Interviewing pro-tip: the Candidate is not the enemy

Or, how to get your Candidates to give you their very best voluntarily

Anyone who has ever interviewed anyone for an open req. has experienced a Candidate bombing the interview for one reason or another1, and we’ve certainly all bombed an interview. Now, I don’t know shit about hiring outside of technical fields, specifically for web administrators and UNIX admins. But in that realm, I’ve been on both sides of the process for a little while, and these are the things that I think tend to be the most common reasons for Candidates to do anything less than shine (… or at least these are the things I’m most guilty of):

  • Fixating on the negative aspects of past experiences:

    Where I am now? We have this fucking guy, you know? He eats rice from a plate with a spoon, and it’s disgusting, he’s disgusting, and I can’t stand things that are disgusting!

  • Fixating on the positive aspects of where you’re currently working; put another way, apologizing for having the gall to consider leaving where you are now:

    No, no, it’s really great at ConGloMo! The air rifles only sting a little! I’m really very lucky to have a job at all! The dogs aren’t usually hungry so they don’t maul us when they chase us or anything!

  • It’s also come to my attention that sometimes this manifests in the form of comparing your current employer to your prospective employer too much:

    This place is just like where I am now, except it’s different. I mean, I hate where I am now but I’d love it here, even though it’s the same. But also different.

If you talk down to Candidates, you're gonna have a bad time.

But I also think that these are often a side-effect of a small handful of conditions: being overly familiar or comfortable with the Interviewer (that’s not a bad thing), outright desperation (yellow flag) or excitement (which you should be selecting for), or just plain being damaged (dare I say shell shocked?) by whatever circumstances caused a Candidate to start working the market (and that can be bad, right now, for you; they might get better if the pressure is eased off them). Or if they’re a non-local Candidate, maybe the travel took more out of them then expected and they are still adjusting to being anywhere except home. I am guilty of every single one of those myself, and that’s led me to think that any one of those missteps could have probably been turned into a positive pivot if Interviewers just tried talking to Candidates as if they already had the job.

Hey, here’s a novel idea: let’s try treating our Candidates like we already work with them

Interviewing is a stressful, bullshit-laden quagmire for Candidates for any number of reasons, but for the Interviewer any time spent interviewing Candidates is functionally time they’re diverting away from tangible actions that they could be working on right now. The hope is that this time is an investment, and not an expenditure — bringing new talent on-board should help you maximize your teams productivity long term. At least, that’s the goal.

But too often when interviewing, we’re content to let the Candidate dig their own hole. We stare Candidates down like police officers grilling suspects. Or we drill Candidates on insane micro/nano-scale questions about technical minutia. We quiz them on ridiculous topics like obfuscated regular expression implementations or obscure programming language and framework variants that they won’t actually be using. We wind them up, then we let them rant, stammer, and stutter into tailspins and death spirals, before we press our advantage and quiz them on these things they’ve just said… and we pride ourselves on this behavior when they collapse! We tell stories about how bad our Candidates do, and how utterly awful this short window of time we had to form an opinion about them was.

BUT! What if instead of looking for reasons to disqualify Candidates and send them home crying on the next flight, we instead engaged them in the conversation? What if instead of letting a Candidate rant and rave into unproductive negative space, we instead simply pointed out that the Candidate was getting out into that negative space and steered the conversation back towards productivity with something a little more meaningful than open ended, squishy questions? Or what if we talked to them about why they’re so bitter? Why don’t we try listening to what they’ve got to say, because they obviously feel like they need to say it. That’s what we’d do if this was someone we already worked with, isn’t it? I think that there is real benefit to using this time with our Candidates to talk to them like the people who are already here.

Don’t be scared to talk to, not at, your Candidate

We don’t have a lot of time together with Candidates, and we get only fleeting impressions of who they are. We throw around words like “behavior-based interview” like it’s some sort of magic talisman to protect us from making hiring mistakes, but that’s all just juju2. When this sort of thing is taken to the logical conclusion then you wind up with cargo cult version of the Voight-Kampff test, as seen during the beginning of Blade Runner… and how did that work out for Holden?

Spoiler alert: it didn’t.

To use a photography analogy, the lens we usually have on Candidates (and that they have on us) during an interview is stopped up pretty narrow, which is to say that it’s highly selective — we only see what they (hopefully) want us to see, and we (hopefully) only present what we want them to know. But maybe it’s time to reexamine that relationship and see if we don’t get more meaningful insight by opening it up and widening that aperture a little.

As long as you’re not leaking confidential information, why don’t you talk through one of your current problems or projects with the Candidate? Ask them for insight. Isn’t that what you do with your peers? Talk to them about your design constraints, and see what they think about the problem. Better still, why don’t you ask them what sort of problems they’re working on right now? Engage them in their wheelhouse, and willingly shift the advantage to them. Don’t be scared to let the Candidate take the lead, and see where your conversation with them goes. Go ahead and get real weird with it, and see how the candidate handles not being quizzed on nonsense. This seem like a no-brainer when someone actually says it aloud but seriously, give this a try: let your Candidate do what you want to hire them to do, and let them impress you.

But, but, but… what about the bozos?

Yeah, I’ve read Guy Kawasaki’s writings about “bozo explosions” too and you’re not clever. It diminishes us all when we reduce and polarize into camps of bozos and rockstars (or losers and winners, or users and admins, or Star-bellied Sneetches and Plain-bellied Sneetches). Candidates have it rough in the market. They don’t need you piling on them too.

Look, the plain truth is that the world is full of bozos; you’re a bozo in the wrong crowd, so stop sweating keeping them out. Your company has probably developed a culture that you/it/they pride yourself/itself/themselves on, and that culture should be strong enough to select against the traits that you’d use to describe the so-called clowns at the door. If they’ve made it through to the interview phase, then you’re not screening for the right traits. If that’s the case, of course you’re going to get suboptimal results. Fix your filter, and repeat the process.

It’s always OK to say that someone isn’t a fit for the culture or the work; that’s the nature of the beast. But you don’t need to reduce your Candidates to one-dimensional jokers when you do it and you certainly don’t need to try to break the cutie. If your Candidates really fare so poorly during their time with you, then I cannot stress enough that you really, really need to consider reviewing how you screen your Candidates before you ever bring them on-site for a sit-down. That will probably produce more results in the long and short term than wondering why these people are just so bad. Hell, you should probably be doing that anyway after every few Candidates, if just to figure out why your process isn’t bearing really great fruit more often. I mean, if your development process is already data driven, why shouldn’t your interview process be too? But I digress… that’s another post entirely.


  1. I don’t necessarily agree with Bryan Goldberg on this, but I do share his preference for talking to Candidates about things that matter instead of nonsense like “Tell me about a time you had to talk to an angry client or customer.” I mean, come on, that gives me no insight into how Candidates work, at all
  2. And make no mistake: all juju is bad juju. 

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