Smoking out Impostors in job interviews
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Smoking out Impostors in job interviews

Ever been really grilled in a job interview? Did it feel good? Or bad?

Fact is, if you’re the right person for a job, it usually feels great.

I can only recall one such interview in my career. I’d just moved to New York from San Diego and applied for a reporting job at Advertising Age magazine. The Editor asked me excruciatingly detailed questions about my reporting technique and my writing habits, and I recall having a blast in the interview. I’d just spent three years learning my craft under a very tough editor in San Diego, and I felt completely comfortable answering every question. I got the job.

That said, I’ve also had interviews in my career that made me very uncomfortable because I didn’t know what the heck I was talking about.

If you’re a hiring manager, I’d argue that one of the most important jobs you have is to make ill-suited candidates feel extremely uncomfortable. Why? Because you’re doing yourself — and them — a huge favor by smoking them out.

Problem is, many interviewers often get seduced by what we call “Impostors,” people who look good and speak well, but who have a superficial knowledge of the job in question, and who will fail miserably if you hire them.

We recommend a technique called “The Knowledge Drill-Down” to smoke out Impostors. It involves asking very specific questions that only a true expert can answer. Here’s an example of how an interview might apply it when hiring an IT person:

INTERVIEWER: Were you responsible for table definitions, data modeling and normalization?


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about the process you used to do each of these?

CANDIDATE: Well, some of it was done already, but I just added to it.

INTERVIEWER: Could you explain what you added?

CANDIDATE: Um, boy, that was a while ago. I can’t recall.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think it’s sufficient to normalize a database up to Third Normal Form, or “3NF”?

CANDIDATE: Er, yes, I’m pretty sure it is.

INTERVIEWER: Can you think of an example when a 3NF table does not meet the requirements of Boyce-Codd normal form?

CANDIDATE: Hmmm, I’m not sure I can answer that.

INTERVIEWER: Richard, do you really think you’re the right person for this job?

CANDIDATE: Probably not.

That was a tough interview — but not as tough as trying to do a job he never should have gotten. It was a win for the employer and the candidate.

photo credit: daveynin


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