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Liz Ryan Headshot

The Worst Way to Pick a Job Candidate

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When anthropologists of the future turn their gaze to the 21st-century workplace, they're going to be surprised at how many pointless, absurd things 21st-century people (that's us) used to do at work. The anthropologists are going to say, "The 21st-century workplace is a treasure trove of anthropological riches! There's the formulaic and stilted decision-making process, the hierarchical overtones in every conversation and glance, and the overpowering pressure to conform with the group -- and we've only just begun our research!" I'd love to read that study, if scientific advances allow me to live another 90 years or so.

One of the phenomena that will come up for review when future researchers dig into 21st-century workplace culture is the job interview process. I can't imagine how we could employ a worse system for choosing people to work on our teams, but the godawful American corporate job interview process is so firmly entrenched that most corporate people are shocked when I suggest overhauling it.

We know it stinks. We sit in an awkward room with a resume and a desk between us and another person and we ask, "So, tell me why you left Acme Explosives?" as though we cared about the answer to that question. We ask idiotic questions because we don't know a better way to get through an hour's worth of conversation, and we know we have to do that.

I'm not blaming the managers who sit through those painful interviews, or the candidates themselves, of course. The system itself is broken. The interview script is brainless. It's time for smart people to change the way we conduct interviews, and the good news is that it couldn't be easier to do.

If we needed someone to remodel our bathroom, we wouldn't call a bunch of contractors and have each of them come over to our house so we could ask them: "So, why did you start your own plumbing business in 1997?" We actually couldn't care less why they started that business. What we really need to know is: "How would you remodel my bathroom? What sorts of similar projects have you done in the past? How did those work out?"

We'd want to get a feel for our contractor's gravity and professionalism. We'd want to get a taste of his communication style and interpersonal manner. Later, we'd check references on one or two of the folks we were thinking about hiring. We'd negotiate a price for the job. Boom! We'd be done.

We wouldn't ask the contractors what their greatest weaknesses are. We wouldn't ask them why they want our bathroom remodeling job; we would consider it insulting to ask that question, because each of these contractors had already expressed interest in the project. They're bathroom remodelers -- why shouldn't they be interested in remodeling a bathroom? We wouldn't ask them to tell us why, of all the contractors in our city, we should hire them for the job. We wouldn't ask them to grovel, in other words.

Here's what we might do, instead.

YOU: So, George, thanks so much for coming over.

GEORGE: No problem. What's the project, now?

YOU: It's my master bathroom. It's long and narrow, not the perfect footprint, but I want a new tub so I figure it makes sense to remodel the whole bathroom.

GEORGE: That's usually what I recommend, unless you love the way the bathroom looks now. There are tubs in pretty much any size out there.

YOU: I hate the colors, so if I'm painting and picking tile anyway...

GEORGE: Definitely. Might as well do the whole thing.

YOU: You've done a lot of these?

GEORGE: I used to do just bathrooms, working with a tile guy named Jesse. Jesse moved to Texas, but I work with his cousin Wally now. We do about half and half kitchens and bathrooms.

YOU: I got your name from Sue Barnes...

GEORGE: Oh right, I did Sue's addition last year. That had a bathroom in it. We found a really nice antique tub at a salvage place, and Sue had some Italian tile that she got on vacation.

YOU: You found that tub? I love that tub! I covet it!

GEORGE: I'm an antiques geek I guess. I picked up that tub even before Sue chose it, because it looked so perfect for her job. If she hadn't wanted it I could have taken it back, but I was 99 percent sure she would love it.

YOU: It's amazing. I've never seen one so ornate.

GEORGE: It's perfect in that space, I think, with the window and the green tile...

YOU: Well, I love your design sense. Let's talk about project management.

GEORGE: Sure.

YOU: Well, I actually don't know anything about project management, I confess. I'm a massage therapist. I just know that that's a big part of doing a job like this.

GEORGE: I run anywhere from two to six jobs at once. Right now, I have three I'm juggling, but luckily two of them are wrapping up this month. If we can walk through the bathroom and you can tell me a little more about what you want to do, I can get you an estimate and whatever you need to see insurance-wise. If you decided you want to get started and if we could start next month, we'd do the job in about four weeks.

YOU: Four weeks for a bathroom?

GEORGE: That's me walking in to everything finished and I'm out of your hair. The bathroom would be out of commission for about two weeks. If you happened to be planning a vacation, you could miss the worst of it.

YOU: We could go out of town. You could make sure the place was locked up at night?

GEORGE: Oh sure, we do that all the time. It's easier for us. If you could board the dogs or take them with you --

YOU: They're wuss dogs, they travel with us.

GEORGE: Perfect. Then we could do the worst of it, the dusty stuff, while you're gone and it would be all done when you got home.

YOU: Could you share some references with me, George?

GEORGE: For sure. Sue Barnes is one of them, and I'll send you three more.

YOU: I'm so excited!

When we zero in on what needs to be done and start getting a feel for how the candidate (or contractor) would approach the job and how he or she has managed past jobs, we learn something relevant. We learn tons, in fact. When we're talking about our project or role in context -- sharing a bit of dirty laundry, if needed, to say something like, "Our sales guys are great, but they're so focused on new business that our largest accounts are getting overlooked and we need to solve that. What else can I tell you?" then we can get to the heart of the matter at hand, namely, does this candidate sitting with me understand what I'm up against it, and have good ideas for surmounting our obstacle?

Of course, we can't have an in-depth, substantive job interview like the one I'm proposing unless we come down off the perch that many hiring managers and HR folks have installed themselves on top of. We have to be willing to say, "Everybody is making an important decision, here. You are deciding whether or not to come and work for us. We are deciding whether you're the right guy to work with us on this problem. We've all got to get beneath the surface, today."

We shouldn't be asking job applicants lists of pointless interview questions. We should be talking with them about the work at hand. Who gives a rat's behind what adjectives the job-seeker thinks other people use when describing him or her? Who cares what sort of animal or canned soup the job-seeker identifies with? This made-up garbage falls into the category of what my old mentor Jon Zakin calls "playing business." It's pointless, but we do it over and over and over, anyway.

Sitting behind a desk asking lists of pre-written interview questions is not only insulting to the candidate, but it's bad business too. We could have more substantive conversations with job-seekers if we opened the kimono a little bit to say, "Look, here's what's going on in the department. I'd love your take on it." We'd let the candidate ask as many questions as he or she wanted to. Questions show the applicant's brain moving, and that's exactly what we want!

I can't imagine how stupid an interviewer would have to be (or how fearful of stepping outside the lines) for the interviewer to say, "No, I'm sorry, you won't have a chance to ask us any questions today." I encourage a job-seeker to get up and leave the room, the building and the opportunity at that very moment. Life is too short to waste time with amoeba companies who don't understand human beings, only spreadsheets and policies and hoary job-interview scripts. Those guys don't get you, and they don't deserve you.

If you're in charge of hiring for your organization, ask yourself: Why are we still interviewing job candidates the way we did eighty years ago? The world has changed. We can loosen the bonds of workplace ritual enough to say, "This isn't working." We can change the interview frame, and the sooner we do it, the better off we'll be.