The Biggest Mistake Job Interviewers Make

Oct 9 2015

Over my tenure in the tech industry, I have interviewed probably hundreds of job candidates. From small companies like Palantir and Revolv, to large companies like HP, About.Com, and Google, I've sat on the judging side of the table.

Surprisingly, interviewers (including me) tend to make the same mistake over and over. And the mistake is forgetting which person at the table is the important one.

Before you roll your eyes and mentally recount the story of "that arrogant jerk" with whom you interviewed, read on. Arrogance may not be the way this problem shows itself. Your biggest problem may be selflessness.

A-grade People

One of my all time favorite hiring quips goes like this:

A-grade people hire A-grade people. B-grade people hire C-grade people.†

Initially this sounds declarative: If you happen to be an A-grade person, you'll just automatically hire good people. It's also a good reminder to to keep your own hiring standards up. (After all, if you are the one to hire the B, you've started the downward spiral.)

But this aphorism is aspirational: If I want to be an A-grade person, it is my responsibility to hire only A-grade people. And that means developing a skill set designed to identify those people.

There are two things about myself that often prevent me from honestly and accurately identifying those people.

Don't Be Selfish

It's easy to understand the perspective of the B-grade person. These inverviewers play to their own best interests and making no attempt to fight off their cognitive biases.

The B-grade person is asking this question: Would hiring this candidate be in my personal best interest? Now, to some extent, this question is helpful. We should hire people who will make the overall job easier, who will not nag or annoy us, and who we will get along with.

But this perspective becomes noxious when it hits the baser of human instinct:

  • Will this person make me look good?
  • Will I end up having to compete with this person for promotions or recognition?
  • What if (gasp!) this person is smarter than me?

When we ask the question based on self-interest, we've started down the B-grade path. In your role as interviewer, you are obligated to answer this question: Is this person sitting across the table from me the best fit for the organization?

Don't Be Selfless

The first problem is easy to understand. And it's easy for us to at least pretend that we're above it. But the second problem is disguised as a virtue.

The other day I was chatting with a colleague and friend about interviewing. We were talking about some of the toughest parts of interviewer--figuring out what technical questions to ask, guaging fit, and so on--when he said to me, "When I interview, sometimes I'm guilty of being too nice." As he unpacked this, I understood.

As I mentioned above, interviewing is searching for the answer to one important question: Is there a match between the organization and the interviewee?

But sometimes, often out of a cultivated desire to be selfless, we subtly alter the question: Could this organization be the right fit for this person? Or even, could I be the right colleague for this person?

This mental shift changes our course of inquiry:

  • Could I alter my work style to accomodate this person's needs or desires?
  • Could our team adapt to this person's style?
  • Are this person's flaws really so bad that we couldn't get along?
  • Is this an opportunity for me (or us) to mentor someone into good habits?

As the interviewer, your obligation to your employer is to hire the best person for the job. When you take the "selfless" approach, you have shifted focus from filling that obligation to thinking about yourself: How could I help this person? While this is a positive and well-meaning question, you have still betrayed your obligation to your employer. Consequently, it is actually unethical to interview this way.

(Furthermore, when you begin asking "could the team accomodate...", you are volunteering others for "acts of heroism." This is also wrong.)

It's Not About Skill

The immediate objection to the above goes something like this: "You're saying that we should only hire people who already have the skills for the job because we only want people who are already a fit. What about people that we could develop?"

I'm not talking about knowledge or skills. I'm talking about something deeper. Don't hire based on knowledge, hire based on character and capacity.

  • Character has to do with personality. You want to hire people who are a good culture fit, who have the right values, and who will contribute positively to the team's well-being.
  • Capacity has to do with intellect. You want to hire people who will be able to rise to the challenges of the job. You are looking for the ability to acquire, master, and utilize knowledge.

When you find yourself mentally accomodating a candidates lack of character or capacity, you've just dropped your A-game. You're a B-player interviewing a C-player.

The biggest mistake we, as interviewers, make is changing focus from the person at the other end of the table back to ourselves. Your obligation, first and foremost, is to find the person who is the best fit for your organization. When you live up to that, you're A-grade. And when you live up to that, you will hire A-grades.

† I think this was coined by Bill Hybels, founder of the Global Leadership Summit and also of Willow Creek Community Church.

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