Stop interviewing your candidates - seriously

Back in 2010, I was really excited. I had gotten past the first round interview at a company that shall not be named and was supposed to come back a week later for a full-day carousel of conversations with various members of the team I was trying to join.

The night before, I couldn’t sleep. I was too nervous.

The next day my head felt like a balloon, and my short term memory was shot. I was like a fruit-fly with an attention span of 6 milliseconds. This was going to be rough.

The first conversation went OK, but I was sluggish in my responses and probably came across as a bit of a dunce.

My second conversation was with someone who had just been acquired by the unnamed company and was known to be a bit of an arrogant !@#*&. Right after I entered the room he came at me hard.

“So why should we choose you? What digital products have you built? Why should I care?”

He had zero charm. He was all business. And, in my current state, I was as verbally fluid and eloquent as a soccer hooligan after his 12th pint. I felt like a helpless toddler getting beaten up by Mike Tyson (in his prime).

In short: he crushed me.

It was one of those conversations you look back on later with exasperation and disgust - *facepalm*. “I should have said THIS. Duh!”

My track record (and skillset) showed that I was more than capable of handling the job, but they didn’t receive A-game Jason that day. They got zombie Jason. And I wouldn’t wish zombie Jason on any company.

I didn’t get the job. It was no surprise.

But that experience really stuck with me over the years. I knew I was awesome (that’s what my mom says), but because of an off day I wasn’t able to express that to the people who mattered most.

The more I thought about the issue, the more I realized that the opposite was likely to occur, as well. Lots of people enter interviews feeling amped up and excited–they’re the best version of themselves for that day. They’re nice, confident, and running at 110%. The only problem is that you’ll probably never see that same person again. You saw the once-every-three-years, “I won the lottery”, version of that candidate.

Since many companies only interview a candidate once or twice, they only get two heavily biased data points for that person. But if a company you’re at is about to pledge allegiance to this person and enter into a (hopefully) long-term partnership… it seems like you should be getting more data for the decision.

And then there’s the issue of bias. A million different things can bias you, the interviewer. You could be in a terrible mood that day. You could dislike Steelers fans (a category to which the applicant belongs). Etc. All of these little things make the entire interview process fraught with error.

So what should you do instead?

I’ve always thought that two things are the best measure of a candidate:

  • Work samples (and a discussion of those samples) 
  • References from past coworkers

Let’s dig into these a bit further.

Why work samples? Because you’re hiring this person to do a specific job, and you want to get a sense of how skilled they are. Some people are very good at talking—they can make themselves sound like the most competent, amazing domain experts. But if you look at their work… that’s a different story. Work doesn’t lie. Work doesn’t embellish. It shows you, clearly, what that person is capable of.

Why references? For a couple of reasons. First, work samples can be a little fuzzy–what, specifically, did the candidate do in this team effort? Second, you want to know how this person acts when the spotlight isn’t on them. During an interview, people will be on their best behavior. They’ll be charming and agreeable. But how do they act in the day-to-day grind of company life? Are they good team players? Do they work hard? The only people that can tell you that are their past coworkers; but not just any coworkers… You want to reach out to a random selection of people from their last company/department. Don’t ask the candidate for names. All of those people will gush about the person you’re considering. Why else would the candidate suggest them? The true measure of someone is not how well they treat their boss (or their best friend at the company), but how well they treat those who they have no selfish reason to impress.

 

Jason Hreha