There are moments you realize you just need to shut up and stop talking. Whether it’s a heavy sigh or a not so subtle eye roll, that casual glance at a watch or a cell phone or – worst case scenario – that awful instant internalization that happens after you know you’ve just said something you really shouldn’t have (and instantly regret it).
For many, even the smallest of small talk is better than the shrill sound of silence. For many more, talking too much is a well-honed defense mechanism designed to cover up a range of insecurities, primarily a lack of self-confidence or, alternatively, complete overcompensation. I’m definitely one of those people, and I’ll bet you are, too.
Whether it’s your parents, friends, coworkers or clients, we’ve all had that minute where we really would all have been better served, as they say, looking like an idiot instead of opening your mouth and removing all doubt.
You get what I’m talking about – and if you don’t, well, you’re probably one of the worst offenders of the STFU rule of social conscious.
Things, of course, get even worse for celebrities, as their biggest foot-in-mouth moments inevitably occur given the ubiquitousness of the 24 hour news cycle, where a verbal slip up can lead to an epic fall from grace.
Mel Gibson went from Braveheart to avowed anti-Semite almost faster than that dude who played Kramer went from comedic treasure to racist outcast quicker than you can say “Johnny Football” or “Ann Coulter” (shudder). If you need proof that saying too much can be the world’s biggest turn off, two words for you: Kanye West.
Or, better yet, Donald Trump. Seriously. sometimes everyone’s a lot better off if you just suck it in and zip the lip.
You’ve got to know when to drop the mic and walk away.
Nowhere is this more true than in the job interview. Now, obviously, most candidates come in having carefully rehearsed their best responses to the same silly questions interviewers always ask, or having carefully crafted stories about why they’re looking for a new job or why they left an old one. These stories are, of course, of varying intricacy – and every recruiter has that candidate that they’ve disqualified in like five to ten minutes proceed to drone on for like an hour about their suspect “accomplishments,” not even pausing long enough to graciously end the call with a “we’ll be in touch” kind of coda. In fact, that actually happens quite a lot, come to think about it.
Of course, this diarrhoea of the mouth is somewhat excusable for job seekers, considering the question and answer format of most interviews puts the onus of them to be the ones filling dead air. And yes, some of them ( a lot of them) don’t know when the hell to shut up. These are facts.
But on the other hand, if we flip the tables for just a minute, have you ever thought of the fact that maybe, just maybe, it might be you, the recruiter, who doesn’t know when to stop talking? That maybe you’re selling just a little too hard, or that you’re asking the kinds of questions that make it feel more like an interrogation than a professional conversation.
Here’s the thing: interviews, as both recruiter and candidate know, are total bullshit. We wear the faces for the faces that we meet, and the entire charade is an exercise in artifice. One only has to do a perfunctory Google search or pull up the company’s profile on Glassdoor to see a litany of the most common interview questions, and the thing is, they’re ready for almost anything any employer throws at them.
We hyperbolize, we embellish, we tell the interviewer whatever they want to hear to get hired. Most of the time, the recruiter wants to believe you, since they want to get that requisition closed. We ask and answer the same lame follow up questions that “make us seem engaged and interested,” even though neither party really cares – and the whole thing is an awkward circuitous conversation that’s like bad improv or a Presidential debate.
It’s all for show, and we really don’t learn anything other than if that person is a complete sociopath or somehow unable to fake it even for the half hour these superficial conversations take.
For some reason, interviews have become sacrosanct in our systems and entrenched in our workflows, a part of the hiring process no one really questions. We spend a ton of money on interviewing tools and training, and countless hours scheduling screens and coordinating calendars, flying in candidates from far flung places and standardizing “scorecards” and other pseudo-scientific ways to justify what’s largely an exercise in confirmation bias.
But have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, it might be time to do away with interviewing altogether? That your best interviewing strategy might be not interviewing candidates at all?
I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out. It’s not as crazy an idea as you think.
First off, I’m not saying we should entirely get rid of this sort of assessment completely – to do so would be asinine. Instead, it’s time we rethink and reevalutate our definition of what an interview actually is. And if you’re going in there thinking that, as a recruiter, your primary responsibility is to assess them and their suitability for a role by throwing them a series of curveball questions, hypothetical situations and ambiguous, open ended, half-assed attempts at Freudian analysis – well, let’s just say that you’re sorely mistaken.
In fact, if you see the interview as nothing more than a chance to try to cleverly trip up a candidate or deconstruct their motivations, experience or expectations, then you’re already in trouble. Look, these are nerve racking, awkward and more or less perfunctory situations for any job seeker without some recruiter trying to figure out what makes them tick with a bunch of “if you were a car, what make and model would you be, and why?” sorts of questions.
Seriously. Stop it.
We go into interviews expecting them to be painless and pleasant at best; at their worst, they’re as painful as anything ever invented by the Spanish Inquisition, Prince Humperdinck or motivational speakers. That’s why it’s time we kicked the word “interview” from our lexicon completely. It’s just a word, I know, but I’m not being pedantic.
Words carry with them manifold connotations, and in this case, really none of them are any good at all. That’s why I think if we’re going to change interviewing, we might start off fresh and rename the whole damn part of the process. There’s just too much baggage if we stick with current conventions.
The problem with interviewing, in the traditional sense, is it feels too much like an exam. One slip and that’s it. It’s like being in some VR version of Slumdog Millionaire. Now, experience has taught me (both good and bad) that most people don’t ever really reveal their true personalities – or their true abilities – at any time during what’s still a largely transactional process. That’s why it’s imperative we dispense with the idea of the “formal interview” and focus, instead, on making it feel like anything but an interview.
The right atmosphere for making the right recruiting decision, for employer and candidate alike, is creating an environment where it feels like a conversation between equals. Ideally, this discussion will be a wide ranging one, focused not only on professional shop talk but also those personal factors that drive our careers and our companies forward. Those “soft skills” that are so hard to ever get out of the traditional approach to interviewing.
I promise you this: if you want candidates to relax, and you want to see who they really are beyond the resume and some sweaty cipher in a suit, then remember the fact that you just met them. You’re probably in the same industry, know the same people, at least have the common ground of having mutual interest in making sure the same opportunity you’re hiring for gets closed, and quickly – ideally, obviously, with them as the successful candidate.
There’s no reason the Sword of Damocles has to constantly be hanging overhead – in fact, it only screws up what should be a meaningful interaction and chance to chat as humans, not as another unnecessary component of “human resources.”
If you take a step back and really look at the overall objective of interviewing, there are pretty much four primary points – as far as the recruiter is concerned. The four outcomes every interview ostensibly shares in common are:
1. To assess the candidate’s ability to actually do the job.
2. To compare them with the other candidates you’re considering to see who’s the best for the job.
3. To assess their likely cultural fit for the job.
4. To assess the X-Factor that’s going to determine their viability in the job.
We add a lot of complexity to these foundational factors, but it really all boils down to determining these four things. The rest is buzzwords and bullshit.
Point number one, obviously, is a given. You’ve read their resume, spoken with them on the phone – you already know damn well they’ve got the skills required to do the job by the time they sit down with you for an in person. If not, Google their name and there’s a high probability you can check that one off the list.
OK, I will accept the fact that for positions like recent college graduates or high volume, high turnover positions, their resume and profile might not be the best way to suss out viability or fit, but that’s why the “interview” should unilaterally address points 2,3 & 4. These are the only things that really matter in any given interview, with any given candidate, at any given company.
I know it sounds simple. It is. There’s no secret, either. Here’s how you start getting the most out of interviews and get maximum gain with minimal pain. Promise.
But I think point number 1 should be a given. If you’re meeting them you should already know they have the skills required for the job. You review the resume….that will give you a good clue, then if you need more information you either telephone screen them or send them a list of questions to allow you to get more information from them relating to those essential skills.
Ok, I accept for positions like school leavers and graduates, it’s not so easy to assess their suitability purely from a resume but for most, the ‘interview’ should be about point 2,3 and 4.
Here’s how it’s done.
Rule One: Don’t meet with someone in person if you haven’t first established that they can do the job for a fact. If you don’t know that, throw in another phone screen or direct follow up and make sure to remove all doubt before moving forward with wasting either of your time.
Rule Two: Meet with them anywhere but an office. I know this sounds weird, but office interviews breed artifice (like everything else at work), and can intimidate the candidate. If you can, going to a cafeteria, coffee shop, pub, whatever – it’s going to be neutral ground and far more natural than sitting on either side of some desk. Desks create a conspicuous physical barrier that inevitably leads to a psychological one. Worst case scenario, conference room and round table. Just please, no desks.
Rule Three: The best interviews aren’t interviews. They’re conversations.
Every interview I’ve been unlucky enough to be sitting on the receiving end of was this terrible exercise in formality, this stiff, stuffy and incredibly intense exchange – which, I think, is completely the wrong approach. Yes, professionalism is essential – but so too is talking to them like someone who in addition to being a candidate, is also a potential colleague or coworker (or, at worst, a potential connection in your network you can leverage down the line).
Don’t go in with the mindset you have to grill them; go in first and foremost with the intention of creating an environment that allows them to relax enough to be their best selves during the interview. Be equals, be peers, and be open, and most of all, be yourself. Smile a bit. Crack a joke. Get the stick out of your ass. Be a person.
Candidates don’t want a machine firing questions at them. They want to see a human being, one who’s able to build rapport instead of red tape, treats them with respect instead of a responsibility, and as someone who cares about them as a person, not just as another job seeker. Focus on substance, avoid asking awful questions, and be authentic.
That’s half the battle right there.
Rule Four: Always ask what the candidate thinks you should be doing differently or better as a company. Force them to look beyond the role to the bigger business picture. You’d be amazed at how many different angles people approach this answer from – and just how much insight you get into the way they really think. This is what you might think of as a sort of “x factor” question, as it is designed to take every candidate a little out of their comfort zone and give them the opportunity to really speak openly about pretty much any topic they like.
I know what you’re thinking, and yes; most candidates, as with any interview question, have a fairly standard answer, somehow not so subtly working in their skillset and experience, and how, of course, they can help cure whatever ails your company. This is a smart approach, to give some credit, but sometimes, someone will ditch the stock response and give the kind of answer that blows you away. Something that shows just not an intrinsic understanding of the business and its drivers, but an actual vision for the future and an innovative approach on how to get there.
Of course, not every candidate you hire is going to have the “x factor,” because, well, not every search is going to turn up the next great leader or visionary thinker who’s going to take your company to the next step.
A-players, of course, are hard to find, which is why you hire for skills – but if that x-factor is there, it’s worth taking a chance on a candidate, even if their skills might fall a bit short. Someone with a field of vision that extends far beyond the scope of the opportunity they’re interviewing for, coupled with a wider appreciation of the business and its relative strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats (SWOT, for all you B-School grads out there) is probably the hardest skill set to find on the market.
With innovation and vision in such short supply, don’t pass up candidates who might be bringing more to the table than your standard resume run through or behavioral based questioning is going to uncover. That’s why I like this question so much – it almost always uncovers the type of people who have the ability to see things in a way others don’t. And that just might be the most valuable asset to your business (and bottom line) any new hire can bring into any organization.
Rule Five: If a candidate is good, tell them so. If a candidate bombs, do the same.
Feedback matters – and the more you can give as a recruiter, the likelier they are to be able to correct those mistakes in subsequent interviews. Whether conscious or not, sometimes a little feedback can go a long way, particularly when it comes to the hiring process. It also has a pretty obvious impact on the candidate experience; just imagine being a candidate finishing an interview for a second. Which of these would you rather hear from the recruiter across the desk you’ve been working so hard to impress?
“We’ll be in touch shortly to let you know next steps.”
“I’ve got to say, I love what you’re saying and I’m pretty sure my hiring team will, too.”
Obviously, the second one, but I’m pretty sure most candidates would also rather hear, “I think you really need to refocus your answers on what you can do, not just running through what you’ve done,” or some other constructive criticism, even if it isn’t always positive.
As long as it’s actionable, you’re doing your job as a recruiter – which, at the end of the day, is doing everything you can to help your candidates land their next opportunity. Even if it isn’t at your company, that’s why we do what we do.
For me, interviewing is really just about what might be better called “casting.” You’re looking for chemistry and fit with the existing team while still getting a feel for that unique “X Factor” each candidate brings to the table (whatever that might be).
It’s never about getting the answers you want, or even the easy answers – it’s about forcing a candidate into thinking critically not by throwing them curveball questions, but instead by structuring the discussion to focus beyond the narrow scope of the job for which you’re hiring.
It’s easy to get so lost in requirements and resumes that top talent will slip through the cracks, which is why it’s imparative to rethink and refocus your interview process around who’s the best candidate for your company in 3-5 years time. Who’s going to add the most value over 10 years?
While we focus on “just in time” hiring, recruiters should never forget that our job isn’t to just hire the best candidate for right now, but to hire the right candidate.
That’s going to be the person with the biggest upside, not the one, necessarily, who checks the most boxes. Real innovation and safe hires are pretty much mutually exclusive, but disruptors are almost always worth the risk.
The hard part is identifying just who those critical contrarians truly are. The answer to that question, turns out, is the only one that really matters when it comes to recruiting and hiring success.