DetectiveIf you regularly interview job candidates, you’ve likely had the following experience: you ask a candidate a question, and they answer almost automatically, is if they’re accessing an internal cache of prerecorded answers and spewing out whichever one most closely meets the parameters of your question.

Alan Foster, a principal at leadership advisory firm ghSMART, calls this the “40-minute tape,” and he finds that candidates in today’s talent market have mastered this interview technique.

“The 40-minute tape is knowing you are going to be asked one question about leadership, one about a mistake you made, one about a challenge you faced, [etc.],” Foster says. “People are very good at preparing [those answers] in advance, and upon request, they’ll press play and will come out with a perfect answer.”

The problem with the 40-minute tape, of course, is that it is a way for candidates to give what amount to non-answers. The 40-minute tape allows candidates to be “good at interviewing,” in the sense that it allows them to hit all the marks they are supposed to hit, but it doesn’t actually offer any insight into who a candidate is or how they will perform at a given job in a given company.

And so, the 40-minute tape makes it difficult — if not impossible — for interviewers to separate candidates who are good at interviewing from candidates who would be good at the job for which they are interviewing.

According to Foster and his colleagues at ghSMART, there is a way to obviate the 40-minute tape — a technique for interviewing candidates that elicits the meaningful information that interviewers really need in order to understand who a candidate is and what they can bring to the table.

Foster calls this interviewing technique the “Who Interview.”

The Who Interview: a Guided Walk Through a Candidate’s Career History

“The Who Interview is essentially a semi-structured conversation by which the interviewer can learn more about a candidate’s career,” Foster says. “It is a way to understand over time how that person has grown, what their strengths are, what their challenges are, and what their patterns of behavior are.”

While ghSMART will thoroughly explain what the Who Interview is in an upcoming book — tentatively titled The Power Score — the gist of the interview technique is as follows: during the interview, candidates and interviewers walk chronologically through each of the candidate’s past jobs. For each job, interviewers ask the candidate the same five questions. These five questions center on the candidate’s duties, accomplishments, “low points,” colleagues, and reasons for leaving.

“To get technical, the Who Interview is a type of behavioral interview where you get people to tell you the patterns of the highs and lows of their career,” Foster says. “Your job as the interviewer is to be the detective, to spot those patterns.”

The goal of the Who Interview is to gather enough data on candidates that interviews can get to know them intimately and see the patterns that emerge across their careers.

The major value of the Who Interview, when compared to traditional interview formats, is that it makes it easier for interviewers to differentiate between “who is good and who is great,” according to Foster.

“It allows you to not get fooled by the people who are just very good at interviewing,” Foster says. “[Those people] are very different from the person who is going to excel at the job one, two, or three years later.”

Another advantage of the Who Interview, Foster says, is that it allows interviewers to really get to know who their candidates are, warts and all.

“You’re never going to get a person who is perfect — and that’s absolutely fine,” Foster says. “But you then know how you can best support them when you’re going to onboard them.”

Because the Who Interview allows interviewers to truly understand not only candidates’ strengths, but also their weaknesses, it gives interviewers clues as to how the company can best support a candidate and set them up for success, should they come aboard.

Advice on Implementing the Who Interview

If, after reading this, you’re interested in applying Who Interview methodologies to your hiring process, you’ll have to wait for The Power Score to get the full picture. That being said, Foster does offer a few preliminary tips:

1. Get Candidates Comfortable

The Who Interview only works if candidates are comfortable enough to be open and honest with their answers. Therefore, Foster suggests letting candidates know ahead of time what they’re in for. This means explaining to candidates what the interview will be like before the day of the interview. You can even let candidates know exactly what questions you are going to ask during the interview.

“There are no trick questions in the Who Interview,” Foster says. “This is not about playing gotcha.”

Foster also suggests starting the interview off with open-ended questions about the candidate’s education. This is a good way to get candidates comfortable with the interview format and prepare them to talk about who they are and where they’ve come from, career-wise.

2. Ask Candidates How to Spell Their Bosses’ Names

Part of the Who Interview focuses on understanding candidates interactions and relationships with colleagues and supervisors, so it will be important to talk to candidates about their bosses. And what’s the most important question you can ask a candidate about their former bosses? How to spell their names.

“When you actually ask the candidate about how to spell the boss’s name, alarm bells are ringing for them,” Foster says. “Suddenly, [they realize] you actually know how to contact [the boss]. We say it’s like injecting [the candidate] with truth serum. For some reason, they just start telling you the reality of how it was, versus what they initially might have been saying about themselves and their jobs.”

Once the candidate knows you can actually contact their bosses, they’ll be more forthcoming with the truth — otherwise, you’ll find out they weren’t being totally honest when you talk to their supervisors.

3. Don’t Let People Off the Hook

The Who Interview is a strategy for understanding who candidates are, “warts and all.” But many candidates — and people in general — would prefer to hide their warts from view. Don’t let that happen. Never accept meaningless answers about candidates’ weaknesses or areas for improvement.

“If someone says, ‘I’m too impatient,’ or, ‘I work too hard,’ you can smile, but then you want to ask, ‘What was a meaningful mistake you made in that role?’” Foster says.

Foster finds that asking that specific question — “What was a meaningful mistake you made?” — tends to elicit more useful information from candidates.

4. Work With a Partner

The Who Interview is a long and information-heavy process, so Foster suggests that newbies work in teams to be more effective.

“It’s best in two-on-one [situations], where one of you is asking questions and one is taking notes, so that if you’re not practiced at doing this, you don’t have to become a perfect interviewer overnight,” Foster explains.

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