Even the most elaborate hiring methodologies eventually boil down to one of the dreaded rituals of business life: the job interview. For most people, the only thing more painful than being interviewed is actually conducting the interview. Most executive interviewers come to the task unequipped, unprepared, and unenthusiastic.
There are as many theories of how to do great interviews as there are "killer questions" and favorite settings — and all of them drive DDI's Bill Byham crazy. Last spring, an HR discussion group on the Internet identified 15 all-time favorite interview questions. Byham dismisses them as meaningless, inappropriate, or illegal. They included perennials such as: Where do you see yourself in five years? What does your ideal job look like? Are you a team player?
Productive interview questions, Byham argues, are narrowly defined and well-crafted. They focus on probing for the specific behavioral attributes that define successful employees. And they're designed to elicit actual experiences rather than hopes and dreams — not what people say they would do in the future but what they have done in the past. This "would do/have done" distinction is crucial, Byham believes, and all-too-often ignored by interviewers.
Psychologist John Seres, a principal of Chicago-based Sadler and Associates, has a different point of view. Seres consults on hiring for Nucor and teaches the company's managers how to conduct interviews. He says an interview is more like literary criticism than a just-the-facts-ma'am police interrogation — a search for clues, symbols, hidden themes, interpretation. "There's very little in an interview that's a matter of fact," he says, "and the more job-related a question is, the less likely it is to yield useful information." His favorite question? "Tell me about your upbringing." How people describe their parents and siblings, he claims, indicates how they see themselves — as winners or losers, empowered or oppressed.
The ultimate goal of an interview, Seres says, is to help candidates tell coherent stories about their lives and then find the patterns that reveal character. His biggest complaint about interviewers is that they don't listen for clues: "If you're talking more than 20% of the time, you're doing it wrong."
How you listen matters too. In his course, Seres shows a videotape of an interview with a candidate for Nucor's Hickman, Arkansas mill. In the video, the recruit is not highly educated and uses rough language. He tells a story about being swindled on a used car, and says he confronted the seller with the threat, "Give me back my money or I'll break your head."
Seres says people who see the tape generally assume the man was not hired. But he was hired, and he has excelled at Nucor. What looked like a flaw (a short fuse) was in fact a virtue (a passionate belief in honesty and hard work) . The story was nicely characteristic of the candidate — not that he was violent, but that, as Seres says, "if you are straightforward and honest with this guy, you'll never have a problem."
In the real world, most interviewers stand between the poles of Byham's behavioralism and Seres's industrial Freudianism. Ann Rhoades occupies that middle ground. At both Southwest and Doubletree, she has used "Targeted Selection" to develop her interviews. She avoids speculative questions and asks for specifics from past jobs. She also insists on multiple interviews; few people, she believes, reveal much about themselves in one session. With executives, she likes to call at least two former colleagues not recommended by the candidate. "You wouldn't believe what they tell you," she says.
But Rhoades admits that much of her job comes down to psychology. What she looks for in every Doubletree hire — from housekeepers to senior executives — is an emphasis on the team, personal flexibility, and a lack of excess concern for the way things have been done traditionally. "I'm looking for a whatever-it-takes attitude," she says. "I'm looking for winners."
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.