Evaluating Candidates’ Interpersonal Skills

Sorin asks another great question:

“So please enlighten me : how do you decide, with only interviews/auditions, whether a candidate will be a good addition to a team or a disruptive element

I’m assuming you’ve already asked questions such as, “Tell me about the project you’re on now. … What’s your role on the project? … How much of your time do you work with other people? … How do you work with them? … What have you learned from working with (so-and-so)? … What one thing will you do again? … What one thing won’t you do again? … Why?” or some other combination of closed and behavior-description questions to establish this person’s experience working with others. You’ll learn from the candidate by listening to these answers. Oh, and don’t forget to ask how people work with their office-mates. I may have been hired once on the basis of how I maneuvered my office-mate into cleaning up his part of the office 🙂

Once you’ve asked those questions, reconsider how you create technical auditions. Certainly, you need a technical audition for any candidate you’re considering. An audition where someone works alone — debugging, designing, testing, writing, whatever — will provide much more information about a person’s approach to technical problems than any other technique. But maybe you haven’t considered an audition for how people work with each other. This audition is trickier to create, but certainly worth the time you invest.

Let’s take Sorin’s example, of wanting to know whether a person can work well with others or prefers to be a loner. You could create an audition in at least these ways:

  1. Invite the candidate to pair-work. I’ve done this as part of a second round of interviews, after the person has performed an initial technical audition and has passed the first round of interviews. “We’d like to see how you perform as if you were working here. We’d like you to work with Pat and pair-design (or test or write or whatever).” Work with Pat in advance to set up the most suitable product situation. (If you have product where the candidate needs a clearance or to sign a non-disclosure, consider using open-source products for this part of the audition.)
  2. Ask the candidate to participate in some way that mimics the area you’d like to investigate more. If you want to make sure a developer works well with others, ask him or her to participate in a design or code review. You’ll need to provide enough background material for the candidate to be able to intelligently participate.
  3. Consider an extended audition. Especially if the candidate doesn’t have a lot of experience working with people professionally, consider a temporary-to-permanent position. Hire the candidate as a contractor for a specified period of time (8-12 weeks) and provide feedback every week, especially about those interpersonal skills you’re concerned about. (I realize that while this is common in the USA, other countries’ labor laws may not make temp-to-perm an option.)

The key when creating an interpersonal skills audition is to consider which interpersonal skills you want to examine. You’ll create auditions differently if you’re looking for general communication skills than for facilitation skills.

Once you decide how to create the audition, you’ll have work to do. But, once you’ve invested the time to create the interpersonal skills audition, you can reuse the same audition repeatedly.

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