Monday, January 3, 2022

Most Interview Questions Fail

As I've mentioned a few times, my background is mainly in public libraries. In libraries, a mission-critical stance is intellectual freedom. There is a phrase, “Libraries are for everyone.” When we're hiring people to work the front desk, we want to make sure that they will uphold that principle. Practically any front-desk position at any library will get asked some version of this question: "You are working at the service desk and a customer brings up books to check out. The content of these books is offensive to you because they are completely contrary to your political beliefs. What do you do?"

This is a useless question. It may look useful because it is about something useful. However, it is a failure.

There are two ways that interview questions fail: 1) all the candidates give roughly equivalent answers or 2) the question elicits answers that give you good-sounding-but-irrelevant information. 

Questions about a candidate's "philosophy of work" fall into the first category. These questions attempt to have the candidate describe their beliefs or morals regarding the work. That's what is going on at every library where I've worked. We want to know if the candidate will embody the principles we care about, so we do the first thing that comes to mind: we just ask. However, the answer to the question in the anecdote is obvious: keep your damn mouth shut and check out the books for the patron. Some people say it eloquently, and some people say it simply. But they all give the right answer.

Here are some more questions that fail in the first way:

  • What is your greatest strength/weakness?
  • What does great customer service mean to you?
  • Do you prefer to work on your own or on a team?
  • How would your previous manager/coworkers describe your work?

Questions like these are meant to differentiate good candidates from bad candidates. I understand the impulse to ask these questions. When we design these questions for our interview, we can very easily picture a good answer versus a bad answer. And that is why we fail.

We are starting from entirely the wrong premise. By the time we are at the interview stage, we are done separating the good from the bad. The bad are gone. We threw out their applications a long time ago. Every one of your candidates will give you a good enough answer to questions like these. You'll end up making your hiring decision based on tiny wording differences that don't really mean anything.

The second kind of failure is a bit more subtle. The questions don't have an obviously right answer like those in the first category. Nobody, the interview panel included, really knows what the right answer is. Or rather, any answer is the right answer as long as the candidate spins it the right way. Here are some questions that fail in the second way:

  • Why should we hire you?
  • Who was your favorite manager and why?
  • What kind of personality do you work best with and why?
  • What is your ideal company? 

The crux of the 2nd failure is that you end up being impressed by people who speak well in interviews rather than those who do well on the job. I'm going to level with you. If I answered any of these questions totally honestly, you would not hire me. These questions end up just being a test of how savvy the candidate is about white-collar work environments. For one, that is a bummer for a lot of reasons related to diversity and discrimination. For two, it is simply not relevant to a candidate's success at the actual work we're hiring them to do. 

We need interview questions that separate good candidates from great candidates, not good from bad. And we need interview questions interview questions that give us real information about the candidate's on-the-job effectiveness, not their ability to sell themselves. Next week's post will be about Behavioral Interview Questions.

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