Getting Interview Questions In Advance

by @edent | | 5 comments | Read ~405 times.

My friend, the superhero Jess Rose, posed an interesting question.

I've just conducted interviews for some senior roles at work. We run a structured interview process where every candidate gets asked the same set of questions. The interviewers record their scores. Then, after all the interviews are done, we add up the scores - after a bit of arguing - and the candidate with the highest score gets the job. (OK, it's a bit more involved than that, but you get the idea).

The candidates have already passed a CV screen and a basic assessment. So what is the interview really testing?

In this essay I will argue I want to discuss whether surprising candidates is the best way to determine if they're suitable for the job.

(Standard disclaimer - these are my own opinions and not those of my employers.)

Stress

Interviews are stressful - there's no getting away from that. But is deliberately stressing someone out a good technique for understanding them?

I recently went to a brilliant talk by Jo Kenrick about whether torture works. Spoiler alert! It doesn't!

After reviewing 6 million pages of CIA records from the Rendition Detention & Interrogation programme (including the 20 cases reported as successes), the State Senate Committee (2014) found:
• No instances of information provided that prevented an attack.
• No instances of information obtained that was not already available (via humane means).
• People who had been providing information prior to torture ceased to cooperate.
• ‘Faulty information’ was provided on critical intelligence issues such as terrorist attacks

The effects of torture on brain and behaviour.

Is someone in a stressful interview going to give you the answers they think you want to hear - rather than accurate answers?

Counterpoint

Our jobs can be stressful. If you can't cope with an interview, how will you cope in an emergency? If you have to brief a senior politician, are you going to be a gibbering wreck?

We can ask "tell me about a time you dealt successfully with a stressful situation?" but there's no substitute for seeing their physical reaction.

Counter-counterpoint

What if the candidate has taken some "relaxing" medication before the interview in order to deal with their nerves?

Rehearsals

The big worry about providing candidates with the interview questions is that they'll rehearse their answers. They'll give a performance rather that hold a conversation.

Anecdotally, that's not going to happen. As part of the interview process, we often ask candidates to prepare a 5 minute presentation, or to video themselves giving a short talk.

The number of candidates who obviously don't rehearse is mind blowing! If you were recording yourself speaking, and you fluffed a line, you'd stop and re-record - right? You'd have flash-cards off-screen so you didn't lose your train of thought - right? If, on viewing the video, the lighting wasn't good - you'd turn on a lamp and do it again - right?

And yet, candidates don't. We got some stellar candidates who'd thought about what we'd asked, and produced something which met the brief. But we got loads of candidates who, seemingly, had just said the first things which came into their head, ran over time, and hit stop.

It was the same with presentations. A week before the interview, we'd ask candidates to prepare a 5 minute presentation on topic X in order to convince the CEO to do Y. We got candidates who seemed surprised their 5 minutes was up. Or who didn't know their slide order. Or who seemingly hadn't given any thought to the presentation and were winging it.

So, I wouldn't worry about giving candidates the interview rubric in advance.

Counterpoint

We all lead busy lives. If you're already working a full-time role, have caring responsibilities, and are dealing with a complicated home life - you may not have time to prepare.

When we give take-home tasks, are we unintentionally discriminating against people?

Improvisation

I took lots of drama classes as a kid. If an interviewer asked me to describe a situation where I had to land a space-shuttle under pressure, I reckon I could give an improvised answer for several minutes about my time in NASA.

Sure, it wouldn't fool anyone who worked for a space agency - but if you're looking for a calm and confident employee, I'm your guy!

Here's a simple example, if you were asked a question like "describe a time when you had to fire an employee" and you'd never fired someone, how would you answer? Sure, it's a crap question, but do you want to be the only candidate who said "I've got no experience"?

Counterpoint

In any job, you're going to be put on the spot. Do we need someone who can come up with an instant answer - even if they don't know the right answer?

Disability

Suppose you had a candidate who couldn't speak. They use text-to-speech to write their answers. Because that takes extra time, they contact you before the interview and ask for a reasonable adjustment - they'd like the questions in advance. That seems fair enough to me.

In that situation, would you also give the other candidates the questions so as not to disadvantage them?

Take a listen to Lost Voice Guy - Lee Ridley - on the Richard Herring Podcast. He has the interview question in advance, and is just as funny as the other guests.

What's an interview for?

As I've written before - a job interview isn't a set of trick questions. You're working collaboratively to see if you can work in the future - not trying to prove your intellectual dominance. It shouldn't be a test to see if they've read the same interviewing books as you.

I don't believe that an interview is a conversation. It should be a structured assessment of whether the person can do the job. It's isn't about whether they have a new suit, a calm voice, or a quick wit. It's about whether they can demonstrate that they model the behaviours you want to see in your organisation.

What's the sweet spot?

I think I agree with this assessment.

In the 15-30 minutes before the interview, while the candidate is sat waiting, give them the list of questions. It gives everyone an equal opportunity to line up their stories and work out what evidence they wish to demonstrate.

It helps people calm down.

And, hopefully, it produces a better interview for you and the candidates.

Have you experienced an interview like this - from either side of the table? Was it useful?

5 thoughts on “Getting Interview Questions In Advance

  1. Interesting! Perhaps a mix of questions in advanced and some revealed during the interview? When interviewing I noticed that Company A would ask wildly different types of question to Company B for the same type of role. This might help gauge the 'perimeters' of the interview.


  2. My experience has been that the rigour of the interview process (when I'm hiring people) bears little relationship to the quality of people I get. Gut feeling has usually been a better metric. But gut feeling doesn't scale very easily if you need to hire lots of people, or where some of the interviewers have less reliable guts.

    Where possible, then, I like to go fairly easy on the interview process, but tell people that we do take probationary periods seriously. And yes, I have let people go after three months because they weren't a good fit.

    That's obviously harder if the candidates are in existing jobs, or need to relocate their families, or whatever. Perhaps it's only practical when hiring young people for startups rather than senior people for key roles. But I do think it takes much longer than an interview to assess someone (and, frankly, for them to assess you - I think of the probationary period as symmetrical), so it's useful, when possible, if you can make the interview last a couple of months. 🙂

  3. Jonathan says:

    we went with two days, which I thought worked fairly well. Your blog chimes with me - there were a couple of guys who appeared only to have given the questions a cursory glance.



  4. Lingjing says:

    Totally agree that we are not testing improvisational skills. Candidates are often very nervous in a formal interview. I sometimes wonder whether that’s the best way to learn about a person’s suitability for a job. Some of the best ones I had was over many coffee chats.



  5. Something we say at every interview...

    "We want to see the best version of you so we're not here to trip you up. We're rooting for you!"

    and we mean it.



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