Over the years I’ve worked for a couple of great companies and several mediocre to awful ones. Of the business skills I developed during this time, one of the few I feel qualified to speak on at length is the job interview process.
I have lost count of the number of interviews I’ve done, both applying to new companies and changing jobs within a company. I can say with confidence that in our Capitalist system, job interviews are the most unpleasant, stressful, and awkward part of employment. At best they are a necessary evil.
Many job consultants and books that discuss the “hidden job market” agree that the best way to find a job is to bypass the interview process altogether, usually by finding someone at a company who can hire you directly. Most people, though, have to do a standard interview in order to get their foot in the door.
Job interviewing is a ritual in our society, and as with any ritual there are prescribed behavioral patterns. Interview locations, dress codes, and demeanor are all fairly standardized by industry. So are the kinds of questions asked of interviewees.
This article focuses on a particular kind of interview question, what I call the “Not Getting Hired” question. I call it that for two reasons: One, because these questions have become such a routine part of the interview process that the person asking it rarely pays attention to the answer (and for good reason, as I’ll explain later). Two, because no matter how a job applicant answers the question, the information doesn't address the key issue in any employment search. If anything, the only real function these questions serve is to decrease your chances of getting the job.
“Tell me about yourself.”
This is the vague, open-ended catch-all of interview questions. Supposedly, this is the candidate’s opportunity to “wow” the interviewer with a brilliant opening salvo, convincing them that by hiring you, they will get someone who will stand by them through thick or thin, hell or high water, putting the love of company above all else as the next chapter of a brilliant career is written.
Actually, this question is just time-filler. It does serve some purpose – it’s a general test to see if you can string two or more sentences together. If you respond without fainting or vomiting all over yourself, congratulations, you have passed the bare minimum requirements for social interaction. Other than that, this is a question much better suited to a blind date than a job interview.
A variation on this question is the interview that starts out with the interviewer sitting down with you, reading your resumé for the first time, and asking “It says here you worked at _______. Can you tell me about that?”
It’s a given that in the vast majority of cases the interviewer and job candidate don’t know each other. If they did, there probably would be no need for an interview. And yet, while someone may have spent hours (or days) preparing for this conversation, in the above scenario it’s clear that the interviewer hasn't even taken five minutes to look at the applicant's paperwork before they sat down together. Knowing that, what are the real chances the interviewer is prepared to make a hiring decision?
This scenario happens a lot in larger companies where the person who makes the decision to hire or reject you is not the person who set up the interview. Often you are one of a conga line of job applicants some middle-manager is obliged to sit down with as part of the daily routine.
It’s safe to say that if the employment decision-maker has nothing to inquire about except vague generalities about your existence, you’re probably not being seriously considered for the job.
“What are your biggest flaws?”
Ideally, your answer to this question reveals valued traits of self-awareness, maturity, honesty and humility, right?
In my estimation, there’s no real reason for anyone to ask you this question. The more time you spend answering it is basically giving the interviewer more reasons not to hire you.
Also, consider that some of the biggest jackasses in history spend their lives gainfully employed despite their glaring flaws, the same shortcomings you are being asked to lay out for your prospective employer before you have spent one day working for them.
Is it like this because the world is fundamentally unfair? I would say no. It’s like this because those other people have successfully answered The One Question That Matters (more on that later).
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
Quick, five years ago, did you see yourself where you are now? Probably not, because of a little thing called Life, a series of events that tend to render five-year plans useless as soon as they’re made. And considering how often companies layoff and downsize workers depending on The Economy, WHO CARES what your five-year plan is?
Besides meaningless speculation about your future, this is another question that hands the interviewer reasons not to hire you. If you answer “I’m just happy sitting in a cubicle stapling reports together,” the interviewer can mark in your file that you lack ambition. If you answer “I want to be CEO in ten years,” they can decide that you’re too ambitious and will leave your job the second you get a better offer. There are many more ways to get the answer to this question wrong than right.
“Tell me about a time when you…”
This opening phrase is part of a technique called the behavioral interview, where the interviewer tries to get you to talk about past life experiences as evidence that you have the right makeup for the job.
Ideally, this question reveals self-awareness and self-reflection. Of the questions described here, this one gets closest to addressing The One Question That Matters, but not quite. One reason is because often the interviewer tries to get you to talk about a time when you suffered at work. They want to hear about difficult co-workers, missed deadlines, angry clients, times when you had to dig deep and give extra effort and sacrifice to accomplish miracles.
People usually don’t look good when they talk about difficult or painful experiences, no matter how upbeat they try to paint them. Once again, you’re being asked to put your worst foot forward, while the interviewer collects more reasons not to hire you (either because you didn't handle a difficult situation correctly, or you were never in a position of difficulty, i.e. never been “tested”).
“How many gas stations are in the United States?”
This is one of an infinite number of seemingly random questions an interviewer might throw out during a meeting. If they seem nonsensical and irrelevant, it’s because they are.
I call these “MBA Bullshit Questions,” because at some point the interviewer read a book or took a Management class where he or she got the idea that if an interviewee is asked a left-field question like this, the way they answer it reveals something important about how they think and approach problems.
Your answers to these trivia questions can’t really help you get the job, but they can hurt your chances if your responses aren't to the interviewer’s liking. Come off as uninformed, flustered, too sure of yourself, not sure enough, etc., and that’s one more reason to turn you down.
Also, consider this - if a potential employer is playing these games with you during the interview, imagine what spending 40-60 hours a week working for them will be like if they do hire you.
A Job Search or a Beauty Pageant?
The questions I've described above are more suited to a beauty pageant, a talk show interview, or a game show. The problem with these questions is they try to accomplish an impossible task – giving someone a complete picture of another person in the matter of 1 or 2 hours. All they do is create illusions that the interviewer and interviewee are having a productive dialogue that will determine if the candidate is the best person for the job.
Just like a beauty pageant contestant rehearses their performance prior to competition, a job seeker can craft brilliant responses to any of the above questions without ever having to address The One Question That Matters. Here are some examples of what you can say:
“Tell me about yourself.”
"It’s always been my goal to work in the lion taming industry. I applied to your company because I want to work for the best lion taming firm in the city. I am a hard worker who will do a great job for you by decreasing your lion taming costs while increasing overall revenues."
(This is one of the few chances you'll get to brag, so go ahead and pump yourself up. Just make sure to emphasize how much your talent and greatness will benefit the company, not the other way around.)
“What are your biggest flaws?”
"I don’t know how to sew, but I am currently taking classes at the local extension school to work on my needlepoint and cross-stitching. I think this will really help me be the best Apron Cleaner you've ever had."
(The key here is to point out a character or skill flaw that is at worst tangential to the job you're applying for. Plus, always state what you are doing to correct the flaw.)
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
"My main goal is to become a top-notch Associate Peanut-Brittle Maker. Somewhere down the line if there is an opportunity to become a Senior Peanut-Brittle Maker, I will give it serious consideration, but right now I think my skill set would be ideal for an Associate Peanut-Brittle maker position."
(The key here is to reinforce the idea that the job you’re applying for is the one you want, that your professional life is targeted towards doing this job instead of looking for the next one.)
“Tell me about a time when you really excelled at work.”
"Oh, Wow. Let me tell you about the time my team and I had to get 200 helium balloons to the Drake hotel in three hours. It was tough because the balloon store was closed that day. I didn’t know we would make it. We searched all over the city – it was tough on everybody fighting the traffic. But we dug in and found another balloon store in Gary, Indiana. We got the balloons there on time. I was so happy the team was able to come together to get the job done!"
(Basically, craft a story based on your personal experience that involves suffering. State clearly what the goal was and what steps you took to achieve it. Add emotions. Have one or two of these stories on hand at all times and modify them up according to how the question is asked.)
“How many gas stations are in the US?”
"What an interesting question! I really don’t know the answer to it, but I could research it and get back to you."
(If you’re asked a question that involves some kind of calculation and has nothing to do with you, the interviewer, or the job, the best response is to compliment the interviewer on offering such an interesting and intriguing question, then say “I don’t know.” Explain how you would go about getting the answer. Offer to research the answer and get back to her or him. Whatever you do, don’t guess.)
Rote questions deserve rote answers. If you prepare your own 5-6 sentence response to each of the questions above and practice them until they sound completely fluid and natural, you can walk into any office with style and confidence and interview for literally hundreds of jobs.
And you probably won’t get hired for any of them.
This is because none of these questions address The One Question That Matters.
The One Question That Matters
Before I say what The Question is, let me pose three scenarios:
*You are sitting at home when your kitchen sink springs a leak that you can’t fix. You reach for the phone book and call a plumber. When the plumber arrives you ask “Before you get started, could you tell me where you see yourself in five years?”
*Your 1987 Impala has finally bit the dust. You call a tow truck to haul it away to be recycled. Before turning the keys over to the driver you ask “Could you describe to me what your biggest flaws are?”
*You and your family are taking a trip by airplane. You are all a little nervous, as many people are when flying. To assuage your fears to walk up to the pilot and ask him “How many crosswalks are in New York City?”
I would guess that most people who read these scenarios would think they’re pretty illogical, maybe even stupid. And they would be right. But why? Mainly because these questions don’t address one huge piece of information, which is this:
“Can you do this job?”
It’s a straightforward question. Some might say it’s blindingly obvious. And yet it’s amazing how often this question is NOT asked by interviewers who instead waste everyone’s time with beauty pageant, talk show, or trivia questions.
A company is in good shape if they have an interviewer who knows how to cut through the crap about 5-year plans and fundamental personality flaws and focuses on the one thing that really matters – the job they are trying to fill. As a job applicant, the more time you and the person interviewing you spend discussing THIS question, the greater the chances are that you are being seriously considered for the position.
The Question Before the Question
Before you can provide an answer to The One Question That Matters, you have to answer another question:
“What IS the job you are applying for?”
This should be another obvious nugget of information to focus on, but it’s amazing how many job applicants (myself included) have walked into interviews having no idea what specific day-to-day activities the job they are interviewing for involve.
It’s even more disconcerting how many HR professionals and hiring decision-makers also don’t know all that much about the jobs they're trying to fill, especially at large corporations where they may be isolated from day-to-day operations.
Generally, what happens is the HR rep brings in candidates who look “okay” on paper, hands the decision-maker the candidates' credentials hours or minutes before the interview, and when the interviewer figures out the candidate isn't right for the position, they fall back on the beauty pageant, talk show, or trivia questions in order to kill time.
Job board descriptions and want-ads tend to contribute to the lack of information about jobs. Cutting down words that describe a position saves money, but doesn't help to give a good picture of what a job actually involves. And, as a job seeker, if you don’t really know what the job is, how can you be expected to convince anyone you are the one who should do it?
It’s not like this for all industries, especially ones with jobs that produce tangible outputs that can be traced back to a specific person. It’s relatively easy to judge if a person is a good plumber, doctor, race car driver, fruit picker, or chef. But many jobs today are not as cut-and-dried.
In jobs that don’t use or require testing or certification, it’s easy for interviewers to fall back on that one short, formal meeting to figure out who is qualified, obscuring the fact that the only way you’re really going to get to know somebody is to work with them on a regular basis. In this type of environment, your chances of getting a job are at best random.
In order to better your odds by spending less time on extraneous chatter and more time getting hired, job candidates should do the following BEFORE an interview:
1. Find out specifically what the job you are interviewing for involves. Do your research by asking the hiring manager, the person who will be interviewing you, or the person who makes the hiring decision. A pre-screen phone call with one of these people, in addition to opening lines of communication prior to your meeting, is a great way to find out beforehand if you are qualified for what they are looking for, or if the job is something you would even want to do.
2. Prepare answers to questions that can prove you can do the job. Include references, completed working materials from other jobs, and other forms of objective proof that you are one who can complete the tasks the company needs doing. Delete the “generic resumé” from your files. Every resumé you send out should be specific to the company you are meeting with and tailored to the job you are trying to get.
3. Practice your answers to the irrelevant interview questions, but in ways that bring the conversation back to The One Question That Matters. If your interviewer insists on dwelling on beauty pageant, talk show, or trivia questions, find a way to politely but firmly let them know that you prefer to talk about the job.
The more you know about the job you’re applying for and your ability to do that job, the better off you’ll be in the jungle that is today’s job market. Happy hunting!
(Check out my blog Work Is Life. for more information about jobs, careers, and finding your life's calling.)