How to Get Job Candidates to Drop the Canned Answers and Open Up

Conference speaker offers tips for assessing applicants’ motivation and passion

By Dana Wilkie Apr 25, 2017
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CHICAGO—Carol Quinn is convinced there's a widespread conspiracy afoot in the world of job interviewing.

Many interviewers' questions are so benign, she says—so accommodating—that there must be a posse of job seekers out there writing these queries themselves.

Quinn is joking, of course, but she made her point during a concurrent session at the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Talent Management Conference & Exposition. And her point is this: Because too many hiring managers lack formal training on conducting job interviews, applicants can easily conceal a lack of motivation or passion that might prevent them from succeeding at a job.

"The job seeker's purpose is to get a job offer," Quinn told conference attendees. She is CEO of Conyers, Ga.-based Hire Authority, which helps companies improve their interviewing and hiring. "They accentuate the positive, minimize the negative. They sell, sell, sell. Job candidates have become proficient at how to conduct an interview. But the interviewer's skill level" is lacking. "Do you see this uneven playing field we've created?"

Quinn said her experience convinces her that many interviewers focus too much on the skills required to do a job, rather than other key attributes.

"We think skill level will equate to job performance," she said. "That rules out people who are unskilled, or under-skilled, who you could train, and they would turn out to be great employees."

Instead, Quinn said, managers need to get the candidate to relax and open up, then frame their questions carefully so they can ascertain whether an applicant also has the motivation and the passion for a job.

Start with Chit-Chat

At the start of the interview, she said, it's important to make small talk.

"Get their guard down," Quinn said. "Offer them a beverage. Listen to them. Chit chat. Smile. Create an environment in which people start to talk. You get them talking and sharing, and maybe you get information."

Quinn said many managers tend to rely on what she called "behavior-based" interviewing, which includes questions that set the applicant up for success and don't challenge him.

For instance, if a manager wants to assess how motivated a candidate is, she said, a behavior-based approach might be to ask: "Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond to satisfy a customer."

"What kind of answer are they going to give?" Quinn asked. "I've given them an opportunity to brag about something. I've asked for happy-ending success stories."

Instead, she suggested using what she calls a "motivation-based" approach to interviewing. For instance, ask the candidate to describe how he handled an irate customer.

"This time, we put in an obstacle," she said. "This … can reveal whether someone is self-motivated."

Motivation-based interviewing, she said, takes an applicant's skills into account, but goes further by trying to gauge the candidate's attitude and passions—traits common to high performers.

"Employers can't change a person's attitude," she said. "Eighty percent of one's attitude is [set] by age 7."

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

When trying to assess a candidate's strengths and weaknesses, she said, a behavior-based interviewer asks the applicant to list some weaknesses. The answer to the question is unlikely to give the interviewer much information, she said, because most applicants will give banal responses like "I work too hard," or "I care too much."

Instead, she suggested, ask the candidate to describe the two areas on his last performance evaluation where he scored the lowest.

"When you ask them for something's that's been documented, there's a difference in how they answer," she said.

And no matter how a candidate answers a questions, she warned, "even if it's a shocker, I want you to smile and nod."

"The fastest way to clam up [an applicant] is to show negative judgment to one of their answers," she said. "They will adjust, amend and change their answers based on your reaction. If you relate to a complainer, what do they do? They complain more. You want the [potential] bad hires to be running their mouths during the interview process."

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