As I See It: Searching for the Perfect Question
July 22, 2013 Victor Rozek
Lying to get a job used to be a lot easier. There was a time when a fluffed-up resume was enough to get you an interview. A proper display of earnestness, a dash of personal charm, and a retelling of your exaggerated accomplishments would pretty much guarantee that you could keep living indoors. Back then, resume claims were seldom checked, and what checking occurred was not very useful. By law, companies could only verify employment, and unless you could cajole someone into speaking off the record, you learned nothing illuminating about the applicant.
At the end of the day, hiring decisions were made mostly by gut feel with the fervent hope that what little factual information was available would prove to be accurate.
But the culling process has become much more sophisticated. These days, candidates typically undergo a multiple-step interview process, which can include skills testing and problem solving evaluations. And that assumes they have survived rigorous Internet searches designed to uncover that which the candidate prefers to remain undisclosed. Indiscretions posted on social media sites have become a convenient means for weeding out people who are considered too undignified to work for corporate America. Hard to imagine.
In addition, the Internet rendered legal restrictions archaic. The subjects that employers aren’t permitted to lawfully explore (age, ancestry, religion, credit history, arrest record if unrelated to the job, military discharge, etc.), are easily researched. Qualified candidates can be rejected without cause or explanation. If a company wishes to discriminate, it can do so with impunity.
But jobseekers have become more sophisticated as well. While the Internet taketh away, it also giveth. Anyone preparing for a job interview can find copious amounts of free coaching. Every possible interview question has been dissected and the most promising answers are provided. Whether the questions focus on work history and accomplishments, or behavior and future aspirations, the correct pre-packaged answers are posted. Assorted experts weigh in with the proper strategy for acing any interview. Nowhere, as far as I can tell, are prospective employees counseled to simply tell the truth.
All of which renders the process nearly worthless.
If the interview process is no more spontaneous than a political debate, then its value is cosmetic at best. Which begs the question: As an employer, what do you really need to know about an employee? If technology didn’t provide endless opportunities for gamesmanship, and if employers were able to see past the consecration of data gathering as the essential decision-making tool, what single question might they ask that would give them the best possible insight into a prospective candidate?
Given one question, what then would take precedence, the technical or the personal? As an employer, would you rather know something about a person’s skills, or the person? Is work history most important, or relevant experience, or shared vision, or cultural compatibility? Experts are divided on the issue, as are lesser mortals, the ones who actually do the hiring.
Lou Adler, founder and CEO of a headhunting group that bears his name, prefers the traditional: “What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career, so far?” A friend of mine, who manages an organization of over 150 employees, volunteered a similar question: “Tell me about your most significant professional accomplishment to date, and what impact it had?” That’s old school; a line of inquiry which is useful and practical but also (how do I say this gracefully?), boring. It’s about as imaginative and unpredictable as Jack Webb’s performance in Dragnet–just the facts, ma’am.
When I pointed out the sad lack of pizzazz in her question, my friend tossed back a couple of beers and came up with this doozie: “Pretend you are writing a short article for other managers on How to Foster Innovation and Creativity within a Bureaucracy, what would your first five tips be? Provide two best examples from your past to illustrate your tips.” Good luck with that.
Another professional recruiter, Nick Corcodilos, disagrees with Adler. He reasons that everyone will be prepared to talk about their significant accomplishments, but not everyone will have researched the company sufficiently to understand how their contribution would make the company better. He finds crucial insight in the answer to: “What’s your business plan for doing this job profitably?” The problem is, not all jobs are designed to show a profit. Companies outside of Silicon Valley don’t generally consider IT to be a profit center. IT is more like an expensive mistress you can’t live without.
Another friend of mine, formerly an IT manager, for whom honesty is a high value, wanted to ask, “Are you honest?” It’s an important question but ultimately useless because honest and dishonest people will give the same answer.
Tate Chalk, founder and CEO of Nfinity, takes a more company-centric approach. He likes to ask, “Why us?” Presumably, answering “why not you?” won’t endear you to Mr. Chalk.
Clint Greenleaf, founder of the Greenleaf Book Group, sounds like he might have played some poker. “When I call your old boss,” he tells jobseekers, “what will he/she say about you?” Well, Clint, if you’re not bluffing, then it all depends on who I identify as my last manager.
My wife swears she once got a job by responding to “What’s the best joke you know?” The employer was a college newspaper, and that explains everything.
And then there’s the curious Eric Ryan, cofounder of Method, who wants to know “How will you keep our company weird?” When I first read it, I thought it said wired, but no. Ryan’s company apparently has a unique, nontraditional culture and he intends to keep it that way. It’s hard to know how to answer such a question, but I’d be tempted to say “with satanic rituals.” Watching people squirm has its own entertainment value.
J.J. Ramberg, host of MSNBC’s Your Business, skips right over curious and goes straight to bizarre. She likes to work in an extended family environment with people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and go the extra mile. So what she really wants to know is this: “Would you be willing to put together an IKEA bookshelf?” You bet. I just can’t guarantee it will look anything like a bookshelf when I’m done.
Personally, if reduced to asking a single question, I would ask this: “How does this job align with your highest values?” People who profess one set of values, yet pursue another, will not be happy for long and their discontent is likely to infect those around them. Employees engaged in something that gives their life meaning will be far more motivated and inspired to reach higher. Skills can be taught, but passion cannot.
Granted, there is no one-size-fits-all inquiry, and some questions are better than others. But if forced to choose, a question that reveals a candidate’s authentic obsession may be the most useful. In the words of Nolan Bushnell, he of Syzygy, Atari, and Chuck E. Cheese fame, “Hire for passion and intensity; there is training for everything else.”