For Employers: Possibly the Best Interviewing Advice You’ll Ever Read

A Rational Way to Make a Gut Decision

(by Lou Adler, CEO of The Adler Group, a full-service talent acquisition consulting firm)

I was a full-time recruiter from 1978-2000. During that time I interviewed thousands of people for jobs ranging from billing clerks to CEOs. While I asked a lot of questions, the most important involved having candidates describe their most significant career accomplishments in great detail. (This approach is covered in an earlier post, The Most Important Interview Question of All Time.)

For each accomplishment, I’d spend about 15-20 minutes peeling the onion in an attempt to understand exactly what the person accomplished, his or her role, the scope and scale of the accomplishment, the challenges involved, and the underlying culture and environment. After obtaining this type of information for 3-4 different accomplishments, it was pretty easy to see the person’s trend of performance over time. These accomplishments were then compared to the performance requirements of the open job to see if the candidate was a fit.

Since my search firm offered a one-year guarantee, it was essential that our assessments were accurate. Replacing a candidate 6-9 months after a person starts is painful. This is why we required every recruiter in the firm to use this same performance-based interviewing approach. It worked: after 1,500 placements, fewer than 5% had to be replaced. This is remarkable performance. Being cynical was part of it. Getting facts, details, and evidence was the only way to replace hiring errors based on feelings, emotions, intuition or misguided thinking. The process itself became the title of my first book, Hire With Your Head – A Rational Way to Make a Gut Decision. Quite frankly, all we were doing was conducting a pre-hire performance review.

Aside from improving the accuracy of the assessment, there were some major side benefits. For one, candidates knew they were assessed fairly. When you’re recruiting a top person this is essential, or the interviewer has no credibility. Two, it was easy to out-evidence a hiring manager who conducted a superficial or overly technical interview. This happened frequently. Three, it was easy to separate fact from fiction. Lack of details was a big red flag.

With the objective of increasing assessment accuracy, here are some tips both candidates and interviewers can use.

How to Separate Fact from Fiction and Ensure an Accurate Interview Assessment

  1. Just the facts. Too many candidates speak in generalities. These have no value. Facts do. So if you’re a candidate you need to be prepared to give specific details about each of your major accomplishments. These include dates, measurable results, the actual deliverables, and any supporting information needed to validate the accomplishments. If you’re the interviewer, you need to dig for this information. Don’t leave it up to the candidate to provide it.
  2. Give and get SMARTe examples to prove a strength. Candidates need to prove every strength with specific examples. Interviewers need to ask for these examples. I suggest using the SMARTe acronym to form the answers and the follow-up fact-finding questions: Specific task, Metrics, Action taken, Results and deliverable defined, the Time frame, and a description of the environment.
  3. Go narrow and deep vs. broad and shallow. The idea behind Performance-based Interviewing is to gets lots of detailed information about a few of the candidate’s major accomplishments. This is more representative of past performance and potential fit than asking a bunch of scattered questions about generic competencies and behaviors. The competencies and behaviors will reveal themselves as part of the candidate’s performance.
  4. Focus on what’s important using targeted listening. A good interviewer listens 4X more than talking by asking probing questions. If you’re the candidate, and the interviewer seems to be going off on a tangent, ask the person to describe some of the main challenges in the job. This will bring focus back to what’s important. Then describe a SMARTe accomplishment that represents the best work you’ve done in that area.
  5. Skip or ignore the hyperbole. Interviewers, do not use the terms “awesome” or “unique” when describing a job. Instead, provide enough details about the job so the candidate concludes it’s awesome or unique. Candidates, skip the boilerplate and generalities on your resume, LinkedIn profile or in your answers. Don’t say you’re motivated, strong, dedicated, a great problem-solver or a great team player, or whatever, unless you can back it up with proof. Let the interviewer determine if you’re strong, dedicated or a team player, based on the examples you present.
  6. Separate performance from presentation to increase objectivity. The purpose of an interview is to assess the person’s past performance in comparison to what needs to be accomplished on the job. This article on how to overcome the seductive power of first impressions provides some tips for interviewers on how to increase objectivity. This is critical, since the majority of hiring errors can be attributed to bias of some sort.
  7. Rehearsed or natural. I prefer candidates who struggle to come up with their answers. I always feel I’m being conned when the answers are glib, or the candidate is over-confident or over-prepped. In this case, I go out of my way to throw the candidate off-balance to see if he or she can handle the situation. I remember one candidate who told me he rebuilt his entire team of roughly 20 people in the first year. After probing and asking for specific titles, it turned out the team consisted of six people and he replaced only three of them. Of course, the candidate wasn’t considered.

A Rational Way to Make a Gut Decision

You’ll never have enough information to make a 100% foolproof decision when hiring someone you don’t know. Conducting a pre-hire performance review is one way to minimize the gap between what you know and what you don’t. While you’ll never know everything about the candidate, at least you’ll have enough information to make a rational decision. __________________________________________

Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a full-service talent acquisition consulting firm. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), covers the Performance-based Hiring process described in this article in more depth. For instant hiring advice join Lou’s LinkedIn group and follow his Wisdom About Work series on Facebook.

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