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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Interviewing idiocy

I recently had to interview for a new position at work. I was the only candidate and the role had essentially been created with me in mind, so it shouldn't have presented much of a challenge. However, I still found myself exceptionally nervous, which resulted in me rambling my way through the first few questions, choosing a project where everyone ended up deeply unhappy as my example of a "win win" scenario, and rounding things off by tipping water down my front.

In a shock move, they still gave me the job and I'm now having fun trying to manage a team of four rather feisty ladies on three days a week. All good therefore, but the whole rigmarole made me question, not for the first time, how effective traditional interviews actually are in choosing the right candidate. Had I been up against others, there's a very real possibility that my rubbish interview would have scuppered me, even though the job is a great fit with my skill set, and I (and my manager) know I'm going to be good at it.  My problems with interviews (both as an interviewee and interviewer) are as follows:
  • You're testing a candidate's ability to control their nerves first and foremost. To be honest, the people that do this best are either those that don't care about the job and thus have nothing to lose, people with planet sized egos who can't contemplate others not sharing their inflated opinion of themselves, or psychopaths, who don't care what others think of them full stop. Nerves turn competent, modest, bright people into gibbering and / or monosyllabic nitwits, which makes it very hard to judge their true value. Unless you're interviewing for a job that requires impeccable calm under pressure (A&E doctor, fighter pilot, war correspondent etc.) it seems a pity that something as human, normal and transitory as nerves should have such a big impact on your career prospects.
  • Standard interview questions are inane. Everyone knows they're inane, and yet it's like we've signed some weird interview pact whereby we feel we have to ask them or the interview gods (or HR) will punish us. "Can you tell us how you prioritise your time?" Err, I do the most important and urgent things first. That's it. Even though in reality, I tend to start most mornings responding to whatever head-slappingly stupid email I received the night before. "Can you give me an example of how you dealt with a difficult individual?" Well, I had to wrestle a one year old into a nappy, vest, dungarees and socks this morning. I found brute force and bribes worked quite well. "Where do you see yourself in 5 year's time" Easy. On a beach in Bermuda having won the lottery. Doesn't everyone? 
  • When the questions aren't inane, they're impossibly abstract. "Tell me how you develop effective strategies" was a question I had at my recent interview. Where to begin? It entirely depends on the issue you need to address with your strategy. And the resources available. And how you define "strategy". And, err, now I'm thinking about it, what is a strategy exactly anyway?! I think I rambled for five minutes or so before I struck upon something I could just about pass off as a 'strategy' and gave some non-waffley detail. Had they asked me "tell me how you get reports out of people who can't be bothered to write them" I could have given them a concise, fully fleshed out answer because I have to do that all the time. All. The. Sodding. Time.
  • Candidates only get 45 minutes or so to prove their worth in comparison to two / five / twenty five others; they're never judged purely on their own merits (unless they're lucky enough to be the only candidate of course!). This is obvious, but it doesn't make it any less unfair. You could be amazing, but if the questions don't play to your strengths but do to someone else's, or someone who went to the same school as the interviewer comes along, and they hit it off, you don't have a chance, however much you've prepared and however impartial the interviewer might consider themselves to be. I once went for two interviews in one week for two very similar jobs, either of which I would have loved and could have done with my hands tied behind my back. Both told me I did a really great interview, but for the first that I was "over qualified" and for the second that I "lacked experience". Both were meaningless let-you-down-gently excuses, I know, but what it proved was that experience and interview technique are largely arbitrary in and of themselves - someone else had seemed better on the day for whatever reason, and they therefore got the job. 
  • Interviewing doesn't always find you someone decent. I've had colleagues rave about interview candidates who turn out to be utterly useless. I've engaged temps with virtually no interview process who are amazing. Until someone has actually done the job for a while, you just can't tell with 100% accuracy how good they're going to be, however much you bombard them with questions about their approach to time management.
Short of hiring someone for a day to try them out, what would work better than a standard interview though? Truth be told, not a lot if you have to get though a number of candidates and keep things fair, but I think we can tweak the conventions a bit.  A conversational approach is still a lot more enlightening than your standard panel set up. Have a chat. Put the candidate at their ease. Figure out if you could actually work with them, day in, day out. You can absolutely weave some questions in there to test their knowledge and understanding, but if you make it relaxed and two-way, it's actually much easier for them to give good, well-developed answers as they will feel much safer asking you questions to test whether they're responding along the right lines.

Also, set them some small tasks or tests, give them some scenarios to work through, or run a bit of a role play. Make it less artificial and abstract, and more grounded in reality. Sure, you can ask about time management, but you're only ever going to get a stock, rehearsed answer that tells you nothing. So MAKE someone manage their time in front of you! A bit mean, but revealing.

Finally, ask them about themselves. People love to talk about themselves. I always find the last five minutes of an interview, where you enquire what the candidate will be doing for the rest of the day, very revealing. Suddenly they're on safe ground, and you get a proper insight into their personality. I've totally changed my opinion of someone based on that (I thought they were humourless, but turns out they were hilarious! They still didn't get the job though. They spelled our organisation's name wrong in their test.).

That concludes the post.  Thank you for reading.  I'll be in touch.

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