by Dan D. 8/14/16

Perhaps you read my last post and thought “OK, Dan, thanks for insulting me with your silly opinions and lack of helpful advice”.

Though that wasn’t my intention, I got to thinking this morning about generating better questions you can begin to integrate into your job interviews that can get you the information you want about a candidate without making them feel as if they’re being drilled by a Law & Order character.

Now, before I continue, my advice is primarily aimed at small-to-medium sized business owners and hiring managers at small non-profits, which is mostly my domain and the space I’ve worked in throughout my career. That said, if you’re an important person at Target, Medtronic, or the like and you find value in what I’ve got to say, that’s great too!

Let’s start what will be a recurring series of better interview questions you can ask with a pair of related queries that make a lot of candidates cringe:

  1. Instead of Where do you see yourself in five years? or Why did you move to _____? Ask: What do you like most about (insert job duties of the job you’re trying to fill here) or What do you like most about living in ______? 

I got asked variations of these questions one too many times when I moved to Minnesota, a state that’s well-known for retaining a good deal of its home-grown talent and has  an unfortunate reputation for being socially frosty to newcomers. Ostensibly, these questions were aimed at sussing out whether I planned on sticking around at an organization for a while or jumping ship for something different in a shorter period of time.

The message the interviewers were sending to me—intentionally or not—was We need this person to stick around for a while because of the critical institutional knowledge they possess or, phrased more cynically, We don’t want to spend money on recruiting and hiring a new person in six months when they take an offer with another company.

The problem with the question I’ve always had is that it there are any number of variables that can cause a person to want to move on from a job. Some of these things you can control:

  • Your expectation that a new hire will “hit the ground running” and understand your organization’s processes nearly immediately. Avoid this.
  • Your assumption that you can pass off the work of a departing staff member on your team members without first checking whether they have the A) technical skills to handle the workload, B) the time in their schedule to accommodate an increased workload, C) able to communicate with the other staffers in your office they’ll need to work with to accomplish deliverables. Avoid this, too. 
  • Your attitude towards your employees: avoid the summary dismissal of their ideas (even if they’re impractical or ridiculous), career or personal plans, and time-off needs. Really avoid this.
  • Your ability to protect your staff from emotional baggage brought on by an overly demanding client. Shield them like Chiklis. 

and many others you cannot:

  • A move necessitated by a family illness or tragedy
  • A job offer from another company that provides your staffer with a stronger opportunity to advance their career or better compensation than you can offer
  • An employee following up on their desire to move somewhere new

There’s also the possibility that the interviewee may be saying something they don’t entirely believe in because they understand that the picture they’re painting for you is ideally where they’d like to be, but can’t fully commit to the idea because no one can see the future. That’s fine—acknowledging that what lies ahead in life is largely uncertain territory should be a great insight into someone’s humanity.

Is it also possible that the person is just straight-up lying when they give you their “five year plan”? Sure. I’d wager, however, that it happens less frequently than online copywriters would have you believe, and that the lies you’re being told are part of a far more nuanced moral character than the Good Employee vs. Bad Employee dichotomy many HR bloggers want you to buy in to.

Asking an interviewee where they see themselves in five years or why they moved to X location isn’t really an objectively great way to get information you want regarding their future plans. Asking what they like most about the job duties and/or the location of the job can help you learn a few important things about a person, however:

  • You’ll get a feel for whether they’ve read through the particular job description and understood it
  • You might find out whether they’re interested in staying in their job for the long haul or moving to a different position within your organization
  • You’ll learn whether they moved to your area because of a genuine interest in its culture and values and not as part of some elaborate plan to carpetbag everyone (are you reading this, Minnesotans?)

Behavioral interviewing isn’t a great method. One major obstruction that keeps it from being a viable way to identify good employees is confirmation bias. We get an idea of a person we think is perfect for a given role based on a past employee we liked or a vision of a person we want to work with, and we find reasons for why our preferred candidate fits that mold, even if there are glaring indications to the contrary.

Now: my suggested questions aren’t perfect. They aren’t a foolproof way to obtain objectively testable data (I suspect moving towards a system where we evaluate a candidate’s technical on-the-job skills with a demonstration of sorts is viable, though we need to be sure not to exploit interviewees for free labor). You still need to do the hard work and evaluate the answers. You still need to make sure you aren’t merely finding reasons to hire someone you want to hang out with at work. You still need to make sure you’re asking questions that will get you the answers you and your staff need in order to hire someone who will help your organization achieve its goals. 

These Better Questions are good for this: they’re likely to generate more specific answers than super-broad, boiler plate stuff like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” that will get you a rote response full of gobbledygook pulled off a hack’s HR blog and “Why did you move to ____” which is a borderline inappropriate thing to ask, considering the answer may involve highly personal circumstances.

You are smarter than a generic question, Hiring Manager. You are an individual capable of intelligent data collection that is unique to your organization’s functional and project needs. Don’t settle for the “best” candidate for your position. “Best” is an empty adjective that means nothing, as no one on earth is able to fully assess the true value of a human’s worth. Go out and get a talented, skilled, technically competent person who will help sustain and grow your agency’s internal social capital. It is your privilege as a professional in charge of hiring and a duty as a steward of your organization’s mission, values, and products.