December 16, 2008
Get Them Talking
Senator Joe Biden famously monopolized the time allotted to him in the 2006 confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. In the fifty minutes allotted to Biden, he spoke about 5,600 words to Alito's 2,000.
Biden was not alone. Of the fifteen senators questioning Alito at the hearing, only two (both Democrats) let Alito talk more than they did. When there is a desire to get as much information about Supreme Court nominees as possible, what the majority of senators did is certainly a counterintuitive approach. No doubt Alito was happy to let the minutes tick by without having to say anything that could potentially get him into trouble.
There are lots of wrong ways to interview a prospective employee and a few right ways. One wrong way is to talk too much. The goal of an interview is to get candidates to talk and talk and talk.
So here's point number one: The point of a job interview is to get a window into what kind of person this is you are thinking about hiring. Within limits (some of them legal), I think it's fine to get candidates talking about almost anything. Resist the temptation to talk about the company, the nature of the job, your own pet peeves or anything else. Your job is to get the candidate to talk.
On to point number two: Focus the discussion. Obviously, at some point in the conversation you want to zero in on the job. Since not all questions are created equal, how can we stay on task?
Assuming customer interaction would be an important part of the job, "How would you handle a customer complaint?" is pretty good. But a better approach is, "Tell me about a time you received a customer complaint and how you handled it." With the first question, candidates can imagine ideal scenarios. But the second request is more revealing. What did they actually do? What strategies did they use? What attitudes did they show?
What people say they actually did in the past is a better predictor of the future than what they imagine they will do in the future.
If you want to hire the best person to fill a position in your department, let the candidates do the talking. If you want to talk, maybe you could go into politics.