Are These Really The Only Three True Job Interview Questions? An Analysis of a Forbes Analysis

ALADDIN AND GENIEIntrigued by the Forbes article’s title, “Top Executive Recruiters Agree There Are Only Three True Job Interview Questions”, by George Bradt, and tempted to have a stab at guessing what they could possibly be before reading them, I gave it a try, in the spirit of trying to guess what the three best wishes anyone could possibly ask of the Genie in Aladdin’s lamp: Ummm….well….”Do you want the job?”…..”Do we want you?”…”Is the job a good fit?” Done, in about thirty seconds and based on nothing more than a basic understanding of what is being supplied, what is being demanded and how smart the deal is for both parties whenever someone is being vetted for a job.

The actual Forbes list (with my most closely matching question paired with each, for comparison):

• Will you love the job? (“Do you want the job?”)

• Can we tolerate working with you? (“Do we want you?”)

• Can you do the job? (“Is the job a good fit?”)

My subsequent amazement was a two-fer: Not only did it seem that I had pretty much guessed all three interview questions without so much as a peek at the piece, but, on top of that, I was surprised to see that the article has garnered more than 1.7 million views and tens of thousands of tweets, shares, likes and the like(s) for what seems to be obvious commonsense. I’m no “top executive recruiter”, so, I figured that if the questions were obvious to me, they would be obvious to almost everyone—if only precisely because they should seem obvious to just about everybody, even a 12-year-old.

Clearly, my three questions could be asked by a tweenage kid. By implication, so could the Forbes questions. But then why the huge public response? True, at an even more abstract level of concepts, the article went on to distill and map the three questions into three categories: “Strengths, Motivation, and Fit”.

The Problem with the Forbes Question-to-Concept Map

However, I’m not so sure that the article’s concept-question mapping is accurate. That’s because being able to “do the job” as a yardstick of “strengths” is only a necessary, not sufficient condition for being a strong candidate. Motivation is also key—but as a component of strength, not as the totally independent factor the Forbes list suggests. Finally, a company’s being able to “tolerate” a candidate is a weak measure, at best, of goodness of applicant-job fit, because it sets the bar too low and ignores the applicant side of the fit equation, i.e., whether the job fits him or her—unless, of course, motivation is again called upon to do double-duty as both an independent factor and a component of fit.

As I have further reflected on the Forbes questions and my own trio, I have gradually come to rescind the credit I gave myself for guessing theirs, because, in fact, my questions are, upon deeper examination, not equivalent to the Forbes Big Three. This is easily demonstrated:

• From a practical standpoint, my “Do you want the job?” seems to be more important a question than the Forbes “Will you love the job?” That’s because, although loving the job is the ideal, most jobs would go unfilled if really wanting the job were not enough to satisfy a prospective employer. Maybe this is just a semantic quibble—perhaps wanting badly enough is loving (although, as anybody still standing and trying to pick up somebody at closing time in a bar can tell you, that’s a time when it isn’t); but then, consider someone who is both capable and highly motivated, but not by the intrinsic rewards of the job (such as creative or moral satisfaction), but by the extrinsic rewards (such as being able to save his house with the salary offered, feed his kids, get medical coverage for the entire family). Whereas the question “Can we tolerate you?” seems to set the recruitment bar too low, “Will you love the job?” seems to set it too high.

Moreover, because “Will you love the job?” is an only-time-will-tell question, it cannot be answered in the interview; hence, it falls short as a crucial diagnostic question or hiring criterion. “Do you want the job?” seems to accomplish both of these more effectively in interview real time.

• The Forbes question “Can you do the job?” is insufficient as a marker for “strength”. There are lots of jobs that all of us can, in terms of having skill and capacity, do, but won’t—or at least won’t do as well as we possibly could. From the standpoint of what is called “flow theory”, the ideal job has a good “skills-challenge match” (which should be supplemented by equally good “goals”, “values” and “resources” matches). If strength is to be the correlative trait for this question about capability and is to be gauged in the interview, what about “weakness”? Surely, since every interview is or should be a cost-benefit analysis by all parties concerned, “Can you do the job?” should be supplemented with a fourth question: “At what cost and with what risks(including salary costs, risk of job-hopping or maternity leave requiring a replacement)?” If it is retorted that “strength” includes the motivation to do the job, then the Forbes article mapping of “strength/motivation/fit” collapses into “strength/fit”, with motivation being absorbed by strength.

• The article’s “Can you do the job?” is also not a close correlate of the category “fit”, since it leaves unaddressed and unanswered the critical question, “Can we make the applicant happy?” Hence, it represents only half of the job-fit criteria, just as citing the talents of one’s dance partner says nothing about one’s own contribution and capacity to dance.

The Virtue of Asking

The great virtue and perhaps the source of the Forbes article’s appeal is its minimalist simplifying approach—reducing the complexity of interviewing to its Newtonian 3-law essentials. Even if the questions aren’t the most perfect, they do inspire us to continue the search. As for their seeming obviousness, strangely enough, none of those I asked to guess what the three questions are came even close, even though most were very savvy, very smart hard-core business types. From the abstract point of view invited by the brevity of the list of three questions, theirs were far too concrete and narrow—“Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “Are you a team player?”

Why Most Couldn’t Guess

One important reason why business-minds may not easily guess the three questions is that they are actually questions answered by the interview, not questions asked as the interview. After the normal detailed questioning that constitutes a good interview, and only after that kind of questioning, can or should the three Forbes questions be answered. However, despite this limitation, the Forbes questions can provide a decent rough guide as to what the detailed and more concrete questions should be.

Still, for the abstraction-minded, like Newton, who was able to discern the detailed twigs of the physical universe from the branches of his three laws (“F=ma”, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” and “an object not acted upon by a force will continue moving with linear unaccelerated motion”), an equally abstractly-minded recruiter may hope to frame the three questions that, better than any others, provide the conceptual skeleton from and upon which interviews can be fleshed out in living detail.

That challenge is the same as that involved in making three wishes upon rubbing Aladdin’s lamp—general enough to cover everything you want, but specific enough to avoid the traps, tricks, pitfalls and misunderstandings that come with the opportunity.

There’s the rub.

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Michael Moffa
Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers,The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).