How to Smoke Out Impostors in Job Interviews

by on October 11, 2011 · 2 Comments POSTED IN: Sample Management Training Videos

Video Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to this Quick Take rapid learning module, which is part of our Leadership Development Program. Our topic today, How to Smoke Out Impostors in Job Interviews.

Great managers hire the right people. That sounds simple in theory but is difficult in practice. First, many job candidates are remarkably good at persuading hiring managers that they can do things they can’t. What’s more, hiring managers often don’t realize how their emotions and personal biases can affect their choices. And, finally, it’s hard WORK to hire the right people, and hiring managers sometimes take shortcuts that lead to mistakes.

The cost of bad hires is staggering. Most obvious are the hard losses – the ads, the interviews, the training, the lost productivity, the opportunity cost, etc. Not so obvious is the damage you do to your credibility as a manager when you repeatedly make hiring mistakes. Your bosses and employees pay closer attention to your success rate than you might think.

In this Quick Take you will learn:

The most dangerous attitude a hiring manager can possibly bring to an interview, the preparation oversight that gives Impostors an opening, and two proven questioning techniques that will expose Impostors every time.

First, let’s describe an Impostor. Impostors are almost never bad people. Most are good citizens with 2.2 adorable children and a cute, cuddly dog. They believe most everything they say to you. What they tell you is wrong – dead wrong – but they’re not liars. They simply lack self-knowledge. And that’s a huge problem – for YOU!

Let’s say a headhunter sends you Richard, a candidate for the IT Infrastructure Manager position you need to fill. You’ve been looking for months. Your company has endured endless aggravation because your customer data resides in four separate databases. Your CEO has been pushing you to find someone with the expertise to integrate them into a single database.

And now, finally, a KILLER resume. The recruiter tells you he’s rarely seen anyone so smart and polished.

But let’s stop for moment and ask a question: “At this point in the process, what’s the BIGGEST danger you face as an interviewer?” Is it that you lack the skills to interview Richard effectively? No. Is it that the recruiter is biased and oversold the candidate? No.

Your greatest danger is that your impatience and frustration could rush you into a bad decision. A heightened sense of urgency can make you feel you must find a candidate – ANY candidate! – to fill the IT job right now. That’s the most dangerous attitude you could bring to your interview with Richard. On paper he seems perfect, and a part of you wants to keep it that way. You don’t want to ask tough questions and trip him up. Because if you do, you’ll have to START ALL OVER AGAIN with another candidate.

Let’s begin our interview with Richard. He’s poised, well-spoken and intelligent. He’s also likeable, but you know better than to let that affect you. You’re prepared to scrutinize Richard carefully to make sure he’s for real. So you start off by reviewing the job requirements. Let’s look at three ways you might do it:

Wrong way #1. “We’re looking for a person with a Masters degree in IT who has at least five years of experience building and integrating databases.”

The qualifications listed are all INPUTS to the job. The world is full of people who have the right inputs but who couldn’t do the job.

Wrong way #2. “We need someone who can lead our IT infrastructure department. Our ideal candidate has taken leadership training courses and has utilized those skills leading complex data integration projects.”

Lots of people who have leadership skills or believe they’ve overseen “complex” data projects, but they may not have a clue how to integrate four massive databases.

The right way. “We need a person who was primarily accountable for successfully planning and executing a project to combine many large databases into one.”

This describes the OUTCOME that you want – successful integration of your databases. And you’re making it clear you don’t believe a candidate could pull if off if he or she hadn’t been PRIMARILY accountable for successfully doing precisely that task in the past.

That’s the most common preparation oversight that allows Impostors to slip through your net – failing to identify the OUTCOMES you want from the job. Think about it. If Richard is an Impostor, he’s delighted that you’d frame the job in terms of inputs like education and years of experience. He’s got those in spades. He’s also happy to talk about his leadership skills because he’s led all sorts of IT projects that had nothing to do with integrating databases. And if you’re willing to ignore the fact that the complexity of the task you need done would bury him, he’s fine with it too because he believes – falsely – that he’s smart enough to figure it out on your nickel.

Impostors are perplexed when you carefully prepare a description of the job in terms of outcomes. If Richard’s for real, he’ll be eager to tell you all about the time his boss gave him primary accountability for integrating databases, and what a joy it was to successfully achieve that goal. If Richard’s an Impostor, he’ll know he’s in for a rough day.

To expose Impostors, you need to dig on two levels:

At LEVEL 1 you want to answer this question: “In his or her last job, did this candidate actually have PRIMARY accountability for accomplishing the tasks I need done? Impostors will often tell you they did when in fact they didn’t. Some people who participated on a team that accomplished a goal are capable of leading a similar project, but most aren’t. For this job — integrating databases — you need to find out whether your candidate has already LED a successful integration.

To do so, use the “Accountability Drill Down” questioning technique, which will get you the result you need with four or five questions.

Let’s see how it works:

YOU: Have you led a project to integrate databases?
RICHARD: Yes, when I worked for Datacorp I worked on a project to consolidate databases for four separate products lines into a single database.
YOU: Did you “work on” the project or lead it?
RICHARD: I had a leadership role.
YOU: Who was your boss at the time?
RICHARD: Al Jenkins.
YOU: Did he work on the project?
RICHARD: Yes.
YOU: So, he had primary accountability, right?
RICHARD: Technically, yes.

So, with five probing questions the interviewer determined that Richard did NOT lead the project. His boss had primary accountability.

Does that means Richard is toast? Not necessarily. He may be a rare individual who “played a leadership role” as his boss’s point man. He may REALLY understand the staggering complexity of integrating databases. And he may be ready to step into the job you’re offering. But you’ve got more work to do.

To find out whether Richard’s for real, you go to LEVEL 2, where you seek to find out, Can this candidate actually DO the job? You need to think through carefully what knowledge and skills the job requires, then come up with questions that an Impostor will not be able to answer convincingly.

To do this, use the “Knowledge Drill Down” technique. In your interview with Richard, you decide to burrow in on three key areas that are critical to integrating data. Here goes:

YOU: Were you responsible for table definitions, data modeling and normalization?
RICHARD: Yes.
YOU: Can you tell me about the process you used to do each of these?
RICHARD: Well, some of it was done already, but I just added to it.
YOU: Could you explain what you added?
RICHARD: Um, boy, that was a while ago. I can’t recall.
YOU: Do you think it’s sufficient to normalize a database up to Third Normal Form, or “3NF”?
RICHARD: Er, yes, I’m pretty sure it is.
YOU: Can you think of an example when a 3NF table does not meet the requirements of Boyce-Codd normal form?
RICHARD: Hmmm, I’m not sure I can answer that.
YOU: Richard, do you really think you’re the right person for this job?
RICHARD: Probably not.

Of course this example is simplified, but it demonstrates the point. It took the interviewer five razor sharp questions to reveal that Richard hadn’t been the project leader and has never wrestled with the complex decisions you face. That’s why he froze when asked to describe the PROCESS. “Process” is the key in Knowledge Drill Down interviews. Impostors often understand terminology and can speak conceptually. They can fake it if your questions are too general. But they can’t fake it if you come prepared with questions that drill for specifics. Be relentless in your pursuit of convincing details and clarifications that describe the PROCESSES the candidate went through to accomplish tasks or goals. “Process questions” will trip up an Impostor every time.

Let’s sum up what we learned:

1. Being over-eager to fill a position can cloud your judgment and allow an Impostor to slip through your net. Be aware of your emotions and don’t let it happen.
2. Frame all jobs in terms of outcomes, not inputs.
3. Prepare extensively before interviews so you can conduct effective “Accountability Drill Down” and “Knowledge Drill Down” interviews that will tell you whether a person can truly achieve the outcomes you defined for the job.

One last thing. We’d really appreciate it you’d take 15 seconds to fill out a quick survey giving us your feedback on this Quick Take.

Thanks for listening.

2 Comments on This Post

  1. Velma Laws
    March 7, 2012 - 2:32 pm

    This was very informative.  It is rare to have something so useful be so accessible.  Thanks.

  2. Jean Ann Bilka
    March 9, 2012 - 6:18 pm

    Thank you, I found this to be very helpful and I will definately improve my drill down questions.

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