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Interviewing, Job Hunt, Management Theory

Interviewer Tips: Don’t ask about the exes

For everyone that doesn’t know, I’m currently what they alternatively call “on a sabbatical,” “between opportunities,” or “unemployed” depending on whether you are talking to your wealthy family members, your six-figure salary friends who somehow still look fabulous, or the government agency sending you a check every week.  It’s not an unfamiliar state to find myself inhabiting, but there are a few differences.  I’ve been “asked to leave” several times in my past and honestly it doesn’t bother me one bit.  The reasons some one might leave a job unwillingly are really too numerous to worry over and every situation is unique, which is why I’ve never asked that question of anyone during an interview.  I feel as though its dirty pool.  I mean seriously, if you were out on a date with some one you found attractive who seemed interested in the same things about which you felt passionately and looked like they might feel the same way about you … would you honestly just inject the following question into the conversation, “So tell me why you left your last boyfriend/girlfriend?”  I suppose the only worse question would be, “So have you ever been dumped?  And if so, please tell me the gory details so I can listen for anything that reminds me of a past bad relationship in order to help me decide if I should just walk away now.”  Having spent an inordinate amount of time on the “dating scene” I can say with some assurance a really good person would usually get up and walk out the door at that time, unless they were desperate.  Unfortunately this is where the dating metaphor breaks down as most of us out there looking have become so inured to bad dates/interviews we no longer expect anything less.  Having our partner on the interview ask us the dating equivalent of asking if we’ve ever posed for a racy magazine spread just seems natural by stint of it being asked so often.

Questions like these are artless dodges used to hedge your bets when deciding whether or not to make a commitment.  First of all, the only people who will give glowing answers are either lying or are so professionally meek as to never have worked in a poorly managed company, come into conflict with an egotistical tyrant, or taken a chance on a company that might or might not be able to make payroll in six months.  Chances are better you are dealing with a liar if they just breeze through this question and don’t respond with anything that sets off your alarm bells.  Unfortunately my personal opinion is it really doesn’t matter to you whether they lie or not.  The answer gives you what is termed as plausible deniability and frees you from the more odious task of actually checking into some one’s background.  Actually looking into some one’s background to verify their claims is work, work which most of us looking to fill a personnel gap can’t usually afford to perform.  Unfortunately its essential to our task.  Most people conducting interviews are not given any training or instruction even about the legality of certain questions or topics.  It’s difficult to imagine such people being aware of the process for checking references and employment history.  In this absence of knowledge about the process coupled with a lack of training about actually effective techniques, most interviewers muddle their way through the process spending as much time covering their own culpability (consciously or unconsciously) as they do actually figuring out useful things like character fit, personality, and professional ethics.

I’ve been there, trust me.  It’s difficult to trust your instincts.  Its work to actively interview a candidate rather than simply work through a script containing predetermined questions with objective or subjective scoring values.  But if you want to actually delve into the character and personality of a possible member of your team, you must break away from standardized interviewing questions and start engaging in conversations.  If you steer the conversation correctly, you should be able to chat about past work and team conflict in a more natural (and thereby truthful) manner than an outright question and answer interview.  This directed conversation will usually spark points you need to make a note to follow up on later either by directing asking the interviewee or by your own research.

So how do we work at uncovering the information important to our decision making process without outright asking the interviewee this ensuring at least some sort of obfuscation?  I’ve found the tips recommended by advocates of active listening to be invaluable.  In order to avoid my usual chapter length blog post, I’ll just sum up the primary point of active listening.  Actually pay attention to the whole message a person is conveying rather than simply listening for certain words or phrases.  You need to engage the person in the interview by asking follow up questions that relate in some reasonable manner to the points they were making.  Simply saying, “Hmm … that’s interesting.  Now let me toss out a very awkward segue into a marginally related question I have on my checklist to ask” doesn’t cut it.  At that point the engaged and passionate candidate with superb qualifications and other options will simply shut down and go through the motions as well.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve actually called an end to the interview after only a quarter of the time because the recruiter to whom I was talking appeared more interested in their instant messages and emails than talking to me.  If that recruiter had seemed interested in what I had to say, who knows where the process might have proceeded?  I may actually have found a great job with a passionate and innovative team.  The team would have gained an experienced and passionate member excited about the opportunities stretching before them.

Of course we’ll never know now.

So how do you use active listening to figure out if the person interviewing to join your company/team/dungeon party is lying out of their eye teeth or is quite possibly insane?  It’s simple to say but takes dedication to the process.  First off, find out as much as you can about the pre and post screening processes.  Identify who will be following up on reference checks or if anyone follows up on them.  Who is expected to verify employment history or education background?  Finally is there a process in place for handling verbal consent to check statements made during an interview.  This last part is crucial.  Active listening often reveals persons not listed on an official reference list.  A simple curious question about contacting said person will often result in verbal consent.  This person and the subject should go on a list you compile immediately following the interview.  Your list should map out your impressions of the candidate as well as topics you’d like some one to follow up on later.  Any tickling at your instincts should be jotted down and used in either further interviews or as part of a reference check.  It’s a pain and takes time you don’t have, but its essential to actually selecting a good candidate rather than simply covering yourself in case the candidate that looks good on paper turns out to have anger management issues.

If it helps, think of the follow up as second or third dates and the reference check as meeting the friends and relatives.  Hopefully you wouldn’t rush into a committed romantic relationship without meeting the important people in this person’s past to get a better idea of who they are.  Why would you hire some one and spend at least 40 hours a week with them based on less?


About cowboytesting

Hi. My name is Curtis S, and I'm a tester.


One thought on “Interviewer Tips: Don’t ask about the exes

  1. Talking about the dating analogy, even worst is the blind date, i.e. you are successful in all your interviews, you get hired and it turns our your manager (which was never in on even one of the interviews) is less than upstanding. Perhaps you would never have taken the job is you have a change to meet the person in the first place, and would have kindly declined.

    Best advice is to immediately ask if your line manager is on the interview panel. If not, perhaps there is a reason why the ugly sister hides in the kitchen.


    Posted by Survivor | June 24, 2010, 2:29 pm

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