The Perfect Interview Question
Knowing that conventional job interviews have a boilerplate feel, many recruiters may understandably be yearning for something fresh, insightful and revealing to ask an applicant, in the form of a completely unexpected, yet deep question, the answer(s) to which cannot be rehearsed, rote or standardized.
Inexorably, last year’s clever career query quickly becomes this year’s withered catechistic cliché: Truly vapid questions such as “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” and even the edgier “What do you see as the main strengths and weaknesses of ‘Type A’ go-getter behavior?” have a short shelf and desk life.
One reason for the short “question half-life” (here conceived on analogy with the time it takes a radioactive mass to decay into half of itself) is, of course, the accelerating diffusion speed and scope of all information in this digital age.
As soon as a just-interviewed applicant’s nose has crossed the interview finish line back out onto the street, his brain is formulating the tell-all, end-all Facebook posting: “Yo, all…the dude asked me whether I am a ‘libertarian’ or a ‘majoritarian’. I told him that although I really like to party with the babes, I always make sure they have I.D.” Oops! Wiped out riding that wave, Surfer Joe.
Defining “question half-life” as “the time it takes for half of the remaining members of the applicant pool to hear about an interview question and prepare for it”, I estimate that social and career networking has reduced the half-life of most interview questions to that of potato radiation, if there is any, viz., probably about a day and a half. So what is the creative and diligent recruiter to do in order to keep things fresh and edgy? What question can possibly catch an applicant and all of his buddies off-guard, yet somehow be immune to information aging? There is such a question.
Just ask the next applicant this: “What do you think of this question?” The less or least intellectually and logically agile will reply, “Which question?” –to which you reply, “This question.” Not catching on, that very large subset of logically-challenged applicants will respond with “Sorry, which question?” You offer the required clarification: “‘What do you think of this question?’—that’s the question.”
Now, the applicant really begins to squirm. Given that intellectual discomfort and embarrassment quickly morphs into its social forms, the question is not only a good gauge of mental agility and preparedness, but also of social aplomb, and therefore it serves as a powerful diagnostic multi-dimensional candidate assessment tool—a “C.A.T. Scan”, if you will.
But, when the frazzled applicant posts the question on his Facebook page, won’t a buzzing hive of prospective workers frantically hunker down on the question like the Manhattan Project A-bomb team? Sure. However, there is a unique safeguard and counter-measure, you, the recruiter can apply: Morph the question into a meta-version of itself every time you ask it.
Here’s how. Ask the first applicant, “What do you think of this question?” Even though he or she will immediately widely disseminate that, you will have already reframed the question for the next applicant as this: “What do you think of this question: ‘What do you think of this question?’?”
This meta-level, “nested” reiteration of the question and double question mark presents the applicant with a real poser: Does the double question mark, the reiterated question within itself change what counts as a good or the best answer? (For those of you who have ever heard of “Russell’s Paradox” about “the set of all sets that are not members of themselves”, this will have a familiar ring to it. For those of you who have not, ignore the previous sentence, and continue reading on.)
Of course, the third applicant is asked, “‘What do you think of this question: ‘‘What do you think of this question: ‘What do you think of this question?’?”?’”, and so on. Note how the number of initial and internal quotation marks mind-numbing increases, suggesting a rough-and-ready measure of the complexity of the question.
You can keep one step ahead of most applicants by monitoring the Net traffic and discussions about the latest morphing of the question and by simply adding the next level to your own version for the next applicant.
One considerable benefit in using and morphing the question “What do you think of this question?” is that as soon as any morph of the question goes viral on the Internet, all recruiters aware of that are “inoculated” by their own next-level version.
Even better, the steadily increasing complexity of the question’s forms ensures that only the best and brightest applicants will be able to field it and that any benefit of whatever rehearsing any may have attempted will be offset by the greater complexity of the version the applicant is asked live, during the interview.
What question could possibly be better than this one?…
… except for “What question could possibly be better than this one?”
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