Analysis / Pants-Tastic Voyage

Pants-Tastic Voyage

Interviewing is a trained skill, and most people perform it completely untrained. Small wonder that suboptimal candidates frequently get hired. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert suggests that even silly pop-culture references can help new interviewers understand the more difficult concepts.

Most job interviews are awful. A job candidate has about a 7-in-10 chance of having a dreadful experience at an interview. There’s usually a 9-in-10 chance for the members of the interview panel itself to come out depressed, confused, and frustrated. Why? Because interviewing – like every other endeavour that requires specialised training and experience – is incredibly difficult for a novice to perform. It makes no sense to send unqualified personnel into the operating theatre to perform surgery; the patient will almost certainly die. So, too, it makes no sense to send unqualified personnel into an interview to evaluate an applicant’s suitability for work; the candidates’ qualifications will almost certainly be misunderstood.

And yet … that’s what modern companies do. They throw unqualified people at the process and never stop to wonder why they consistently get awful results. Under-qualified candidates slip through the process thanks to dumb luck, [1] while the best-qualified candidates get disqualified based on irrational biases, communication errors, and (my favourite) misunderstood answers to stupid questions. I’ve seen it happen from both sides of the table, and it frustrates me to no end.

Consider the case of Sofia. [2] I was interviewing for a systems analyst position a few years back. I rounded up some co-workers to form the interview panel, I wrote the interview script, and I circulated copies of Sofia’s CV as mandatory pre-reading. Sofia was nervous, but she had over a decade of experience and was proud of the work she’d done. She was animated and passionate about some really interesting projects. By the end of the interview, it was evident that Sofia would be an excellent addition to our team. The trouble was, that conclusion wasn’t obvious to everyone on the board … which is why they’d been invited. I wasn’t evaluating Sofia’s in that interview so much as I was evaluating my fellow board members … and they’d failed. [3]

Also, because some of the ‘clarifying’ questions that my board members asked during the interview had left me perplexed and exasperated. 

I knew that because I scheduled an after-action review immediately following the interview. I had the board members review their written notes and explain to me how they’d each interpreted Sofia’s answers. I challenged each board members to defend their interpretations: Why was this a right or wrong answer? How do you justify your position on her answer? What was the ‘correct’ answer to the question asked? It became clear (as expected) that my novice board members hadn’t actually thought through the battery of questions that we’d written and had no idea how to evaluate the answers that the candidate had given. I’d expected as much, and set about training the lot of them.

This is distressingly common, especially with tech sector interviewing: the people thrown into the interviewer role are ill-prepared for the duty because they haven’t been properly mentored. Even when the board members are astonishingly smart, their technical attributes don’t necessarily translate into being able to evaluate another person’s qualifications. In order to properly prepare for an interview, board members need to understand why each question is being presented, and have a common understanding of how to interpret a candidates’ answers. This is especially crucial when the board members are interviewing for a position that they themselves have never held.

In Sofia’s post-interview after-action review, I was able to explain my perspective on her interview performance. My new board members caught on quickly and came around once they understood how and why I was rating her suitability higher than what they had. They clamoured for a chance to prepare properly before the next interview and I was happy to oblige. When we got together to interview the next candidate, my board members were ready … and did a much better job.

I’ve employed several different analogies and references when I’ve taught the art of interviewing. One of the allusions that I prefer is the cheesy 1966 science-fiction movie Fantastic Voyage featuring Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, and Donald Pleasence. The plot is simple: a VIP is dying. Attractive scientists and their mini-submarine must be miniaturized and then get injected into the dying man’s body. The heroes travel to the site of the injury to ‘fix’ it from the inside. It’s a fun romp.

Your mileage may vary; I enjoy cheesy old sci-fi films. If you’re looking for gritty realism … prepare for some serious eye-rolling.

First, the movie’s premise applies surprisingly well to interviewing: in the movie, the scientists all have advanced knowledge of medicine and human physiology, but none of them have ever been fully-immersed in a human body from the perspective of a cell. They’ve always treated patients from the outside, and have had to interpret symptoms and effects. In the movie, they have to completely recalibrate their understandings of biology and treatment. That’s a great parallel for what new interview board members experience: never having sat a board before, the hiring process has always been oblique, indirect, and subject to assumptions. The first time that a new interview board member experience the process from the ‘inside’ can be overwhelming. Or, as the movie’s trailer said it, it’s ‘… an adventure of astonishing suspense and beauty.’

That’s step one: getting the new interviewers to accept that they need to adjust their expectations and consider their personal biases now that they’re operating from a new perspective. The second step involves teaching the new interviewers to consider the intent of each question as a peek inside a candidate’s mind rather than as a simple right-or-wrong answer. For this, I like employing pants.

Specifically, I suggest that the board consider using the completely implausible (and almost certainly prohibited) nonsense question ‘What colour pants are you wearing?’ [4]

Here’s why this training question works. First, it’s inherently silly. It makes people simultaneously uncomfortable and amused. Second, it requires no actual technical skill or experience to answer. Lastly, even though the premise is ridiculous, there a lot of ways that it could be answered, all of which tell you something about the answerer’s mind-set. Examples include (but aren’t limited to):

If the candidate blushes and/or stammers an answer, it’s likely that your question embarrassed, surprised, or flummoxed the candidate. Remember that reaction! Seeing that same reaction on a technical question suggests that you’ve struck a nerve. Several different motivations could be in-play, ranging from embarrassment at not knowing the ‘correct’ answer to painful memories of a traumatic event. Therefore, the candidate’s answer shouldn’t be accepted at face value. Apologize, then ask why the question seems to be upsetting. Often times, the clarifying answers will reveal something important about the candidate’s past that might affect their future work or potential compatibility.

Most everyone has experienced traumatic work experiences that continue to affect their behaviour years afterwards. Knowing what happened can help you to help the candidate make an informed decision about whether or not to join a potentially dysfunctional workgroup where they’ll be re-exposed to old stressors. 

If the candidate quickly states that they ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t remember,’ it’s possible that they’re telling the simple truth. It’s also possible that they’re trying to evade answering the question. A quick answer with few details suggests that the candidate will instinctively evade difficult situations; remember that reaction! This has ramifications for future trustworthiness. Confirm your suspicions with a gentle follow-up question like ‘why don’t you know?’ An honest person might say that they got dressed in the dark (plausible), or it’s been so long since they got dressed that they’ve forgotten (also plausible). A dishonest person, on the other hand, is likely to double-down on evading the question.

If the candidate blurts out an answer, it suggests that they’re either fearless honest (usually an admirable trait) or else are comfortable lying (usually a negative trait). Remember that reaction! A quick follow-up question like ‘are you sure?’ will often net a clarifying response. A person who reaches for their clothing to double-check their own pants is probably fearless; a person who refuses to answer, or attempts to apply a rhetorical fallacy as a distracting tactic is likely a compulsive liar.

If the candidate looks at you like you’re crazy, points to his or her trousers, and tells you the obvious colour like you’re an addled child, then the candidate is probably American. That’s not (necessarily) a negative trait; it just means that they misunderstood your question because you don’t speak the same version of English. Remember that reaction! Despite all of the histrionics over immigration and foreign workers saturating modern political discourse, globalisation isn’t going away. It’s common for interviewers to discredit a candidates’ answers as being ‘wrong’ when the interviewer actually triggered a linguistic collision between two dissimilar flavours of English. [5]

Finally, if the candidate challenges the relevance of the question before answering, that tells you that you’re dealing with a seasoned pro; someone who had advanced interviewing skills, and is likely to be scrutinizing your performance ever bit as carefully as the board is scrutinizing his or her answers. Respond with a direct and true answer (e.g., we’re judging your reaction). Remember that reaction! If they deconstruct the question’s intent and provide you with meaningful insight, then you can be confident that they’re a strong leadership resource. If they simply say a colour with no associated higher-level thinking, then you know that you’ve lost their interest and you can end the interview.

All right! It’s clear that you’d hate it here and that we’d all come to despise you in short order. Let’s blow the rest of this script off and never meet again!

Get the idea? The intent of the question isn’t to learn the actual colour of a candidate’s pants; that answer provides no useable information. The intent of the question is to learn how the candidate reacts to the question itself. Are they forthright or evasive? Fearless or fearful? How do they act when placed under pressure? Do they have the courage to admit that they don’t know an answer or will they attempt to bluff their way out of answering in order to save face? Have you struck a nerve and are now assessing to the candidate’s reaction rather than their actual answer? It also helps the interviewer to learn things about themselves: Are you unconsciously applying bias for or against a candidate based on how similar to or different from you they are? What prejudices are in-play?

Yes, the pants colour question is inherently stupid, but it’s still an enjoyable way to teach the concepts. The 60s special effects in Fantastic Voyage and cringe-worthy by modern standards, but it’s still an enjoyable film. [6] Both references work well for getting new interviewers to consider their purpose is entering the interview room and how they’re supposed to carry out their duties effectively.

All of these meta-questions are meant to force a new interviewer to reconceptualise the interview process. The intent of a job interview is to assess a stranger’s ability to perform a required role and to function effectively in an existing team. Assessing candidates accurately requires a great deal more insight, contemplation, and consideration than simply asking true/false or fill-in-the-blank technical questions. It requires an interviewer to get ‘inside’ the candidates’ heads in order to understand who they are, where they’ve been, and what they believe.

If more businesspeople understood these concepts, then interviews might be a lot more useful and functional (as well as more entertaining!). Companies could make smarter hiring decisions. Leaders could build stronger teams that facilitate higher esprit de corps. It’s not an unreasonable ask; every workgroup can improve their hiring effectiveness, so long as they take the time to train their people how to interview others effectively. It’s a sound investment that will pay dividends for decades … and will pre-emptively do away with a lot of unnecessary personnel drama.


[1] Or unusual physical attractiveness, but that’s fodder for another article.

[2] Not her real name, as always.

[3] I almost named this column after the 1992 science-fiction romp Freejack because of this section. There’s a delightful sequence in the movie where antagonist Vacendak (played by Mick Jagger) orders his top lieutenant Ripper (played by Esai Morales) to swear an oath on a lie-detector. When Morales expresses indignation at having been tested, Jagger smirks and says ‘I wasn’t testing you, Ripper; I was testing the machine. And it works.’

[4] DISCLAIMER: Don’t use this question for real; it has nothing to do with any white- or blue-collar job duties or qualifications, and will almost certainly draw a sustainable complaint of sexual harassment. Don’t ask a real candidate this! I shouldn’t have to explain this, but … I’ve heard comparable questions asked by managers who felt that the hiring pool was also their dating pool. Don’t be that kind of Evil Bob.

[5] I assume this happens the same way in other languages, where the so-called ‘mother tongue’ has drifted considerably in other parts of the world.

[6] … and was even funnier when it was mercilessly parodied on season 4.5 of the pop culture satire platform The Venture Brothers.

Title Allusion: Harry Kliener, David Duncan, Otto Klement, and Jerome Bixby, Fantastic Voyage (1966 movie)

Photos: Copyright under licence from Thinkstockphotos.co.uk: Men in suits – YakobchukOlena; Girl with specs – Shootforaliving17; Water craft – agnormark; Man with gun – Minerva Studio; High five – ismagilov


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Shares

Get our latest features in your inbox

Join our community of business leaders