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The fallacy of modern job interviews
Disclaimer!! I am a case study of one. These anecdotal observations and reflections are through my own eyes, my subjective reality, and aren’t necessarily the norm. Read with a grain of salt. (PS salt is good for you)
As I’ve been navigating my “career transition”, aka life of unemployment, I’ve noticed that there is this obscured paradigm that many jobs seem to hire through. Here’s the approach. You submit and application and it goes into that company’s personal cyberspace. To be honest, I have no idea what goes on in the “black box” between submitting your materials for a job, and getting the email that says, “We loved getting to review your resume and think you’re a great candidate, but we have decided to move forward with other applicants.” No joke, I’ve gotten that email within minutes after applying to some positions. It used to frustrate me, but I’ve accepted thats par for the game I’m choosing to play.
But let’s say you break through the “black box,” you then typically have a first round interview with a recruiter. At which point they say, I read your resume and cover letter, but really want to get to know YOU, so if you could just regurgitate it back to me with some flair, that would be great (yes that’s sarcasm). I typically ask if they find anything specifically interesting, or want additional context to an aspect of my experience so that it doesn’t feel like I’m throwing darts blindfolded trying to guess at what they want to hear. This round is casual, and pretty underwhelming. From my experience, the conversation never evolves past the contents of your resume.
The next interview round will then be with individuals on the team you are applying for and/or the hiring manager for the position. This is when you get hit with all the questions that at face value, seem appropriate, but in reality don’t provide much insight into your abilities. They say:
“Tell me about a time you exhibited leadership traits.”
“Can you provide an example of when you encountered a road block, and how you overcame it?”
“When in your career did you provide exceptional client management during a stressful timeline?”
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with these questions. But they focus almost exclusively on the past. As wonderful and exceptional as the human mind is, we have horrific memories. Most of us can’t even remember what we ate for lunch the day before. The article linked at the bottom outlines many ways in which our memories aren’t the realities that took place. There are phenomenons known as memory bias, implanted memories, suggestibility, repeated exposure, deja vu, memory rewriting and misattributions that all contribute to alternate versions of what we think took place in our past.
So when a candidate responds to one of these prompts, there is a good chance that the interviewer isn’t getting an objectively true story because the candidate is going off the memory of their subjective reality. Essentially, they are interviewing people to see which candidates have “prepared” and memorized a good script to respond to the random prompt at hand. I couldn’t help but notice the parallel this structure takes to the way we test for intelligence in our education systems. Most of the time the test will measure who has the capacity to retain the most information or cram critical information at the last minute, not who can take A and B and make it to C.
This is not supposed to be an insight into ways we can overhaul our educational system, but from personal experience, I was always amazed at how quickly I forgot factual information. Historic facts, scientific theories, book narratives etc. After taking a test or writing a paper, all that “knowledge” would disappear from my brain. In reality the best skills I developed were in math, because from elementary school to college, it was a linear path of constantly building on previous knowledge to explore new territories. If you forgot how to do addition, your calculus days would be short lived. But if you forgot the day George Washington crossed the Delaware River, that had no effect on whether you could remember the year slavery was abolished from the U.S.. The skills retained were the ones that were constantly put under stress and incorporated into your daily learning.
What I’m getting at, is when we screen candidates for jobs, to me it makes more sense to investigate the skills they have currently and the trajectory they are moving forward on. What do their current daily habits look like? Are they constantly pursuing new information? How are they staying sharp with skills they have developed? Is the example they provided a one off rare case, or is that indicative of their daily standard.
Just for conversation sake, let’s say the candidate can recall a specific example that answers the respective prompt. The candidate is incentivized to withhold negative information/context, and extend the truth to impress the hiring manager with their capabilities. This is why those hiring like to see some quantitative numbers, but even then, are they ever checking the validity of those statements. If so, how? Which gets to another fault in the modern interview process.
Each party is participating in the exchange of imperfect information. Meaning they are not fully disclosing all their knowledge, facts, and desires to the other party. We are selective in what we present, and secretive with our baggage. Simon Sinek spoke on the podcast, Diary of a CEO, talking about expectation management, which is a clever way of saying increasing honesty between parties. His hypothesis is that when the marketplace can start trending towards perfect information, all parties will be happier.
If during the interview process I’m completely transparent about my abilities and career aspirations, the hiring manager can then expect a certain level of performance from me. Vice versa, if the hiring manager is upfront about the entirety of the role, candidates can be better informed if they are a good fit for that position. And with more honesty, my guess is there would be better compromises from both parties, there would much less miscommunications/gaps between performance expectations and actual output, and we wouldn’t be seeing the widespread prevalence of what is now termed, “quiet quitting.”
Quiet quitting is when employees put in the minimum amount of effort to keep their jobs, but don’t go the extra mile for their employer. This might mean not speaking up in meetings, not volunteering for tasks, and refusing to work overtime. Essentially, employees view their contract as a rigid document to adhere to, rather than an open relationship to nurture.
A few years ago I read a book called, “The Talent War" which was written by a few former Special Operations guys outlining how the corporate world could learn a thing or two from the special force selection process when it comes to talent assessment. Without going into too much detail, the authors note that we should always be searching for talent. Talent looks different across the multiple positions of a corporation, but at the most basic level, talent equals high-potential candidates. High potential candidates are the individuals likely to become high performers. They found nine attributes that made high-performing Special Operations soldiers effective, which can be copy and pasted to find high performers in any industry. They are:
Their motto is “Hire for Character, Train for Skill.” The nine character traits above are not skills that can be taught. But they say most HR teams do the exact opposite of what their motto preaches. They hire for skill and hope for good character. Why? Because it’s easy to count years of experience on a resume and it’s easy to conflate IQ with GPA. Humans like the path of least resistance, so they naturally gravitate towards the simpler process. Resumes tell the recruiter/hiring manager what that candidate has accomplished, but it doesn’t tell the story about how they accomplished it. And the resume certainly doesn’t convey whether an individual has any of these 9 character traits present.
“Experience tells you where someone has been, but character tells you where they are going.”
I’m subscribed to a weekly email from a guy named George Mack who puts out motivational, analytical, and objectively positive content. In his latest email he wrote this:
“In 2001, Warren Buffett gave a talk at the University of Georgia. He asked them the most Warren Buffett question ever. If you could invest in a friend and get 10% of their income for life – who would you pick? Once the students answered the question, he then asked: Why would you invest in that person? What character traits do they have? Now they have a list of character traits to adopt. Shortly after this, Buffett asked: If you could short a friend’s earnings, who would you pick and why? Now you have a list of character traits to avoid.”
I thought that was a great framework to evaluate future success. It’s not asking who had the best GPA in high school, who is the most athletic, or who is currently successful. Rather, who is displaying traits that can’t be taught, but are extremely valuable to personal development, and the betterment of the world around you. Who is on a trajectory of growth, and pushing the boundaries of their current status quo.
Anecdotal case study: A month ago I found a consulting firm on LinkedIn that was hiring for both entry level associates and young consultants to join their firm. They specialize in innovative solutions to global health, U.S. health, economic equity, and climate/environment sustainability. It seemed like a great fit based on my experiences to date and desire to improve healthcare systems for Americans. I noticed that they had a branch office in Washington, D.C. near where I live, so a few days after submitting my application I ventured over to the address on the website to make a formal introduction. With the likelihood that these positions would attract numerous applicants, I figured putting name to a face would put a personal touch on my application.
Naturally, the building had security measures that wouldn’t grant me immediate access to the company’s floor. I needed approval from the front desk. I was completely honest and told the staff working I did not have a confirmed meeting, I didn’t know if anyone was even present at the office, and that I was just swinging for the fences, hoping that my trip over the bridge would garner some sort of success. The lady working the front desk was impressed with my initiative, (and maybe my charm :)) and buzzed me up to elevator. I found the company’s section of the floor, knocked on the door, and was greeted by two employees.
They were both perplexed that this young man in a suit was standing at their door holding a coffee, resume, and cover letter. I introduced myself, and told them what brought me over. Funny enough, I had found these two employees on LinkedIn the day prior and made a virtual introduction, explaining that I would be making the trip to the office the following day (neither of them responded to the LinkedIn message).
Their perplexed demeanor quickly shifted to amazement as they were impressed with the fact I navigated over, got past security, had hard copies of my application on hand, and knew their names. I explained that I strategically picked Tuesday to visit as my analysis of the hybrid work week concluded that highest probability of employees being in office was on Tuesdays. We ended up talking for a half hour as I got to explain my story and career goals. The one lady was actually the Chief People Officer of this firm, and would be leading the hiring process for the positions I applied to. We said our goodbyes and I was again complimented on my initiative and honesty.
Two weeks later I got a call from the CPO saying she wanted to personally reach out and thank me for introducing myself, and how she enjoyed our conversation, but unfortunately had to inform me that they would not be moving forward with my candidacy for either of the positions. Her rationale was that they received an abundance of qualified candidates, and had to make tough decisions.
I’ve been living in this dichotomy of telling myself “everything happens for a reason,” but at the same time reflecting on my efforts and analyzing their ROIs. Was I disappointed that I didn’t move forward. Yes. But I wasn’t frustrated. When I looked back at my effort and actions during the process, I’m was proud of the character I presented. In my view, there wasn’t anything more I could do to convey the type of person I am. If the company felt it wasn’t what they were looking for or they didn’t value the character traits I presented, at least I can hang my hat on the rack of honesty and authenticity and conclude it wasn’t the right fit for me.
“Memory without the emotion, is wisdom.”