More Forgettable Interview Advice

People are always writing articles about the best interview questions. One author (who positioned himself as a hiring expert) actually advised, “In terms of ‘canned’ interview questions, my suggestion is to select a few questions you like and ask them.”

This is a fine strategy for making friends, but absolute nonsense for a recruiter (I had another word in mind, but it would have been politically incorrect.)

After some initial chit-chat, the only interview questions a recruiter or hiring manager should ask are ones that provide trustworthy and reliable data about whether the candidate has the skills for the job.

Canned Questions and Pickled Answers

Why do so many people miss the obvious? Anyone involved in hiring knows there is a big difference between acing an interview and acing a job. Furthermore, as we all know, working in a job we neither like nor have the skills for is a painful experience. I can understand this kind of clueless interview recommendation coming from an inexperienced hiring manager; but, should we accept this advice from someone who either passes himself off as an expert or who recruits for a living? After all, screening applicants based on job qualifications is the recruiter’s job, isn’t it?

What Do You Know and When Did You First Know It?

Asking the right interview questions requires knowing first what to look for. And, if recruiters have to resort to qualification questions like, “What is your greatest accomplishment?” or “How would you describe yourself?” or “What is your greatest strength or weakness?” it’s a sure sign they neither have a clue how to identify specific job skills nor how to measure them. Any determined applicant will rehearse answers to questions like these. Any experienced recruiter knows, at best, they serve as knock-outs.

I once worked with a “professional” recruiter who claimed he had a better way to ask interview questions. He drew close, looked around to see no one was listening, and whispered, “How would your best friend describe you?” (With great difficulty, I choked back a description I really wanted to use to describe him).)

I can just envision the flood of nasty-grams I am about to receive from recruiters in angry disagreement; but, I did not invent this stuff any more than Newton invented gravity. Best-practice interview techniques are supported by thousands of peer-reviewed investigations conducted by hundreds of experts. So, if anyone wants to argue, here is a list of roughly 200 universities. I’m sure they would love to hear your opinions!

Knowing What You Need

If knowing what to look for in an applicant seems so simple, why do so many people get it wrong? For one thing, it’s not as simple as knowing the results you want to achieve. Results do not tell you how a job was done — or even who did it — they are the scores at the end of the game. They do not tell you what the player did, when or why the player did it. Just knowing results leads to assumptions about the skills used to achieve them. You need more; otherwise your assumptions will lead to hiring mistakes. Let’s use Tiger Woods as an example.

Woods’ objective is to use the least amount of strokes to put a little white ball into 18 little holes. These holes are inconveniently located amid trees, sandy pits, hills, ponds, and grassy patches. The total number of strokes is the desired result; but, Woods is only partially in control. Between his first whack and last plop, Woods has to confront temperature, humidity, wind, clubs, lawn maintenance, equipment, other players, onlookers, physical conditions, and a host of other factors out of his control — any of which can affect his score. The same is true of job-holders.

Although we treat other people as if they are in total control of their performance, we reserve the right to make excuses for our own behavior. Psychologists call this fundamental attribution error. That is, you are totally responsible for whatever happens to you … but I am entitled to blame others for whatever happens to me. Attribution error interferes with hiring decisions every time we hear a candidate tell us he was unsuccessful. Fundamental attribution error addresses only one part of the human condition; halo is another.

Humans tend to use snippets of information to make sweeping assumptions about other abilities. This is called the halo/horns effect.

What? You misspelled the word disenfranchise? You must be a complete doddering idiot who needs help tying his shoes!

What? You reduced the overall consumption of paper clips in your last job? You are obviously qualified for our presidential suite!

How often have you heard someone suggest the first two minutes of an interview make or break a candidate? Do you honestly believe someone’s entire career-skill set can be measured in two minutes? The halo/horns effect causes us to make errors both for and against every candidate.

To summarize, there are many insidious forces actively at work whenever applicant, recruiter, or hiring manager meet: silly interview questions; fundamental attribution error; halo and horns; unclear expectations; and, assuming results and skills are related. It’s a mystery why more hiring decisions aren’t disasters!

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Systems and Solutions

Think of job performance this way. Every employee has to confront certain kinds of situations. Generically, these situations require a combination of one or more of the following abilities: cognitive ability (e.g., mental horsepower); planning/organization; interpersonal skills; special skills/abilities; and, specific motivational components. It gets confusing when you try to evaluate more factors than these.

For example, if you have been trained in behavioral interviewing, you probably noticed that after four or five questions, you start getting the same answers. Or, if you asked a candidate separate questions about solving a difficult problem, making a tough decision or analyzing data, you begin to hear the same story. That’s because problem solving, decision making, learning, and analysis are often so entwined that it’s difficult if not impossible to separate them. Being impossible to separate means it is almost impossible to measure them individually. Instead, it’s better to look at them as a package called cognitive ability.

Ever hired a psychologist to administer tests to an applicant only to find the report awash in personality factors and character evaluations? Well, unless your psychologist has been trained in how to evaluate job skills, he or she can only do what they were trained to do: provide mental-health evaluations. Evaluating applicants’ mental health takes you right straight into conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act. All you really want to know is whether the person has the skills for the job.

And another thing: avoid fuzzy concepts like business savvy, budgeting, tough mindedness, or drive to achieve. Fuzzy terms and hiring mistakes go together. One rule of thumb is if you cannot measure a job skill in a few minutes, then it probably is so complex that it cannot be accurately measured until the person is on the job a few months. Take leadership. Has anyone ever seen a “leadership”?

Leadership is the ability to bring a collection of individual skills together at the right place, the right time, and under the right conditions. More often than not, the skills vary with the situation. Sometimes they might require interpersonal ability, sometimes they might require analysis and correct decision making, and sometimes they might require planning. Leadership is not something you can see in a few minutes. It is a result of many things happening over time. Even the traditional leaderless group discussions that so many assessors are so fond of suffer from halo (e.g., extraverted people tend to perform better than introverts).

Interviews as Tests

It helps to understand that every problem has three components: 1) a stimulus; 2) an employee response; and, 3) a result. If you have tracked this article so far, you should understand that learning all three components are important to knowing whether the applicant has the job skills you need.

Vendors who sell behavioral interviewing programs often train participants on how to ask for background information, to probe specifically for what the candidate did or said, and to verify the results. These activities go by many acronyms (BEI, BBC, STAR, ABC, and so forth); however, regardless of the term used, the most important goal in behavior interviews is gathering sufficient information about all three components so applicant faking is minimized and specific applicant skills are clarified. Accuracy leads to better hiring decisions.

Simulations, pencil and paper tests, case studies, planning exercises, and the like, follow the same stimulus-response-result pattern. The main difference is you control the stimulus and know the result you expect. That improves accuracy.


The recruiting field is awash in nonsense and bad advice. This leads organizations to hire too many wrong people and reject too many right ones. Experts estimate this cost ranges anywhere between 20% to 50% of base salary. Being passionate about a hiring methodology and knowing it is valid and reliable are not the same thing. If a product or report seems off-target, ask to see studies proving scores actually predict job performance, look at the vendor’s professional credentials to see if they belong to the right associations (SIOP), or simply ask if the product was specifically developed to predict job performance. A vendor making claims that sound too good to be true are no different than the emails announcing your lottery winnings. A little common sense and education makes a world of difference.


13 Comments on “More Forgettable Interview Advice

  1. Thank you for these words of common sense. With all of the downsizing in Canada we are seeing more and more candidates who have received really BAD interviewing and resume advice…mostly from “experts”. The majority of these “experts” have landed at outplacement firms and are churning out the worst resumes I’ve seen in a decade. Your comments on job skills certainly rings true with us. Unfortunately, it seems the opposite is coming out of these firms. I actually saw a candidate the other day who told me the outplacement firm told her to take her computer skills off of her resume…told her they were “implied”. They were a key to her past roles and any future placement. My first reaction was to be politically incorrect as was yours! This is just one example of some of the ridiculous advice we are hearing.

  2. Sometimes, Ann, I think people miss the point. The role of the recruiter (professional or otherwise) is to help match people with jobs that fit their qualifications.

    Organizations don’t want to hire unqualified applicants anymore than employees want to work jobs for which they have no skills. It does not take a rocket scientist to know square pegs do not fit into round holes.

  3. Wendel,

    I appreciate and agree with what you say in large part, but I am confused in that Lou Adler, as we know a top recruiting guru, is the very one that subscribes to the “one question interview. The question being tell me your biggest accomplishment. I do believe as a third party recruiter I have to do more digging when I meet with candidates to insure that my candidates provide the “right” info in an interview. Seems like you are specifically contradicting Adler? Yes, No?

  4. Well, Jill, I don’t recruit for a living and I don’t sell programs to recruiters. As a measurement geek I study jobs and develop ways to measure applicant skills for those jobs. In fact, recruiters generally don’t like to work with me because I make their job very difficult. For example, if you were a recruiter sending me pilot candidates, I would be the guy who asked each of them to “fly” my simulator.

    In my experience, the typical recruiter is asked to find candidates who are (among other things) intelligent enough to make great job decisions; smart enough to learn and apply new information; have great planning and organizing skills; either succeed or fail based on certain motivational factors; have deep product, market or service knowledge; are technically qualified; and, have the interpersonal skills to present, influence and lead others.

    Lou may have discovered a technique that over 300 universities, hundreds of years, and thousands of measurment experts might have missed…What do you think?

  5. Don’t know what to say. As I mentioned you make very good points, and in this economy candidates have to present themselves better than ever.

  6. After having recently completed online assessments, I am truly scratching my head as to how to approach them. I’m in sales, middle-aged, and very good at what I do. One recent questionnaire had answers that would be appropriate for a one-off, short product sell, and another set of responses that are more in keeping with a higher valued, relationship based transaction. Not knowing the POV of the assessor or if the sell cycle for that position was considered, I either did well or completely shot myself in the foot.

    Another pre-qualifying analysis approached most every question in terms of absolutes (always, never). One would hope that as we gain wisdom and experience, we also grow in tolerance which would allow for gray and areas and acceptance of others without having to fall trap to extremes. I assume I either came across as milquetoast or dispassionate.

    Add to the mix poorly written questions that if you have a command of basic grammar, you have to decide whether or not their double-negative is intended. Such a call can land you squarely in the “hire-able” or “must avoid” camp.

    Do professional managers, particularly at smaller companies, not trust their intuition or ability to successfully vet a candidate?

    As a job-seeker, a good interviewer is as treasured for me as I trust a good candidate is for the potential employer.

  7. Jill,

    With all due respect, Lou has never suggested a one question interview in the literal sense. He has suggested using numerous questions that can be considered derivatives of this one core question. In fact, Lou has proposed literally hundreds of variations of the question depending on situational candidate responses, including a very rigorous drill down process.

    Sure, Lou offers basic interviewing guideline that provide sample questions recruiters can ask to get a feel for the style of questioning, but he in no way suggests that recruiters follow a cookie-cutter approach to interviewing.

    I would say Lou’s interviewing techniques are about as comprehensive as I’ve ever used and the results are consistently accurate. I have enough happy clients, and candidates I’ve placed in their companies to know that Lou’s techniques are highly effective.

    Wendell himself says “Asking the right interview questions requires knowing first what to look for.” He is correct. That’s why its the whole premise of Lou’s Performance-based Recruiting.

    Finally, Wendell confesses to not being a recruiter himself. However, it sure sounds like you are. Therefore, if you’re on the fence about which man’s advice to take, I’d suggest giving the nod to that of the man whose career placement record you’d like to duplicate.

    To this end, I think Wendell’s parting comment, “Lou may have discovered a technique that over 300 universities, hundreds of years, and thousands of measurement experts might have missed…What do you think?” was a cheap shot and truly unprofessional, not to say highly irrelevant. I’m not sure what kind of candidate ‘measurement’ experiments are going on over at the universities, but I am sure how candidates are ‘measured’ by Lou’s criteria and they work in corporate America.

    Kevin Jenkins

  8. Ouch! ..It sounds like you are a fervent advocate of behavioral interviewing (e.g., as Lou wrote years ago, he discovered he was using behavioral interviewing techniques all along). Well, there is a lot of published data on that kind of testing that you might find interesting reading.

    With all due respect, you might want to check-out all what all those universities have learned about testing and measurements before you dismiss them. In addition, you might want to look up what a psychometrician does before you dismiss that profession.

  9. This is a fascinating post and comment thread. I really like the way you frame it Wendell when you talk about stimulus and response in the interview. At an abstract level, I think that’s an enlightening way to look at it. I say something or do something, the candidate says or does something, I interpret it. If I know what types of interpretations I’m looking for, I can provide the stimulus to generate the data that I need to interpret. Then, my judgments are more sound. The art, of course, is in how to do this consistently.

    I am not familiar with the profession of psychometrician, but I’m eager to learn more. As a student of psychology, I am aware of fundamental attribution error, as well as other factors involved in making judgments about candidates. Can you please point me to some studies that you found particularly seminal or thought-provoking?

  10. Kevin,

    Thanks for your comments. I know Lou has a stable full of recruiting and interviewing techniques, including his whole matrix for performance based hiring. I just mentioned the one question, since he has stated this as a fallback position. I know well that I have to dig in with many candidates to get down to the skill set, analysis, writing and presentation skills of my candidates. So I fully understand what you are saying.

  11. The only piece of interview advice that I’ve found universal is “know why you’re there and how to give the interviewer what they’ve asked for in a memorable way.” I heard that piece of advice from a CEO of a one of the largest companies in the world when he shared insights about why he thought he’d been selected for positions, including the newly hired CEO role.

    Since then, I’ve advised applicants to be prepared for any type of interview and just connect it to a tangible result in the same way it’s being asked. For example if being interviewed by someone who asks behavioral questions – give them behavioral-connected business and personal examples that had tangible results. To someone who’s being asked about traits (like leadership), give trait-connected answers that had tangible results. I advise to give short story-like answers to tie it all together.

    Not giving information to the questioner in a way that they can easily digest and relay results in the person being interviewed being forgotten.

    A person being interviewed should be focused only on making sure getting their messages and information about them to the interviewer in a positive, impression-making way. That has to be done regardless of the type of interview and with some delivery based on the interviewers capability of making good judgment.

    Far too often people miss the big picture when it comes to interviews because they’re bogged down in the details. And so few interviewers and companies actually ever have the time to be as detailed as they think they are. What they really want are candidates that make it easy for them to not have to figure anything out.

    Finally, there are lots of reasons for “bad hires” when the question is reviewed in hindsight. So the point is to try to maximally reduce the error factor as much as possible. And realistically most companies do themselves a disservice by not making it clear what they’re looking for from candidates. If you’re looking for an exact replacement for John Doe, then briefly describe John Doe to the candidate and ask them to relate their answers back from their John Doe-like experience.

    I don’t believe companies set out to hire the wrong people nor do the wrong people want the experience of a bad hire so the idea driving the process from both sides is to do what it takes to uncover critical information about the candidate’s experience and how that candidate deals with the unknown. That’s what all interview process should do. If the process does that, it’s pretty easy to determine whether a bad hire was the result due to candidate, interviewer, hiring manager, or company mismatch.

  12. Hi Michael,

    Psychometrics is the science of measuring specific job skills. A psychometrician does not care about selling or marketing products, he or she cares about getting right-skilled people into qualified jobs.

    BI is only one measurement technique…BI is a verbal test…it has criteria to measure, it uses questions, and it has right/wrong answers. Transfer the same questions to paper and most people would readily consider it a test.

    Now let’s peel BI apart. If an interviewer does not know precisely what skills are associated for the job, then he or she will use their own personal opinions. If an interviewer does not use professional question techniques, then the answer may be skewed. If right and wrong answers for the job are not clearly defined, the scoring key will probably be wrong. BI is a flexible test, but it relies on two people being honest with each other.

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