that your focus is on deliverables changes the way they view you. You suddenly stand out because you’re showing you’re all about the work.

Change the rules of interviewing

The rules of interviewing don’t work because they rely on a artificial script. Like Jing, you can take control of your interviews by having a real conversation with a hiring manager. Just change the rules!

What are the rules of interviewing? Which ones work, and which don’t? Do you control your interviews so that you’ll stand out from your competition? What’s the best way to do that?

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3 Anti-Behavioral Interview Questions to Ask Job Candidates

3 Anti-Behavioral Interview Questions to Ask Job Candidates

In the December 12, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager gets fed up with behavioral interview  questions and wants to know how to really judge a job applicant. 


My HR department insists I use a list of 30 Essential Behavioral Interview Questions published by LinkedIn when I meet with job applicants. These are the questions 1,300 hiring managers said they use.

The questions are canned and don’t reveal whether a candidate could do the job if I hired them. It feels silly to ask these questions because it’s like dancing around the REAL question — whether the person can do the job! What do I care how they handled a difficult situation at their last job, when they have no idea what a really difficult situation is at my company?

I haven’t gotten busted yet, but I’m one hiring manager who doesn’t use the behavioral questions. Maybe there’s something I don’t get. Do you advocate using them and, if you do, please explain the benefits.

Nick’s Reply

I don’t use behavioral interview questions. Like you, I think the practice is silly — and it’s frankly lame because, as you suggest, it’s like “dancing around the real question.” Behavioral interviews are indirect assessments that create more guesswork instead of enabling a manager to directly assess whether an applicant can do the work.

You don’t say how you interview and assess job candidates, but you hint that you focus your interviews on a direct assessment of whether the person can do the job you need to fill.

If we could all hire only great people who perform to their max, we’d all be rich. But choosing and managing new hires is a dicey proposition. I’ll warn you that my approach to interviewing job applicants will result in some of them canceling the interviews you schedule. No worries — it’ll just save you time.

The problem with behavioral interview questions

Loads of candidate assessment methods have come and gone through the decades. My own approach as a headhunter is to get one key question answered before I go on to other assessments.

Can the candidate demonstrate that he or she can actually do the job?

Surprisingly, that’s left out of most job interviews. Instead of getting a demonstration, most employers do an indirect assessment. They ask job applicants the popular set of “behavioral interview” questions, hoping they can read between the lines of a person’s answers about how they handled certain situations in the past. (Job seekers: See The Basics.)

If your HR requires you to use behavioral interviews, I agree that not getting busted for not using them should be your goal!

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3 Anti-Behavioral Interview Questions

Here’s my take on some of the lame questions LinkedIn suggests — and 3 anti-behavioral interview alternatives that actually nudge candidates to demonstrate how they’ll do the work. These are direct assessments because you’ll be talking about your team, your work, your job — not about some hypothetical situation that you don’t even know the applicant is telling the truth about.

Behavioral Question #1:

“Tell me about the biggest change that you have had to deal with. How did you adapt to that change?”

My anti version:

“We hit a challenge with the project you’ll be working on if we hire you. [Describe the problem or challenge in detail.] How would you approach that?”

That’s is a discussion about real change. You can of course ask the applicant about similar issues they’ve faced at other jobs. But if you focus on specific issues you’re facing, you’ll quickly learn not just how the person approaches work; you’ll learn a lot about problem-solving abilities that are relevant to you.

Behavioral Question #2:

“Tell me about a time in the last week when you’ve been satisfied, energized, and productive at work. What were you doing?”

My anti version:

Don’t ask a question. Invite the applicant to spend a couple of hours with your team in a live work meeting about a live project. Sit in on the meeting, but don’t say anything. Watch and listen. My guess is you’ll learn most of what you need to know about the candidate’s style and motivation, and it’ll be relevant to your setting, not someone else’s.

Behavioral Question #3:

“Describe a time when you volunteered to expand your knowledge at work, as opposed to being directed to do so.”

My anti version:

“Now that we’ve discussed the deliverables we’d expect from you on this job, please list the three relevant areas where you’d need to expand your knowledge. This is not a loaded question — I expect you’ll be learning as you go. Then outline how you’d get that knowledge and what you’d need from me to help you do it.”

I’m sure you see the difference in the questions. Though it may be interesting, I don’t care so much how you handled something at your last job. After all, I’m not hiring you for your past performance. I want a demonstration of how you’ll do this job for me.

Behavioral interview answers can be faked

Like other canned interview questions, clever candidates can study any of a number of books that list loads of typical behavioral interview questions. If you ask, “Tell me about a time when…”, you have no idea whether the experience the candidate discusses is real or from a book.

When you ask the questions I suggest, the applicant has to deal with a real-life situation from your business. You get to see how they’d handle a problem or challenge in the present or in the future. I can’t confirm what an applicant did in the past, so let’s talk shop on my turf, about the work I need done.

Learn more about the Working Interview in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire, “How can I demonstrate my value?” pp. 8-9.

The book includes “How to do a Working Interview,” “What’s your business plan for this job?” and 10 other methods to show you’re the profitable hire — plus 8 How to Say It tips.

How to cull out the weak applicants

Now I’ll leave you with an unexpected suggestion to get the most out of your interviews. Let a candidate know in advance what you’re going to ask about.

Surprise every candidate. Call them in advance of your interview. (If they’re worth a face-to-face meeting, they’re worth calling first!) Outline the work, projects and challenges you want them to discuss with you and your team when they arrive. Let them prepare, just like you expect your employees prepare when you give them an assignment.

Heck, help them prepare. You want them to succeed, right? The best candidates will show up ready to rumble. (Check this article I wrote for Why You Should Treat Job Applicants Like Consultants.)

If you’re a job seeker, be ready for this kind of job interview! You cannot fake it, but you can Prove you deserve a higher job offer.
Those who don’t want to do the preparation such a “working interview” requires will cancel their interviews. They’re the weak candidates.

Like I said, that saves you time.

The best candidates will be prepared, ready to rumble, and excited about talking shop with you and your team. You’ll actually see their behavior in your real-life work setting!

Do behavioral interviews work? Or are they just another trick that prevents a manager and job applicant from getting to really know one another? If you’re a manager, how do you directly assess someone’s ability to do the work during a job interview?

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