Interviewing for IT jobs is tough enough, but it’s a lot tougher when you have no idea how to do it well. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert submit’s that it’s both quick and painless for leaders to help a candidate learn from their last interview attempt.
So far, my 2014 summer interviewing series has been focused on the virtues of transparency and honesty. In my opener, I propped that interviewers be honest about the business problems that they’re experiencing with job seekers. In my second piece, I suggested that interviewees be more pragmatic in discussing their needs and concerns. Then last week, I advocated for interviewees to be transparent about their financial concerns – and that interviewers embrace the discussion. My overall arc has been that mature, rational adults will benefit greatly from holding mature, rational conversations during the are-we-a-good-fit-for-one-another phase of hiring. Much grief can spared down the line by treating one another with the respect that professionals are due.
Changing gears slightly, there’s one more place where honesty and transparency are absolutely crucial for job seekers: post-rejection feedback. It rarely ever happens, and that infuriates me.
In the ten years that I spent as head of IT for one company, I hired (according to my notes) 266 people. When I was asked to take over hiring for a different line of business before I left the company, I hired 14 new employees in three months – and put another 18 into the hiring queue. I’ve done hundreds of informal recruiting interviews, and have chaired over 150 formal interview boards. The one recurring trend that I found in all of those Human Resources actions is that the vast majority of applicants (at/about 75 per cent) are simply unqualified, most of the rest are qualified but foul up their interviews (a/a 20 per cent), and the rest (five-ish per cent) are qualified, but got beat by someone just a smidgen better than they were. Using that back-of-the-napkin math, that means that 95 per cent of the people that I’ve discussed a job with could benefit from some coaching.
Every time I ended a formal interview session, I’d close the encounter by inviting the candidate to contact me after the selection process is over to get some in-depth feedback for their professional development. Only a small fraction (fewer than 10 per cent) ever took me up on it. At the end of every actor-driven practical exercise that I ran, I’d have my role players take the candidate outside and give them an immediate de-brief on their performance. In informal discussions, I’d give the person on-the-spot feedback on how to improve their pitch. Some people would bristle and reject the advice; most got over their surprise quickly and paid close attention.
I tend to go a long ways out of my way to offer practical, positive feedback to as many people as possible, because I want to see folks succeed. After all, the ambitious kid who tries and fails to make the cut today can swiftly grow up to be the stellar employee that you need tomorrow. Why not give them a hand up? Wouldn’t you want someone to extend that hand up to you?
Useful feedback is even more important for IT workers than it is for salespeople and other naturally outgoing folks; most of us tend to be introverted, and get uncomfortable in what feels like an interrogation.
We all have blind spots, bad habits, cognitive biases, and misconceptions that impede our performance when we interview. That’s human nature. That’s why there are so many companies out there offering books, videos, classes, and coaching on interviewing techniques. Job interviewing is half skill, half performance art; the only way to get brilliant at it is to practice it. My informal assessment suggests that most people will invest more time playing through one video game than they’ll invest in interview practice and actual interviewing over the course of their entire working lives.
To be clear, I believe strongly that it’s important to help people to succeed; I feel that it’s a moral imperative. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re my people yet or not. That’s my personal position, and I don’t see it reflected much in others. As a telling example, I’ve logged 40 interviews (as the candidate) over the last 16 months. At the end of every single interview, I’ve asked the person on the other side of the table for feedback and advice once the process was over – strictly for my own professional development. I’ve received that feedback exactly zero times in 16 months.
It’s bloody maddening; not just for the lost opportunity to improve, but because I know damned well that it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Set aside 15 minutes for a phone call, or meet up for a casual lunch. Bring a Non Disclosure Agreement form if you like – I’ll happily sign it. You only need to remember and discuss one thing about our encounter to make the counselling worthwhile for me. It takes so little an effort that there’s no reason on this earth to refuse to do it.
Yes, I realize that some HR departments are terrified of getting sued – if candidates discovered the real reasons that they’d lost out on a job (e.g. not a family member of one of the executives, et al), they’d be furious, and the exposure of that dastardly secret could cost the company in court, or it might just tarnish their brand. I get that. To clarify, I’m not asking for feedback onwhy I didn’t get the job because I know that 99 per cent of companies will never dare admit the real reasons why they didn’t select me. They can’t say that. I don’t expect them to. Instead, what I’m asking for is performance feedback on how to do better next time. That’s all.
I do this all the time with friends and business acquaintances. When asked, people with no stake in a particular job are great about pointing out my potential problem areas, ranging from hairstyle to presentation attitude. I appreciate my mates’ advice even if I think they’re full of it; at the end of the conversations, I’ve gained new information, and all information is potentially useful.
If you’re a hiring manager or an HR type and you’re still feeling faintly nauseous about the prospect of having to confront someone on their shortcomings, let me demonstrate how simple it can be – and how it’s a complete non-issue when done right:
For example: a mid-career technician competed for an entry-level management role with my department and did poorly in his interview. He came across as wooden, unmotivated, and inexperienced. When he took me up on my offer to receive feedback, I addressed each of his weaknesses:
‘First, it seemed like you were either nervous or distracted during the interview. Your answers were curt and lacked detail. You didn’t seem like you wanted to be here at all – there was no passion in any of your answers. Were you nervous?’
When the man sheepishly admitted that he’d been terrified, I continued: ‘That’s okay, and it’s easy to overcome. You need to practice interviewing. Get some friends together and go through the process of listening to and answering questions in a formal interview setting. Do the whole thing: interview suit, uncomfortable chair, stone-faced people staring at you, and so on. Invest about ten or twelve hours in practising giving your answers. Really! I know it sounds like a lot of work, but the more you do it, the more you’ll stop noticing the environment and the more you’ll find that you can concentrate on getting your message across.’
Once he understood, I went on: ‘When we asked you why you wanted to move into management, you were unconvincing. You didn’t say anything about wanting to help people or to improve people’s working conditions. You just said that you had lots of experience and that this was your natural next career step. That’s not compelling! When we hire managers, we want to make sure that the people we empower really care about the people they serve – yes, serve! We expect you to demonstrate loyalty to the people entrusted to your care, not just to the organization. We need to believe that you’re enthusiastic about people. Work on some stories about how you were able to use your leadership skills to help someone in need – let me see you beaming with pride for someone else’s success.’
That blew the young man’s mind; he admitted that he’d never once thought about bringing up all of the success stories that he had in his metaphorical kit bag. He thought he was supposed to only talk about himself.
Finally, I pointed out that he hadn’t ever once brought up any examples of prior leadership experience. ‘I’ll bet that you’ve run small shops before, even if was on an informal basis. Have you ever been part of a special project team? Or a committee? Do you volunteer for causes outside of work? Were you ever an athlete in your school days? Or a Boy Scout? It’s pretty darned likely that you’ve had more leadership experience in your life that you let on. Share those stories with us – you don’t have to have been the “guy in change” to have made a positive difference for other people or to have learned something about how to inspire and direct people. Talk to us; show us that you’re growing as a leader. Spark our interest.’
Before the young man left, I wrote down a list of book on leadership that I thought might help him wrap his head around some of the concepts. I also gave him a spare paperback copy of one book that I had in the office. The gentleman went away enthusiastic and cheerful. He was determined to come back and get the next job that we posted, because he really wanted to be part of a team where the leaders truly cared about their people – and their soon-to-be people.
It’s not that difficult. Just talk to people. Share a few observations or impressions with them that might help them to do better in the future. That’s all any of us are asking for: a fair, fighting chance. It can’t hurt you… and it might just secure you a ferociously loyal new employee a few postings down the line. It’ll certainly inspire a lot more strong candidates to apply to join your team once word gets around that you’re a great person to work for… and isn’t that the sort of professional relationship that you want?
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.