A Simple Guide to Interviewing for Attitude

Bad attitude signMark Murphy wrote a terrific book on interviewing for attitude, which I highly recommend (also see this interview). His company, Leadership IQ, conducted an impressive survey discovering that 46 percent of new hires failed within 18 months, and that 89 percent of the time it was for attitude, not a lack of technical skills.

Interviewing for attitude presents a dilemma: Most people are on their best behavior when interviewing and even during their first 6-12 months of employment.

You may not realize you have a problem on your hands until the new hire has been trained and is a fully functioning part of your team. Knowing you’ll have to begin the selection process all over again — a long and costly procedure — makes it harder to part with the employee. Meanwhile, the good-natured people on the team have to pick up the slack, putting strain on your best people and leading to harmful side effects. Burnout, discontent with management, and customer service deficiencies are likely to develop.

Since this is a major problem in many organizations, guerrilla tactics are needed.

Before you start interviewing for attitude, identify and eliminate employees who cause problems. Otherwise, your new hires will be entering a negative environment. The harder part is replacing those individuals with good-natured people.

Step One:

As you screen resumes, identify potential attitude issues. Look for people who have stayed in positions longer than four years and haven’t had more than three jobs in a five-year period. (Obviously, this won’t apply to candidates just entering the workforce.) Longevity in a position doesn’t guarantee competence, but it’s usually a reliable indicator of success and a positive attitude. Just remember that it’s a starting point, not a rock-solid rule.

Step Two:

Begin the interview by asking questions about the candidate’s work history. Go through each job on their resume one at a time, starting from the most recent position. Cover at least three past jobs, but understand that three is usually not enough. Discuss five or more if possible. The more senior the position you’re filling, the more important it is to examine additional past positions.

Step Three:

Focus your interview questions on why the candidate left a position and how they interacted with their supervisor and others on their team: Why are you no longer with ABC company? Why did you decide to leave? If you were laid off, who picked up your workload? Why were you chosen to be laid off? Do you regret leaving that position? What reason would your supervisor give for why you are no longer with ABC company? What did you like most about the position? What would your supervisor tell me about your performance? Who was your favorite person in that company? Why?

The key is to keep digging. Once the applicant answers a questions, ask for more information. Ask for specific examples. Ask them to clarify their answers. Don’t be afraid to probe.

Step Four:

Once you believe you have a good-natured and competent person (talented team player) on your hands, dig deeper. Behavioral-based questions and scenarios that put the candidate between a rock and hard place will expose their true underlying values. Try a few of these questions:

A manager leaves sensitive information out in the open on their desk, and an employee reads the documents. Who is at fault here and why? Make the candidate choose one side or the other. If the candidate refuses, then he or she makes choices based on convenience, which often indicates dishonesty or a tendency to blame others. This individual will likely tell white lies when it benefits them, or half-truths to cover up mistakes. If they say the manager is at fault, they may be unsupportive and lack personal responsibility.

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A manager asks you to lie to a customer about an important delivery date. Do you follow their instructions or not? Make the interviewee choose, and ask why they chose their answer. Agreeing to lie indicates fundamental dishonesty. Equivocating suggests a lack of conviction and may signify weak core values.

Devise additional questions that reveal a person’s values, and remember to make candidates choose one way or the other. Be wary of those who refuse to take a stand.

Step Five:

Consider using an assessment tool (I know, I’m biased) that accurately measures attitude traits. Use these tools to help you validate your interviewing efforts or as a backstop in case someone slipped past the interview stage. Using these assessments early in the selection process can save time and money.

If you decide not to use attitude assessments, make sure you conduct at least one more interview that includes another leader in your organization. The hiring manager should participate in each interview to look for inconsistencies and dig deeper into questionable areas. Taking a day or two to reflect on an interview will help the hiring manager identify areas of concern and prepare questions for future interviews.

Step Six:

Check references! And make sure your candidates know you will check their references early in the process. Get their direct supervisors from at least their last three jobs to talk to you. It’s acceptable for candidates to contact these people to ensure they will speak to you, and they‘ll probably do it even if you don’t encourage them to. If a candidate was good-natured and competent, their past supervisors and their supervisors’ supervisors will most likely speak with you candidly, despite any company policies against giving performance referrals. Candidates who cannot produce valid references are probably hiding something and should be approached with great caution. Finally, consider speaking to candidates’ supervisors’ managers to get a more objective perspective.

Find people who are both competent and have good attitudes. Too many companies suffer in silence with competent problem generators who do more harm than good.


image from 123rf


12 Comments on “A Simple Guide to Interviewing for Attitude

  1. Great article and pointers to utilize during the interview(s) process. I currently recruit for RIGHTECH’s In-House Tech Recruiters and it is amazing to me what I encounter on a daily basis.
    RIGHTECH is actually offering “The Right Candidate(s)” full training for a Career Path with with unlimited growth & earning potential in Central New Jersey.

    Keep in mind that a career as a Recruiter is only as lucrative as the industry you are recruiting within. The Wireless Sector of the Telecom Industry is currently the #1 Growth Industry Worldwide which practically guarantees RIGHTECH’s Team of Tech Recruiters unlimited earnings & growth potential well into the next decade.

    With that said — where are the candidates whom are seeking an employer to give them a Career of their lifetime?

  2. @ Irene: thank you for your commercial.

    @ Fletcher: It appears that job longevity and company loyalty as a virtue are rather Twen Cen concepts. Out here in the Bay Area, we’re learning to think like CXOs:
    1) ”Grab as much as you can for as long as you can, then get out of there as fast as you can. Repeat as often as necessary.”
    2)”Loyalty = cash-flow.”
    3)”When the going gets tough, the tough get going. The smart left a long time ago.”



  3. you better make sure that your management team isn’t the problem. Seriously its hard to find really good managers let alone have them interview like this. I like the idea but I would question that style of interview if I was a candidate. Then again I’m kind of a pain in the ass but all the greats are. Ha!

  4. Ted great response I was going to say people still stick around for less pay and harder work when they work for leaders that inspire and push them to be their best.

    It is an increasingly painful problem in this era to have people jumping ship too quickly for slightly greener pastures. Never the less people will stick around longer for good leadership.

    It’s always better to look at some ones departures rather than their arrivals, even if they are only staying for short periods of time in each position.

    You can tone down the inquisition by mixing up the interview questions to include other types of questioning. This just focuses on uncovering attitude and should not be the only strategy in the interview process. To get the best you need to look at the whole person.

  5. @ Fletcher: “leaders that inspire and push them to be their best”. I don’t look to be inspired by work- I look to be able to do the work to the best of my ability without having a workaholic, micromanaging, jerk trying to convince me that his (it’s usually “his”) pathetic operation is the greatest thing not just since the invention of sliced bread but since the invention of fire, and I should have the “passion” and “engagement” to be willing to give my heart and soul to working 100 hours week until I’m no longer useful (or the damn thing runs out of money/implodes) and I get tossed out on my ear along with many others. If not being willing to drink the corp-cult’s Kool Aid one more time gives me a “bad attitude”: then I am “bad to the bone,” baby.

    Later, ‘Cruitaz….

  6. A few observations about this (not necessarily correlated to each step above or in that order):

    1) Abysmally low engagement ratings suggest that most companies are not willing/able to identify and eliminate “problem causing employees” in order to start fresh with “positive attitude employees” – and – most of the time, it’s the former than ruin everything for the latter.

    2) Not sure I’d buy the idea that job longevity is a “reliable indicator of success and positive attitude.” Plenty of long-timers are nothing but dead weight fixtures that add no value regardless of attitude. And, short stints or frequent changes could in fact mean a person has high standards and doesn’t want to settle for an environment or leaders that enable slackers to stay put.

    3) Never understood the fascination with spending such a high percentage of interview time drilling into every past position and reasons for joining/leaving each company. What does that have to do with the current context of the job available at the next company? Candidates are conditioned to put a positive spin on things either way and tell the interviewer what they want to hear. Those that share candid and valid reasons for leaving a less than stellar situations run the risk of being considered negative or problematic when they are simply being honest.

    4) Related to the 3rd point, giving candidates a choice to make between two sides of an issue to avoid telling a “white lie when convenient to do so” is exactly the problem with delving into the nooks and crannies of their prior employment decisions and relationships. Again, most people leave jobs when there is some level of dissatisfaction. Even when they weren’t actively looking to leave, many directly sourced candidates that get recruited away, leave because the new position offers something better.

    5) While plenty of people conduct their own “back-door” reference checking along the way, I think it is intrusive to expect candidates to produce references early in the process. If you are that skeptical about the person and think references will open up the closet full of skeletons, then you should just move on to someone else. Otherwise, why not wait until an offer is imminent or extended to require this step? Also, whether speaking with back-door references or those offered up, the implied message here seems to be the more senior level the “reference” the more credibility of their input. If any doubt is raised about the candidate, is there any way to validate that reference’s comments and confirm they speak truthfully, objectively and without any biased agenda toward the candidate? Perhaps the “jerks” Keith described are in the mix… Then what?

    ~KB @TalentTalks

  7. Thank you Kelly for those insightful thoughts. I agree strongly with your first comment that problem generators drive out the good natured people. I coach business leaders on that idea all the time.

    By asking for references upfront you are more likely to get an honest more detailed response to your questions through out the interview process. References should be checked before a final offer is made once the candidate has been thoroughly interviewed.

    Probing questions are critical for get to the bottom of peoples departures, successes, competencies and failures. There are definitively good reasons for leaving jobs or bad managers. Consider checking out our E-Book in September for a more comprehensive guide.

    Kelly good points hitting some of the finer details of getting it right.

  8. @ Kelly: Thank you…. While I tend to believe that “front-door” references are virtually worthless and “back-door” references are of questionable ethics, I have recently heard about some tool (whose name I don’t know) which effectively gives “front-door references” a 360-degree interview type of perspective that’s hard to fake. That being said, I also don’t believe in giving references toward the beginning.



  9. Or more simply put – spend more time in an interview asking candidates ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions to uncover their underlying motivation and attitude. In my experience far too much time in interviews is devoted to asking ‘what’ questions.

    And as Fletcher rightly says, always dig beyond the first answer, the truth is almost always deeper down, if you’re prepared to dig to find it.

  10. The answers cannot be sought in the application of specific techniques but solutions have to derive from social re-training. Raghav Singhs ERE article from 8/8 (https://staging.ere.net/2013/08/08/hiring-generation-u-problems-with-the-recent-crop-of-college-grads/#more-3337)says:
    This group does not have a good image — the New York Post called it “The Worst Generation,” citing research that shows Gen U members as being very narcissistic and with a high sense of entitlement. Apparently they have a very inflated sense of self. “They want to be CEO tomorrow,” is a common refrain from corporate recruiters. A survey showed that when it comes to work, what Gen U cares about most are high salaries and lots of time off. They are also unable to take criticism — frequently believing they are doing great work when they aren’t.

    There is enough proof of this in resumes. I’m sure you all have had candiates with less than one year of epxerience that profess in the objective of their resumes to being ‘though leaders looking for a position to apply their solid knowledge’ proving that with 3-month stints in which they were ‘instrumental’, ‘key’ or ‘leaders’ of various projects.

    Bad behavior seems to be the social anatomy of an entire new generation and, in fairness, is also found in genX, genY and whatnot. It is therefore a given and screeing for it won’t solve the problem. The bad part is that it’s companies own fault: as long as they sit like wolves in the front of the dens of unsuspecting yet-to-become-college grads – promising them nirvana but not telling them about the realities of work life and the resulting expectations – bad behavior will be furthered exponentially, as such newbies will carry it into subsequent positions and their own business efforts.

    The rate at which this happens is enormous: the average time of service at Google, for instance, is reportedly 1.1 years; at Microsoft, 4 years. Such turnover really can only relate to the experiential differences between the expectations sold to new candidates and the realties they find.

    There are only 876,000 software developers in the US (RHI)or 913,100 (BLS). Whichever the right number is, for convenience’ sake let’s say there are a million. At the end of February, there were 2.1 million jobs in professional, scientific and techncial fields posted. Yes, we are adding +/- 40,000 new tech grads, every year currently. A drop in the bucket, but a huge addition to the momentum of overblown personal expectations.

    So, what’s one to do? Even though from the recruiter view – i.e. the business view:-) – it makes perfect sense, with the skills shortage and the pressure of competition, I think that hiring managers will care as much about bad behavior interviews, as they care about learning about behavioral interviewing in general, which, in my experience, is mostly relegated to the voodoo that we recruiters do so well.

  11. @ Michael: you’ve raised interesting points.

    “…with the skills shortage and the pressure of competition”:
    At the recent Bay Area Unconferences, I discussed the hype of the so-called “War for Talent” which you mentioned in a calmer and more realistic way.

    I don’t believe there’s a “War for Talent”- there’s a war for:
    1) Purple squirrels
    2) Candidates possessing 10 out of 10 requirements
    3) Underpaid excellence.

    Furthermore, if your company absolutely requires somebody that you can’t hire for what you’re able/willing to pay, or perhaps can’t hire for any price, that says a lot about the intelligence (or lack thereof) of the people who got your company into that situation.



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