Keil Hubert: The Cavalier Approach to Interviewing

Do you feel like you’ve wasted your time when you walk out of a job interview? Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that you probably did, and suggests that both interviewer and interviewee need to change their approach to interviewing.

Let me start this column with stories from some of the most memorable interview boards that I’ve ever encountered. This will all make sense in a moment.

In the first, I was hiring a new wireless technologies tech for the IT department. One of the applicants had an impressive vocational history. He held all the necessary technical qualifications and had experience doing the work. Something about the fellow seemed … off … He radiated a low level of hostility that struck everyone on the panel as odd. After a half-dozen basic technical questions, I surprised the fellow by asking ‘So, explain to me me why you actually want this job?’ Without hesitation, the fellow blurted out this exact quote: ‘I used to work there, and those people treated me badly, so now I want to come back and get my revenge.’ I thanked him for his candour and went on to the next question.

Many years later, I was asked to sit a panel for an HR lead. One of the applicants was technically qualified (right school, right programme) but seemed ill at ease throughout the start of his interview. After we asked the applicant a very blasé question about his current duties and responsibilities, the applicant inferred that he was dissatisfied with his current employer. The board president wisely put his pen down and turned over the interview form, looked the fellow in the eyes, and asked, ‘What’s bothering you, son? I can tell that you’re really upset about something. Be frank with us.’ The young man was sceptical at first; once he understood that we were genuinely interested in his answer, he broke down. We learned that his application to work for us was actually a desperate bid to escape what he perceived to be a terrible working environment, that he’d been the victim of a bait-and-switch hire, and that he felt like he had no hope left of succeeding in his chosen career. The board president immediately terminated the formal interview – and invested the rest of the man’s scheduled hour in coaching him on where to go, who to see, and how to present himself in order to get the job he really wanted.

If these two stories sound like amusing horror stories from the HR vault, you’ve missed the point. These were highly successful personnel interviews. In each example, we discovered that the applicant was not a good fit for our organization, and that hiring them would have led to far too much disruptive drama in the workplace. Had the interview board members stuck rigidly to the standard interview script, we wouldn’t have known that the applicants were unsuitable. It was only when the board sensed that something was wrong and then deliberately went off-script in order to learn what was wrong and why that the truth came out. That, I believe, is exactly what the interview process is supposed to accomplish.

A third example from the other side of the interview table: I’d arrived early for an interview with a prestigious hospital. While the CTO tried to round up his three directors to conduct the interview, he asked me to wait in his secretary’s office. Once the players were assembled and we started the first round of talks, I asked my interviewer to tell me about his professional background. He did so … and once I learned that he was a former squaddie (like me), I went on the attack. ‘We come from the same place, you and I,’ I said. ‘So I know that you’re intimately familiar with information security doctrine. Why, then, did y’all leave me alone in your executive’s suite for twenty minutes with an unlocked network PC, a confidential org chart, and a printed copy of your restricted employee directory? I had more than enough time to compromise those elements. Should I interpret this as an accurate reflection of your organization’s information security policy? Or do you consider it an aberrant departure from policy?’ The shocked director looked around, nudged the door closed, and admitted (with no small measure of relief), that I’d spotted exactly the problem that they needed solved. That lapse in basic security awareness was why they were looking to hire a fourth director for a new IT services business unit.

Had I not been direct and truthful with that interviewer, I wouldn’t have found out what they were really looking for; the questions he’d written down to ask all candidates were all generic, stock queries about technical skills and background. At no point in the interview did he plan to get to the meat of the issue: would I be able to understand and fix their most vexing issue. By seizing the initiative, we managed to turn a fruitless conversation into a very productive discussion.

Do you see the pattern here?

Last week, I wrote about a particularly difficult job interview question that tends to trip people up – and when I said ‘people,’ I meant both interviewees and interviewers. I contended that the question that’s asked tells you more about the person asking the question than the answer tells you about the person answering. Usually, that’s because the person being interviewed has a pre-generated answer ready for all of the most common interview questions. Which question gets asked illustrates how sophisticated and competent the interviewer is, even though the answer is often meaningless. It’s whatever the so-called Human Resources ‘experts’ decreed was the ‘right’ answer to a stock question, not what the person being interviewed actually believes.

According to every job-hunting expert that I’ve ever encountered, that’s as it should be – an interview works best (the experts say) when it’s a one-way process of discovery for the hiring manager alone. Interviews, they say, are supposed to be an interrogation rather than a conversation. That’s why most interviews, in my opinion, are a waste of time for everyone involved. A scripted interrogation may get you the answer that you want and expect, but it rarely gets you the information that you need.

I’ve been hiring people as a selecting official and as a supporting panel member for fifteen years. I’ve been interviewing for positions for ten additional years. In my experience, most interviews fail to achieve their purported primary objective when they interview: they don’t determine whether or not the job applicant will be an optimal hire. Instead, most interviews are ritual dances where each side pretends to be something or someone that they’re not in order to get through the unpleasant meeting as quickly as possible so that the actual hiring decision can be retroactively justified based on a selection that was made long before the candidates were ever seen.

When it comes to routine personnel interviews, I’m not a fan. Am I cynical? Yes. Dispirited? Not at all! Quite the contrary … I relish the opportunity to turn an interrogation into a meaningful discussion. All it takes to snatch victory from the jowls of indifference is some deductive reasoning, some active listening, and the willingness to engage in a little swashbuckling.

Here’s the thing … As a job seeker, I’ve slogged through many interviews where it was clear from the opening greeting that the entire process was a sham; the interview board had zero interest in learning anything about me, my qualifications, or my fitness for the open position. Those interviews were, in some ways, the most liberating because I had absolutely nothing to lose. After all, you can’t lose a job that you were never going to be offered. Therefore, there’s no practical reason not to have some fun with it.

I’ve been through many more interviews where the person or people doing the interviewing had absolutely no idea how to play their role. They had no clue what the position they were hiring for actually did. They didn’t know what questions to ask in order to assess my qualifications. They couldn’t have interpreted the ‘right’ answer under any circumstances. Those interviews were excruciating, since I could have lost the job … but I probably didn’t want it, because accepting such a position would mean that I was likely going to go to work for an idiot.

Finally, there are those tedious technical interviews that plague all of us in the IT sphere. Odds are, you’ve all endured one of these, too: the interviewer asks a battery of questions that each have one engineering answer. Each challenge is a simple binary query. Even if there are multiple ways to reach the desired end-state, the interviewer has their chosen method and no other method will do. You either know the textbook answer or you don’t, and neither answer actually tells the interviewer anything at all about you, your experience, your fitness for the position, or the value you bring to the table. I’ve found that most technical interviews are a bloody useless waste of everyone’s time. [1]

I’m saying this because I hate having my time wasted. I would much rather have the hiring agent tell me at the beginning of the interview process that they don’t perceive me as a good fit and that I won’t be considered. Yes, I’ve had this happen. Yes, I really do appreciate it when it happens. It’s even better when the hiring agent takes the time to explain to me why they believe I’m not a fit. Right or wrong, the feedback that I get helps me to either correct my approach, or teaches me something significant about the organization.

That’s one of my critical objectives when I interview: I want to know who I’m likely to work with, for the decision I’ll have to make if they offer me the position and if I accept. I want a reasonable assurance that I know what I’m getting myself into. I also want to know what the job that I’m interviewing for actually is; in most instances, the job that was advertised has little (if anything) to do with the actual position. Finally, I want to gauge the sophistication of the people I’ll be working with … or for.

The same objectives hold true when I’m on the other side of the table. When people interview with me for a job, I want to determine whether or not they’re a good fit for my organization.  I also want the applicant to know whether or not they’re a good fit, and why we each feel that way. I aska lot of challenging questions and use unorthodox techniques to get inside a candidate’s headspecifically in order to learn things about each person that a pedestrian interview simply can’t reveal. I also build time into the interview process to go over with the applicant what the position actually entails, what the people on the team are likewhat the operating culture is like, and how we function in and out of the workplace. I want the lad or lass on the other side of the table to know what we’re all about, so that they can make an informed decision about whether they want to be one of us – and that goes for all of the applicants, not just the one we’re most taken by.

With all this said, I’ve determined that the classic interview process is a useless farce. It’s weak theatre. It’s a primary school interpretation of Cats, played out in neckties. Neither the interviewer nor the interviewed will accomplish their objectives by sitting around a table and asking meaningless questions like ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ Still, companies the world order carry on with this counter-productive process because most of them simply don’t know any better – after all, you can’t emulate a best-practice that you’ve never seen any more than you can win the Cliburn if you’ve never tried to play the piano.

In the same vein, job applicants slog through bad interviews, one after another, using the same tired and useless approach because they don’t know that they have better ways to go about it. They march into a room full of strangers with a head full of pre-written responses to a finite list of stock questions, prepared to respond to interviewer inputs like a minor non-player character in a video game. They get disappointed and confused, when they should be getting critical information and making a strong, positive impression.

Yes, I realize that many HR ‘experts’ frown on the techniques that I advocate. With respect, I understand the core of their argument behind why they believe that it’s critical to conform to the standard script when attempting to secure a position with people that don’t know you. Many of these experts treat job interviews like they’re a Viennese Waltzif you demonstrate that you can follow the interviewer’s lead without missing a step, then they’ll be favourably inclined to offer you a second dance, and the job offer only comes after several perfectly-executed waltzes. If you accept the HR experts’ model for the interviewing process, your best tactic is to be the perfect submissive partner: react predictably when prompted, and refrain from making any moves that the dominant partner didn’t expect you to make.

That’s a perfect protocol for landing a job as an assembly-line robot. Oddly enough, I’ve never once sought a job as a robot, and have never tried to hire for a robot’s position. I want to work in a place and with people that creatively solve complex business problems for the betterment of customers, stakeholders and regulators. An objective like that requires a great depth of people skills; nowhere in my perspective do I expect people to listlessly and robotically answer rote queries with pre-recorded sound bites. If I wanted someone to do that in the workplace, I’d put Sirion the payroll.

We’re not going to fix the useless interview syndrome – from either side of the problem – until we change how we think about the entire process.

The mind-set that you take into the interview room is the most critical factor in making the interview a good investment or a waste of each side’s time. This holds true on both sides of the table. Both sides of the equation really want the same thing: for the applicant to be a strong fit for the open requirement in terms of culture, productivity, personality and goals. If everything comes together, the hirer and the hired both ‘win.’ If only one side is satisfied by the hiring action, then the interview was worse than a waste – hiring the wrong candidate puts a pause in the process of getting the employee that you actually need. Similarly, joining the wrong company delays you reaching the company that you really want to be a part of. For everyone’s sake, it’s critical to make sure that the decision to partner up is right for both sides of the encounter. That, in turn, requires you to get to know whom you’re squaring off against.

When I teach advanced interviewing skills to my people, I liken the interview process to a fencing match: it’s not meant to be a one-way exchange. In interviewing, like fencing, each swordsman has to rapidly assess his opponent’s skill, fighting style, handedness, vision cone, balance, reach and reflexes. Once you get a bead on your opponent, you then have to craft an offensive and defensive strategy that allows you to employ your strengths against your opponent’s vulnerabilities, and to deny your opponent opportunities to exploit your weaknesses or to lead with their strengths. All of this has to be inferred through a shrewd interpretation of each other’s opening moves and reactions.

Back when I was on my university’s fencing team, the start of every match with a stranger was a very still affair … for the first several seconds of each match. As an opening move, each fencer would wait to see what the other would lead with. Advances were tentative until one or the other fighter took a gamble on an attack strategy. Up until the first point was scored, most of the manoeuvres were often rudimentary – probes, intended not to hit, but to see how the other fellow would react. [2]

This was a great deal different from the matches that we fought against other members of the same team. When I fenced with my mates from the squad, we all knew each other’s preferred styles, weaknesses and reactions. Those bouts were a lot more exciting because we had to get wild and unpredictable in order to outfox each other. When you knew each other, you could be a lot more expressive. You could confidently try new things, because the other lad or lass already knew you and had accepted you – they wouldn’t spar with you if they didn’t consider you worthy.

As for outsiders and amateurs … we treated all of those bouts like we would a tournament match. A fellow stepped into the lane opposite and raised his blade. You had no idea what he was likely to do, how good he was, whether he had any sense of restraint, whether he even knew the rules of the sport, or if he cared about winning. That’s why every swordfight with a stranger required a bit of subtle back and forth to test one another’s mettle before committing to a course of action.

I believe strongly that the same principles apply when it comes to interviewing. No, you don’t get to stab the other fellow. You do, however, have the responsibility to give better than you get in each exchange. If you know the person opposite you, that’s great. Have a meaningful conversation. If you don’t know your opposite number, then the first order of business is to figure them out.

I submit that it’s the responsibility for each party to make a concerted effort to figure out as much as they can about who’s sitting opposite them over the interview table. If the necessary information isn’t coming through in the drone of hackneyed stock questions, then it becomes the responsibility of the underserved party to go on the offensive: draw verbal steel, and fight back! Get the information you need to make a sound and justifiable decision, even if it means you have to gamble on some swashbuckler-like conversational dodges, parries and counterattacks.

You have to engage your opponent with exploratory dialogue in order to see how they’ll react. You can also read their tone, body language, and response time. You can adjust your vocabulary and delivery to determine how sophisticated your dance partner is. You can challenge their questions before you answer them, both by asking for clarification, and by offering different lines of thought as possible points of divergence, and then asking which direction they’d prefer to go. You can introduce humour, take the discussion off-topic and even start interviewing the interviewer. [3]

That’s not as difficult as it sounds. Next week, I promise to get to some concrete question-and-answer examples that should illustrate what I’m trying to say. Please stay tuned.

[1] Many years ago, I did a bizarre phone interview with a FORTUNE 500 tech corporation that was 100% technical-binary. Their open req was for a project manager for client-side application delivery. The actual interview was nothing but chapter-end quizzes from the Microsoft TCP/IP Fundamentals book. I actually interrupted the so-called interviewer halfway in and asked why we were spending our time discussing frame headers when that information would never once be used on the job. The bored interviewer simply said that everyone joining their team had to be protocol expert no matter what their actual position was. I feel very sorry for their janitor.

[2] I preferred to fight sabre (rather than foil or épée). I also preferred offense to defence, and primarily used feints rather than lunges to score a clean hit. It’s all a matter of personal style. There were many opponents that I scrapped with who forced me to adopt very different tactics, since my preferred approach wouldn’t work against them.

[3] Twenty quid says that right now, somewhere in the world, there’s an HR manager going completely apoplectic over this advice.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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