Put Your Candidate to Work: Assessing a Candidate’s Skills

If you’ve been hiring for a while, you probably have a list of questions you like to use with candidates. I certainly do. So let me ask you, “Can you give me an example of a time when you wanted to learn more about a candidate, and your questions didn’t seem to work?”

Notice what happens when I ask you that question. You immediately start thinking about your interviewing history. That’s exactly what happens when you ask candidates behavior-description questions too.

I’ve been part of interviewing teams for years now, and I’ve worked with great interviewers—people who could learn whether the candidate could perform the necessary work—and some not-so-great interviewers. The great interviewers use behavior-description questions and auditions to assess candidates’ skills. The worst interviewers rely on their intuition and on questions that don’t provide enough data about a candidate.

Behavior-description questions separate the do-ers from the talkers

Behavior-description questions are a form of open-ended question, one that requires some thought and more than a yes/no answer. “Tell me about a time when…” and “Give me an example of…” are two common types of behavior-description questions. When you ask these questions, you learn how the candidate has worked in the past, or even if the candidate has done similar work in the past.

I recently interviewed candidates for a CTO position for a client. I asked, “Tell me about a time when you thought one of your project teams was not being true to the product’s architecture. What did you do?” One candidate collected his thoughts for a few seconds and then told me the story of a project that seemed to unravel. He recognized the problems with the project’s technical debt, and worked with the project manager in public and with the developers in private to solve the problems. I was able to follow up with other questions about why he chose public and private work with different people.

I asked the same question of another candidate. He answered, “I’ve never been in that position. All of my project teams have followed my architecture to the letter. I don’t have to worry about that,” he replied smugly. I followed up with other questions about project schedules, customer satisfaction, and technical staff turnover rate. I realized that the projects were consistently late, the customers were quite dissatisfied, and the best people were leaving. This candidate wasn’t aware of what was happening in his projects. Not sufficient for my client’s CTO position.

The first candidate had performed the work the CTO needed to perform at this organization. The second candidate had not. Even though the second candidate was a pleasant fellow, he only talked a good line; he hadn’t lived it.

Behavior-description questions are suitable for any position, whether you’re hiring a babysitter or a CEO.

Auditions show candidates in action

Auditions help you to observe how a candidate works. It’s easy to create auditions for people who perform individual or pair work—you just ask them to do something similar to the normal job. When I’m interviewing software developers, I ask them to find problems in some code, or extend the design of a module. I ask testers to test some software and write problem reports. If I’m hiring for a team that uses pair-programming, I ask the candidate to pair with someone else — usually several people in series, so the interviewing team and I know that the candidate can pair with more than one person.

It’s a little harder to create auditions for managers, but since the manager will be overseeing other people’s work, it’s even more necessary. If the candidate will be presenting project status or speaking to customers, ask the candidate to prepare a presentation (about a topic of the candidate’s choice). At the interview, have the candidate present his or her information to the interviewing team. I like to ask project manager candidates to explain how they provide project status information to the senior management team or the sponsor. Then I provide that candidate with someone who knows how to obtain the data. I give the candidate about a half hour to create a project status report and then to report to the management team and/or sponsor. One caution here: the candidate doesn’t know why things are they way they are; the candidate only knows what the data says. During the presentation, it’s not okay to ask why the project is in this state, but it is great to ask questions such as, “How have you investigated this kind of a problem in the past?”

If your management candidate isn’t going to need presentation skills, ask for a display of other management skills, such as coaching or feedback or meeting facilitation.

Questions to avoid

I’ve been interviewed by people who asked me hypothetical questions, “What would you do if…?” Hypothetically, I’m darn close to perfect. And so are your candidates.

I’ve also been asked irrelevant questions, such as “If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?” At the time I wished to be far away from the interviewer.

I’ve also been asked to participate in a scavenger hunt, a form of a puzzle, as part of an interview. I’d worn a suit with a skirt and heels that day, and was unwilling to climb a flimsy ladder to the loft to see what was there. Of course, the hiring manager hadn’t explained that was part of the interview, or I would have dressed differently. But my ability to scavenge physical items wasn’t relevant to my ability to manage people and projects.

I avoid puzzle and riddle questions like the plague. I agree that many people like puzzles and riddles, but the candidate’s ability to perform the work has no correlation to the candidate’s ability to solve a puzzle or riddle.

Focus on what candidates have done

As you assess a candidate’s skills, make sure you focus on what candidates have started, left unfinished, and completed at work. You don’t need to rely on your intuition, although you can certainly use intuition to lead the questions in a new direction. With behavior-description questions and auditions, you’ll discover how the candidate has worked in the past and you can surmise how the candidate will work at work.

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