If you could only choose one song to play every time you walked into a room for the rest of your life, what would it be?   What do you think of lava lamps? And Dilbert?   If you could be remembered for one sentence, what would it be?   If you had a choice between two superpowers — being invisible or flying — which would you choose? What kind of tree would you be?  
No, these are not recommended conversation starters for the social amateur. They are real interview questions asked by top corporations in an effort to hire the best and brightest in 2015. While I’m sure an organizational psychologist could probably intuit and associate incredible insights to each candidate’s answers, my guess is the typical HR Director or Hiring Manager at any given small- to medium-sized business would struggle to glean meaningful information from these interview questions. So why are many smaller organizations following suit? Simple. When companies don’t know what they’re looking for, they aren’t sure how to get it, and they’re even less certain about how to know when they’ve found it. In another post, we discuss some simple steps to improve the entire hiring process and build a great culture. One of the key aspects to improvement is being clear about the job competencies and outcomes that can be expected from the new hire. With those decisions made, one of the next steps is to plan an interview that reveals which candidates can deliver and which cannot. Spoiler alert. Asking crazy interview questions is not the shortcut to get you there. A much better use of your time is studying the different types of job interviews, their theories and characteristics, and the goals they can help you achieve. With that said, did you know there are 4 broad categories of job interviews? Let’s explore.  

Unstructured Interview

  The general purpose of the common job interview, or unstructured interview, is to (1) allow an employer to get to know a potential new hire, and (2) allow a candidate to evaluate whether his/her career interests and goals align with what is being offered through a potential place of work. The “unstructured” reference does not necessarily indicate a willy-nilly, chaotic feel to the interview. It simply means that each interview with each candidate is not identical, questions are not asked in the exact same order, and the questions may not have been planned ahead of time. When done well, an interview panel should be able to leave the room with a first-hand idea about the candidate’s background experience. They should also have a general feel for the skill level, intelligence, enthusiasm, and attitude of the interviewee. All of this should work together to give the panel an idea of which candidate will be the best fit for the role responsibilities, team synergy, and overall fit with the organization’s culture. If this sounds like a longshot, it is. The predictive success rate of job interviews indicates only a 20% reliability.  

Watch Out for Perfect Interview Skills

  A person in need of a job is most likely to approach your interview from the perspective that any job is better than no job. While that mindset is completely understandable from the individual’s viewpoint, it is not a good one for businesses. In this context, sharp candidates will research, study, and practice their interview skills. Did you catch that? The candidate is not perfecting their job skills, they are perfecting their interview skills. And there are countless sources online, in bookstores, and even coursework vying for the dollars the candidate is willing to spend to ensure they make a good impression on you. Again, all of this is good for the individual. It is good for each of us to know how best to present ourselves. We should each be able to highlight the unique contributions we are able to make to any team we join. And having the confidence and insight to ask wise questions of a potential employer empowers us to better weigh our employment options. But this is all about increasing the power of the individual over the organization, which is never a good long-term goal because without the organization, the individual ceases to thrive, too. There are other interview options that make the playing field more even, that make it more of a two-way street between the individual and the company, that make it possible to look out for the goals and interests of everyone involved. Adding structure to your interview--whether from a behavioral, situational, or combination of angles--can accomplish this loftier goal in your hiring process.  

Behavioral Structured Interview

  A behavioral interview is focused on the candidate’s actual behavior in their past. With the idea that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, candidates are asked to give specific examples from past experiences of how they handled a particular situation. This format of questioning makes it more difficult for a prospective employee to give nice sounding interview answers. How many times have any of us said, “If that happened to me, I’d…” and then lay out a strategy of action that only a superhero could successfully deliver? That’s human nature. It’s easy to give theoretical, untested answers. It’s a different thing entirely when you have actually faced the situation. You are aware of additional factors--thoughts, feelings, emotions, adrenaline, bystanders, etc.--restricting your options or influencing you to alter your choices.  

How to Handle Vague Interview Responses

  It is true. Behavioral interviews can be tricky when trying to catch young, trainable talent who haven’t had much workplace experience from which to draw their answers. However, encouraging the candidate to connect the question back to a school or teamwork experience usually addresses the challenge nicely. The second type of candidate who has a difficult time in this type of interview is the one who is attempting to hide reality by presenting a great-sounding facade. You can be fairly certain this is the case if you have to constantly press for specific examples to cut through the hypothetical “interview” answers. You may not be sure of what they are hiding--it may be as simple as a lack of experience--but you can be certain that they are hiding. And if they are hiding now, they will most likely hide in the future. It is the way they handle stress, pressure, and what they perceive as bad news. They will hide it from you, from their teammates, and even from themselves.  

Situational Structured Interview

  Situational interviews entertain the notion that a candidate’s intentions are closely tied to their behavior. Therefore, asking future-oriented questions about how a candidate would navigate a particular situation they might face in the role for which they are being considered can reveal the information you need to make a good hiring decision. Though this format allows for “interview answers,” it also gives you an opportunity to gauge the potential hire’s starting point in your organization. Answers can give you an idea of how much training and coaching will be needed before the employee is fully productive in their new role. Additionally, taking the time to run a scenario, give the candidate feedback on how they handled the scenario, and then asking them to do it again will give you an opportunity to test their coachability. In preparation for the interview, plan a couple of scenarios that represent the nature of the job, and give the candidate enough information for them to demonstrate their natural approach to the situation. At a certain point, stop the candidate and offer some feedback or constructive criticism. Then ask them to try it again. As you are giving the feedback, pay attention to their responses and body language. Do they seem flustered or offended? Do they try to explain their perspective to the point of arguing and resisting? Do they verbally respond correctly, but then fail to put your feedback into action on their second attempt? All of these responses--including the candidate who does well the first time, listens intently to your constructive criticism, and then knocks it out of the park--are excellent clues as to what you are likely to experience in the future with this employee.  

Watch Out for the Ill-Fitted and the Uncoachable

  Candidates who lack the aptitude and natural “wiring” for the role will likely have a hard time answering these questions on-target. They may also struggle to apply your input when running the repeated scenario. While this may seem unfair or disappointing, maybe even embarrassing at first, the interview has done its job and everyone has been saved the inevitable struggle and eventual surrender that is bound to happen given enough time. Have no doubt, a candidate who lacks training and experience, but has the aptitude and wiring for the responsibilities of the role will have an instinctive understanding of how to apply your suggestion to the scenario for immediate marked improvement. Training does not fix everything. It only fixes a lack of training. Without a natural drive or motivation in the candidate, training is like a seed that is planted on rocks rather than in fertile soil. It will not survive.
"Training does not fix everything. It only fixes a lack of training."
Pay the closest attention to those who give excellent answers to the situational questions, but push back or fail to apply your feedback and suggestions the second time through a scenario. Though it may be tempting to dismiss a seemingly small event because of the great answers given up to that point, give careful consideration to what just happened. It is very likely that you are dealing with talent who is not coachable and, therefore, will not be able to develop beyond the level they are currently demonstrating. Even if they do, it will be very slow going because coachability is the only shortcut to growth and development.  

Combination Structured Interview

  Perhaps the best type of Structured Interview is one that combines the elements of all three. Take some time at the beginning to meet and greet the candidate in a more relaxed, welcoming, conversational style. Perhaps show them around and make a few casual introductions to some of your team. Then move into the behavioral questions to get to know some of their past experience and begin assessing some of the necessary competencies. With the right question order, this can naturally flow into the situational portion of the interview. When you know the information your interview should reveal, it is possible to prepare a structured interview process that returns much better results than the standard 1 in 5 success rate. Without a doubt, it is worth the extra time and effort to apply some focused energy to planning stronger interviews for your organization.   What type of interviews does your organization prefer and why? Tell us in the comments.