Stop Asking Inane Interview Questions
Gotcha questions will not help you improve your hiring outcomes
Sometimes people will be wrong on the Internet. Ok, maybe it happens a lot. Rarely do I ever comment on other people’s posts these days. Mostly because correcting all the wrongness on the web would be a never-ending, thoroughly exhausting, and depressingly hopeless endeavor.
This is also why I keep my Twitter commentary positive. Over the years, I have trained myself to ignore any and all potential controversy. No one wins Twitter battles. Instead, it is a much better strategy to focus on being helpful, support others, build things, and pour one’s creative energies into adding value to this world..
Sometimes however there are simply things that are too egregious to let go. This is particularly the case when it comes to social commentary on recruiting and hiring practices. Empathy and compassion fly out the window, replaced with the cold-hearted meat grinder of resource filling. Sometimes you get the sense that people would prefer to hire robots than actual humans.
Such was the case with a supposed startup founder. I say supposed because there was very little evidence suggesting that he actually had ever or is building a tech startup. The context is important here because this individual was suggesting a recommended course of interview questions to uncover frauds and liars.
Hiring is not an easy process. Given the time, energy, and cost hiring entails, you want to find candidates that honestly speak to their experience and capabilities. Having been burned in the past on bad hires, I do find myself being cautious and less willing to give candidates the benefit of the doubt when inconsistencies emerge during the interview process.
This leads some companies, recruiters, and hiring managers to take an adversarial approach to hiring. They focus on sifting out the bad, exposing the fraudsters, and whittling down the pool of candidates to the least worst potential hire. I fundamentally disagree with this approach. It creates a terrible candidate experience, treats people with little dignity, and is focused on the worst traits of people instead of finding what makes people shine and succeed.
Reading this post from the founder of a three-person marketing agency, everything from the title of the post to the language used to the suggested tactics came off as demeaning*. What was some of this grand advice? The first question that was recommended as part of the interview process was, "Do you have a screen protector on your phone?" The rest of the suggested interview questions were not as random, but the entire tone and approach of the blog post was far off the mark when it comes to the hiring approaches used by best in class organizations.
I can sympathize with the frustrations candidates and hiring managers have with poorly thought out interview questions. We all know the typical questions like “what is your biggest weakness?” or “why should I hire you?”. These are low-fidelity questions because the insights provided by the answers give no perspective into the capabilities of the candidate or what they believe. The whole purpose of having interviews is to gain an understanding of how a candidate thinks and the values they hold.
Given the alarming number of likes this post was receiving, I had to stop what I was doing and respond. I did have another, more incendiary response, but clearer thinking prevailed and I put forth the more level-heading and helpful explanation for a better approach below:
For startup founders reading, I would not recommend following this hiring approach. Others have already mentioned in the comments the implicit bias these questions introduce. The other issue is that this type of interview is neither repeatable as the company scales nor does it create a positive candidate experience.
At AWS, we have a fairly rigorous hiring process, one that has enabled us to scale the organization from tens to tens of thousands globally. We have been able to do this because we tie our interviews directly to our leadership principles, we ask behavioral questions meant to solicit how a candidate thinks as it relates to our principles, and use the STAR technique to pull details about the candidate’s specific contributions to the outcomes of a particular situation.
This process is teachable, metrics focused, and scalable as the organization grows. It enables us to remove bias and focus on what matters most as it relates to the role and their ability to thrive at AWS. And most importantly, it is designed to create a positive hiring experience as they do not feel surprised or thrown by gotcha type of questions.
And if that is not enough to convince you, I have also asked startup founders from well-known unicorn startups about their hiring process, and while there are nuances, the core of how they structure the hiring process and candidate experience is similar to what I shared above. I am glad to chat with any startup founder that is curious about how to set up their recruiting and hiring process.
Given the positive reception my comment received, I am hopeful that people reading the post consider a more thoughtful approach to interviewing. It is time more organizations discard the ad hoc approach to hiring and adopt strategies and tactics that are intentional and high-fidelity.
I am partial to the AWS approach to hiring because it has succeeded in creating a consistently high bar for talent. This has held true even as AWS has rapidly accelerated its hiring through the pandemic. Nor has AWS succumbed to creating shortcuts in its hiring process. Every candidate has to go through a Loop of five interviews with each interviewer focusing on 2 to 3 Amazon Leadership Principles to ask questions about. Then all interviewers come together to debrief, compare notes, and make a hiring decision.
What keeps the hiring process consistent is the bar raiser program. AWS has an entire program of hiring specialists called Bar Raisers that are highly trained and experienced interviewers that participate as interviewers during each loop. This way they can ensure that each Loop adheres to the high standards we have in place for interviewing and candidate experience.
The rigor of the hiring process as AWS also extends to the choice of questions that are asked. We tie interview questions to Leadership Principles, which gives us a clear method of aligning the Amazon culture to the values of the candidate. I discuss in more detail what the alignment of values to hiring looks like in practice in a post I published on the Startup Grind blog.
Even though the approach I share is specific to AWS, when I look across leading startups and enterprise organizations, the key elements are the same. They integrate culture into the hiring process. They foster a data rich / metrics oriented approach to hiring. They work backwards from the candidate to create a positive candidate experience. And they have enough respect for candidates and employees by focusing interviews on behaviors and culture alignment over ego-centric, trick questions.
How does your hiring process function today to drive better hiring outcomes? Do you see value in the approach of aligning culture and hiring?
*Note: While I would normally link to the original post, I decided against doing so in this case as it would reward the author with undeserved pageviews.
Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS
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