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Four interviewing techniques that never work

Managers should use the interview to gauge people for the right mix of skills and personality. Here are four interviewing techniques that don't help you do this.

Getting the right people onto your team is job number one.  A bad hire can make your life miserable and seriously set back your organization's goals.  That's why it's so important to make sure that you get people that have the right mix of skills and personality that work well in your organization.  Personally, I believe that personality is just as important as skills; a person that can't work with the team or in the organization's culture is doomed to failure.

Managers everywhere use all kinds of techniques to sift through candidate pools and zero in on the perfect person.  Many forget that the interview, however, is a two-way street; at the same time you are interviewing the candidate, they are interviewing you as well.  At present, it's definitely a "buyer's market" with the employer sitting in the position of power, but that's not always the case.

I've seen and heard of some really crappy interview techniques that were either insulting or simply ineffective.  Here are a few:

1. The cable test

I wasn't party to this, but I heard about it.  Now, I'll be the first to admit that an A/V technician needs to know something about cables.  So, the interview team threw a whole bunch (25?) of random cables in a box, including SCSI cables and the like, and required each candidate to identify the purpose of each one.  The feedback I heard from candidates that went through the test was consistent - it was insulting.  By the time the actual interview came around, the candidates felt that their basic knowledge should have gotten them to the interview and the interview should have focused more on problem solving skills.  The value-add was questionable as well.  If the team wanted to test someone's skills, maybe the cable idea should have been expanded.  Instead of just making someone identify cables, have enough equipment in the interview room and ask the candidate to get some kind of working setup up and running. Run through the full solution instead.

This bad technique might even apply to coding tests or other so-called skills tests.  If you want to see code, ask for a sample ahead of time.  Putting someone on the spot just to see how they perform just doesn't seem to make sense.

2. The intelligence test

Google is famous for asking really, really though questions in their interviews in an effort to determine how people solve complex problems, to see how they think and to see how they explain abstract constructs in relatable terms.  I want to make one thing clear: I'm not jealous that I would fail every hiring test at the company.  These kinds of questions are absolutely intended to bring in only the absolute best and brightest-those that can think quickly on their feet and solve problems.

Believe it or not, though, there is a place for differently minded people. There have been articles written about the problematic nature of relying on what seem to be thinly veiled IQ tests in hiring practices.  At the same time, many have publicly lamented Google's perceived attention on graduates from only elite schools.  If all of the above information is true, Google is missing out on some world-class talent.

3. The "pointless questions" game

This has been done to death and I think I've been asked questions like this in pretty much every interview I've ever had.

  • "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" - I honestly don't know how to answer this one except with the stock answer indicating that I want to be creating great solutions for Company X. It seems more like a filler question than one that can yield any real results. I guess it would be a way to weed out someone truly horrible. After all, if the response was, "Doing hard time because of my drug habit" that would be a red flag. I suppose also that this question is a way to determine whether or not someone is really interested in sticking around the company, but it seems like a throwaway these days.
  • "What is your biggest weakness?" - By this point, everyone expects the question and has a stock answer prepared. Again, it doesn't seem like much valued can be derived here. I get that interviewers want people to admit that they're not perfect. Maybe answers like, "I just such a darn perfectionist!" actually work against people at this point since it says to the interviewer that the person isn't as self-aware as he should be.

These kinds of questions are pretty unimaginative and if they're indicative of the management style of the organization might indicate that they're not doing everything they can to bring great people on board.

4. A single person doing all the work

I don't believe in single-person interviews although I have been subjected to some over the years.  A single person can't gain enough perspective on every single person brought in and can't gauge exactly how every team member will react to the new hire.  While I believe that an interviewee should have some one-on-one time with the hiring manager, members from the intended workgroup and from other areas of the organization should participate in the interviews to provide different perspectives.  If you want the right people on the team, make sure the team gets a say.

Summary

Obviously, someone sees some value in some of these techniques but, to me, they just seem like excuses to get through the pile rather than to really zero in on the right person.

What are some awful interviewing techniques you've seen?

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

25 comments
dcwhitworth
dcwhitworth

We've actually used the cable test successfully in an interview BUT not for quite the purpose suggested. We but together a rather sadistic 'box of bits' which took three of us to identify all of. However the job being recruited for was an entry level one so they would not be expected to know most of the 'bits'. What we wanted was to see if they would be prepared to say "I don't know" when faced with something beyond their knowledge, an important trait for an entry level job.

britontn
britontn

1. What has been your failures in life? Duhhhh!!!! 2 Q: What religion are you? A: Christian Q: Would you come to work instead of attending a church function if your superior told you to report for work? A: Duhhhh!!!! 3 Do you plan to get married? 4 What is a relational database? 5 What does SMTP stand for? 6 If a co-worker asked you to install an unlicensed software on their office computer, would you do it? 7 On what layer of the OSI model is a router? 8 What does NTFS stand for?

jcitron
jcitron

I've been both interviewed and an interviewer. What's interesting is I nearly always get every job I apply for. When I don't get a job, it's because of some other circumstance such as in-house buddy-buddy hiring, or some prescreened candidate already has the position, but the company has to go through the motions. What's interesting too in the 35 years of being in the workforce, is how things have changed. I've been interviewed by committee, which I thought was weird. I've had the hiring manager-only interviews, which I actually like, and I've had phone-only which are weird. Personally I like interaction with another being in front of me. Over the years I've also hired co-workers to build up teams. I am up front with my candidates. I feel that we're going to work together, so why hide anything about the job. I do this because I've had managers lie to me, or forget some important details conveniently. I actually quit a job because of this. The first time ever that I left a job. The reason, I was hired as a technician to troubleshoot Sun equipment, digital proofing equipment, install hard drives, and other eqiupment. In the end I was made the local cable guy. I spent nearly 100% of my day on a ladder hanging thick-net, vampire-tapped cables! Oh, the tech part was for the other guys on the team. I wasn't going to do that for another year or so, or until I moved up the ladder. Anyway, fastforward many years later and in my current position, I support over 630 people solo with a potiential growth of up to 800 in the next year. This is an awful lot of users to support on a daily basis. Physically it has nearly killed me, and finally I was given the greenlight to look around and interview. My two candidates, I chose out of the pool, both had lots of experience. I didn't want a newbee, but instead someone who could handle the workload, which I reiterated multiple times in the interview. I kept telling them that there's no downtime to play video games or coast. You have to be on the go, putting tickets, troubleshooting, or doing install work. My honesty with my candidates paid off. Both of the new hires have worked out well, and I've been thanked for my honesty. I think it show them too how I work. There should never be anything to hide from the person you're going to spend 90% of your time with. In the end this honesty goes both ways. If someone has an issue, they come to me rather than hide it. I like problems to be solved right away rather than having things fester for weeks or longer. Recently one of my new hires said to me you weren't kidding about the workload. It's crazy here, man!

DFO_REXX
DFO_REXX

I had an interview once for a general IT audit position. The job description gave the usual requirements and added "familiarity with Windows a plus." Once the interview started, I was asked "Describe what would happen if a customer accessed our application on-line?" My first answer was "I think they should see a log-on screen." The response was, "No, more detailed than that." When I responded, "OK, they start up some Web browser like Firefox or IE," they said, "No, I mean how do the computers interact? What happens when the customer connects to the Internet?" They proceeded to ask me questions like "What port does IE connect to first," "What is the packet size for a standard broadband connection," and "Tell me some details about the SSL compression, including hash functions and what ports are used for which protocols." Needless to say I failed the interview miserably... because the job description did not in any way indicate I needed to know these things.

DFO_REXX
DFO_REXX

A manager who decides whether I'll get along with their team based on a 20-minute phone interview, with him or her alone, is making a mistake. First, 20 minutes isn't enough to cover ability, much less personality. Second, let your team decide whether I can get along with them. Third, body language and facial expressions are critical; over the phone those cannot be seen, and the interviewee will try to fill silence (which is not optimal behavior to impress a manager). The first, telephone-only interview should just be screening (can this person do the job or not) and nothing else.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

As far as I'm concerned, most tests test for syntax, not problem-solving algorithmic ability. And asking for problem-solving in a 5-minute test is not going to get you good answers from folks who like to get the full requirements and then examine 3 or 4 different approaches. Ability to get along with the co-workers and ability to solve problems are the only two criteria for good programming shops. (Bad ones need other criteria). You can find out about both (somewhat) with Behavioral-Event type interviews but the interviewers need to be trained. And the ability to get along is somewhat dependent on the current dysfunctionality of the hiring shop.

hobbes
hobbes

> Putting someone on the spot just to see how they > perform just doesn???t seem to make sense. I disagree somewhat. On-the-spot answers is a strong indicator of fluency in a particularly topic. This means that they've seen a particular problem before or that they know their programming language well, for example.

wsaparts
wsaparts

I interviewed twice for postions with a small town in Massachusetts. The first interview had a board of 10 members and the second on a board of six.The last on had the Town Administrator who just sat there, asked no questions then got upset when I started to ask some questions of the board. He advised me they didn't have time. I didn't get either postion and I glad I didn't.

tommy
tommy

One of the companies I applied for some years ago had a policy of first and second interviews. No issue there, you think, but having attended a forth, I was finally offered the role. I was very keen on the position, which turned in to a great opportunity so I stuck with it. My new boss told me some years later that his boss was pushing for a further round of interviews. Thankfully he managed to talk her out of it, because an invitation to a fifth interview would have resulted in me telling the potential employer to shove it! Perhaps my most odd interview series. On the 'Cable Test' front, the last round of tech' interviews I had involved a written paper on the first interview, and a build a pc and diagnose a fault on the second interview mixed in with the meet the team time. What was really scary was that, much like erac's experience, we found that tech's claiming years of experience knew very little in terms of theory, and many I wouldn't trust to plug in a toaster.

erac
erac

After very patchy 'chatty' interviews with a depressingly low success rate (i.e. we hired contractors we subsequently regretted) I slowly evolved a simple Java code/test question that worked well. Although it may have insulted the competent programmers, it certainly filtered out the depressing number of people whose CV looked good but who it turned couldn't actually program in a language they claimed to have years of experience in. It was probably stressful to be watched while programming but the opportunity to talk about the problem, its solution and testing in the context of a worked example proved invaluable.

chr999chr
chr999chr

Went for a interview as a Industrial Electronics Engineer after the usual interview questions one of the panel placed a resistor on the table and asked me the value of it. I was so insulted i said 1p and got up and walked out. I got a letter offering me the job a few weeks later i declined as i had already accepted a better position with another company.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Go for an interview with your carefully crafted resume/cv and they give you a school leaver style don't call us we'll call you job application form. One lot had an ethnicity question on it in, for positive discrmination presumably.. No employer is in the box seat when they interview me, I worked and work really hard, to make sure that's not the case. It's an attitude that indicates a total lack of respect for the candidate, so exhibiting means your hiring the best candidate process is total bollocks.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

have been the norm thru my life. I've interviewed before a panel a few times. More in the last 15 yrs or so. Most of the time the panel consists of supervisors and managers from all over the org I'm interviewing with. Maybe my prospective future supervisor is on the panel. Maybe not. So I'm trying to visualize how the future team has a say. Would you include some of the team members on the interview panel? Or introduce the prospect to the team and let them chat? I agree with your point in principle but have never seen it in practice. The closest has been, "Loco, I'm tied up for a few minutes. How about giving her a tour of the facilities?"

jcitron
jcitron

Yup. They've done this to me too. I was hired as a tech, and became the cable guy. What happened to the tech part? Oh that's for the other people. You're the low guy on the Totem pole! I quit the job right after that. It's a good thing I did because a few months later the company was bought out and everyone was laid-off.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

If you asked them the question in flemish, would you expect a fluent answer? A nice exercise, ask the question see how many different ways oif saying teh answer there could be, If there are very few or even one, there's a good chnace you will give some useless crammer a job. If you are looking for 'fluency' spot questions won't do the job. It's like picking an author, for their ability to use a pencil sharpener.

jcitron
jcitron

Way back in my tech career days, I was on an interview with my future employer. While in the office with the hiring manager, a user walked in with a virus infected laptop. Instead of going through the tech questions, I fixed the user's problem and then left after the usual show around the office, and a thank you. I got home feeling pretty good about the interview, and that night I got the call. Congratulations, you've got the job!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

A series of questions, which deepen in complexity as they are answered correctly. Pick general areas, try to get an idea of how recent, much, deep etc. Basic OO Client Server Exceptions etc.. Say what it's for guaging their knowledge acroos serveral areas of interest. I know the numpties you mean we weed them out with the method above in telephone interveiws. Every one of these fools you bring in for an interview is probably a decent candidate you haven't.

Stanzoff
Stanzoff

Good for you. You should have given them a penny and said "Keep the change" as well as walking out.

mdwalls
mdwalls

For years now, most tech lead or low-level manager jobs (including IT, urban planning, and project management) I've seen in the USA local government sector have included at least one team interview in addition to the usual direct supervisor and/or general panel. It consists of most if not all of the potential subordinates, and is structured like any other interview -- a mix of scripted questions that open up some opportunity for interaction beyond simple Q&A. For management jobs, there will also likely be a peer interview structured along the same lines, for those at the same level in the organization with whom you would be interacting. Note that in this context a number of laws and policies affect what kind of questions can or cannot be asked, so all the interviews need to be scripted to some degree. Likewise, it is not uncommon to provide standardized scoring sheets to keep people focused on the same issues.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

The panel with people from all over the org is fine, but have a second session where the person can sit with as many members of the team as is reasonable and ask questions about the team and let the team get a feel for the person.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

Way back in the mid-90s, I interviewed with Silicon Graphics (SGI) for a Systems Engineer position. As we were walking through one of their labs, they offhandledly pointed out the Novell NetWare server they were testing, but it didn't work. Having worked with NetWare for quite some time, I asked if I could look at it. It was a very simple solution (had to load an NLM or something) but sort of topped of the interview and was kind of fun.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Is that it's way too technical for HR who insist that they are the best to weed out unsuitable candidates. From my limited experience I have employed a number of the Unsuitable Candidates over the years who have been excellent Team Members and not one of the [i]"Passed"[/i] by HR Candidates has ever been worth the time and effort employing them. Give someone from HR 2 leads and they get them wrong if you are silly enough to show them any Code they will treat it as a Company Secret even though they watched you ran it off in front of them to get the unit to do something so totally inane that it's pointless like playing Solitaire or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Tell them anything Technical to ask Candidates and they are going to mess things up so badly that you'll be running around after your preferred candidate for the rest of your life trying to tell them that you are sorry that HR Types are so stupid. ;) You need to let them get past HR before throwing anything like that at them or you'll have HR demanding that they sign the Official Secrets Act and so on which is even more insulting to any candidate. :D Col

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

But in the larger companies that I have worked at things don't happen that way. After all I've been consistently told that HR are Specialists who know what they are doing. But then again it's HR people telling me that. :D Kind of like [b]SWMBO[/b] telling me she's perfect so I have to believe her. :^0 Col

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

HR have the last say not the first... FIrst cut has to be done by someone who understands the need, otherwise you are guaranteed to chop out suitable candidates and unsuitable ones will get through.

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