Imagine you’re heading in for a job interview. Although your palms are sweaty as you grasp the doorknob, you are prepared to put your best foot forward. The interview starts well – then your interviewer asks, “If you could be one animal, which would you be?” Well, you didn’t prepare for that question…

Maybe a marmot? It would be fun living in the mountains.
I would be a marmot — it would be fun living in the mountains!

Several recent articles (here’s one example) have identified a trend to ask these types of interview questions – presumably to see how applicants respond to unexpected situations. But do we actually learn anything from responses to these absurd questions? Are interviews even predictive of job performance?

A new Wired article – “Here’s Google’s secret to hiring the best people” – brushes off silly questions like the animal inquiry mentioned above. The article was written by Laszlo Bock, a Senior V.P. at Google. He cites research showing that unstructured interviews can explain only 14% of an employee’s job performance! Unstructured interviews have a low predictive rate, yet we still highly value interviews when picking a candidate.

The best tests for predicting actual job performance are a work sample test (29%) [in the lab, this supports grad student rotations], tests of general cognitive ability (26%), and structured interviews (26%).

Note the contrast: unstructured interviews predict 14% of performance, whereas structured interviews predict 26% of performance. Why the difference? The thought is that structured interviews – where questions are pre-defined, and a scoring system is used to more objectively rank candidate answers – remove interviewer biases. Also, the structured questions suggested are more simple (and “boring”), but they allow the candidate to elaborate, express creativity, and think on the spot.

Structure is good.
Structure is good.

Here are Bock’s examples of structured interview questions:

Tell me about a time your behavior had a positive impact on your team. (Follow-ups: What was your primary goal and why? How did your teammates respond? Moving forward, what’s your plan?)

Tell me about a time when you effectively managed your team to achieve a goal. What did your approach look like? (Follow-ups: What were your targets and how did you meet them as an individual and as a team? How did you adapt your leadership approach to different individuals? What was the key takeaway from this specific situation?)

Tell me about a time you had difficulty working with someone (can be a coworker, classmate, client). What made this person difficult to work with for you? (Follow-ups: What steps did you take to resolve the problem? What was the outcome? What could you have done differently?)

As mentioned in the article, excellent candidates will come up with original, specific examples to these generic questions that help them stand out from the rest.

Stand out from the rest.
Uncle Sam stands out from the rest.

Bock also includes other tips. Strive for quality in employees: Select employees that are better than you. Include others – subordinates and peers, as well as supervisors – in the interview process. Share your passion for the position and organization.

I think Bock’s insight is valuable. I can see how developing structured interviews with a defined metric would reduce bias and lead to improved assessment of candidates. Then, the interviewer would be less likely to select a candidate based on shoe colour, or whether he also enjoys cheddar cheese. Or based on whether the candidate is an introvert or extrovert, which could influence interview performance but not necessarily reflect future job performance. Creating a diverse team can improve group output. I also like the goal of hiring employees that are better than you.

With these ideas, perhaps the next interview you or I run will consist of “boring” questions – but hopefully it will also successfully select the most competent candidate.

Then we can use happy hour to discuss the new employee’s favourite animal.

How to structure your next interview
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