Management / The American View: The Cavalier Approach to Interviewing (Redux)

The American View: The Cavalier Approach to Interviewing (Redux)

Experts advise job seekers to memorize prepared speeches to ‘beat’ the most common interview questions. This is fine … if you’re brand new to the job market. Experienced workers are better served treating interviews like a fencing match: strive to understand your opponent first, then boldly manoeuvre to secure the information you need about the role.

[Keil’s aside: As I close on submitting my 400th online column, I want to revive some older pieces that meant the most to me (and, if feedback is to be believed, had the strongest positive impact on my readers). This column was the middle of a trilogy on corporate interviewing. This was originally published on 16th September 2013 on Business Reporter, and includes the edits applied to version 3 of Why Are You Here?]

Let me start this column with stories from some of the most memorable interview boards that I’ve ever encountered. This will all make sense in a moment. I promise.

In the first example, I was hiring a new wireless technologies tech for my IT department. One of the applicants had an impressive vocational history. He held all the necessary technical qualifications and had experience doing the work. Disturbingly, something about the fellow seemed … off. Throughout the interview, the candidate radiated a low level of hostility that struck everyone on the panel as odd. After a half-dozen basic technical questions, I surprised the candidate by asking ‘So, explain to me why you actually want this job?’ Without hesitation, the fellow blurted out: ‘I used to work there, and those people treated me badly, so now I want to come back and get my revenge.’ I thanked him for his candour and went on to the next question.

In my second example, I was asked to sit a hiring panel for an HR lead. One of the applicants was technically qualified (that is, he’d completed the right school and the right programme). Oddly, he seemed ill at ease throughout the first half of his interview. It was only after we asked a very blasé question about his current duties and responsibilities that the candidate inferred that he was dissatisfied with his current employer. The board president wisely put his pen down and turned over the interview form, looked the fellow in the eyes, and asked ‘What’s bothering you, son? I can tell that you’re really upset about something. Be frank with us.’ The young man was sceptical at first; his unresolved frustration eventually got the better of him. Once he understood that we were genuinely interested in his answer, he broke down. We learned that his application to work for us was actually a desperate bid to escape what he perceived to be a terrible working environment. He told us that he’d been the victim of a bait-and-switch hire, and that he felt like he had no hope left of succeeding in his chosen career. The board president immediately terminated the formal interview … and invested the rest of the man’s scheduled interview period coaching him on where to go, who to see, and how to present himself in order to get the job he really wanted.

If these two stories sound like amusing horror stories from the HR vault, you’ve missed the point. These were highly successful personnel interviews. In each example, the hiring board discovered that the applicant was not a good fit for our organization and that hiring them would have led to far too much drama in the workplace. Had our interview board members stuck rigidly to the standard interview script, we wouldn’t have known that these candidates were unsuitable. It was only after the board sensed that something was wrong and then deliberately went off-script to learn what was wrong that the truth came out. That, I argue, is exactly what the interview process is supposed to accomplish.

'I'm glad that we all agree that hiring Bob here would be an abysmal mistake. Let's adjourn to the pub to celebrate.'

Let me add a third example from the other side of the interview table. I’d applied for a director-level position with a prestigious hospital. I’d arrived early for my interview (as you do). The organisation’s CTO asked me to wait in his secretary’s office while he rounded up the first of three directors that would make up the interview series. Once the first interviewer arrived, I asked the lead interviewer to tell me about his own professional background. He did so … and once I learned that he was a former squaddie (like me), I went on the attack.

We come from the same place, you and I,’ I said. ‘So, I know you’re intimately familiar with information security doctrine. Why, then, did y’all leave me alone in an executive’s suite for twenty minutes with an unlocked network PC, a confidential org chart, and a printed copy of your restricted employee directory? I had more than enough time to compromise those elements. Should I interpret this as an accurate reflection of your organization’s information security policy? Or do you consider this example to be an aberrant departure from your policy?’ The shocked director looked around, nudged the door closed, and admitted (with no small measure of relief), that I’d spotted exactly the problem that the leadership team felt needed to be solved. The lapse in basic security protocol that I’d witnessed was why they were looking to hire a fourth director to lead a new IT services business unit.

Had I not been direct and truthful with that interviewer, I wouldn’t have found out what they were really looking for. The questions the interviewer had prepared to ask all candidates were generic, stock queries about technical skills, education, and professional experience. At no point in the interview did he plan to address the heart of the issue: would I be able to understand and fix their most vexing operational issue. By seizing the initiative and going off-script, I managed to turn a fruitless conversation into a very productive discussion.

Do you see the pattern?

In the first column in this series, I wrote about a difficult job interview question that tends to trip most people up – and when I said ‘people,’ I meant both interviewees and interviewers. I argued that the question that’s asked reveals more about the person asking the question than the answer conveys about the person answering it. Usually, this is because the person being interviewed has a pre-generated answer prepared for the most common corporate interview questions. Which question gets asked illustrates how sophisticated and competent the interviewer is, even though the answer given is often meaningless. The ‘correct’ answer is usually whatever the ‘experts’ in Human Resources decreed was ‘right,’ not what the person being interviewed actually believes.

Most people strive in their interviews to conform to an artificial ideal of the ‘perfect employee,’ even though that ideal doesn’t represent who they really are, what they believe, or how they wish to be understood.

According to every job-hunting expert that I’ve encountered, that’s as it should be: an interview works best (the experts say) when it’s a one-way process of discovery for the hiring manager’s benefit alone. Interviews are supposed to be an interrogation rather than a conversation. That’s why most interviews, in my opinion, are a waste of time for everyone involved. A scripted interrogation may provide the canned answers that the ‘experts’ want and expect, but it rarely gets either the hiring authority or the candidate the crucial information that they need.

I’ve been hiring people as a selecting official and as a supporting panel member for fifteen years. [1] I’ve been interviewing for positions for ten additional years. In my experience, most interviews fail to achieve their purported primary objective: they don’t determine whether or not the applicant will be an acceptable hire. Instead, most interviews are ritual dances where each side pretends to be something or someone that they’re not in order to endure the uncomfortable dance as quickly as possible. The interview is often a formality; the actual hiring decision can be retroactively justified to confirm a selection that had been made long before most of the candidates were ever seen or heard.

When it comes to routine interviews, I’m not a fan. Am I cynical? Yes. Dispirited? Not at all! Quite the contrary: I relish the opportunity to turn an interrogation into a meaningful discussion. All it takes to snatch victory from the nervous jowls of indifference is some deductive reasoning, some active listening, and the willingness to engage in a little swashbuckling.

As a job seeker, I’ve slogged through many interviews where it was clear from the greeting that the entire process was a sham. The interviewer had zero interest in learning anything about me, my qualifications, or my fitness for the open position. Those interviews were often the most liberating because I knew that I had absolutely nothing to lose. After all, you can’t lose a job that you were never going to be offered. Therefore, there’s no compelling reason to not have fun with it.

It’s a purely personal choice. Do you use the wasted interview as an opportunity to practice your technique? Or simply confound your interviewer for your own amusement? Suit yourself. I prefer the former approach, but I enjoy playing with language as part of practicing. 

I’ve been through many more interviews where the interviewer had absolutely no idea how to perform their role. They had no clue what the position they were hiring for actually did. They didn’t know what questions to ask to assess my qualifications. They couldn’t interpret the ‘right’ answer under any circumstances. Those interviews were excruciating, since I could have lost the job … but I probably didn’t want it. Accepting such a position meant I was likely going to go to work for a fool.

Finally, there are those tedious technical interviews that plague all of us in IT. Odds are, you’ve endured one of these, too: an interviewer asks a battery of questions that have one perfect engineering answer. Each challenge is a simple PASS/FAIL query. Even if there are multiple ways to reach the desired end-state, the interviewer has their own chosen solution and no other solution will do. You either know the interviewer’s preferred answer or you don’t. Regardless, neither answer actually tells the interviewer anything at all about you, your experience, your fitness for the position, or the value you bring to the table. I’ve found that most technical interviews are a bloody useless waste of everyone’s time. [2]

I’m saying this because I hate having my time wasted. I would much rather have a hiring agent tell me at the beginning of the process that they don’t perceive me as a good fit and/or that I won’t be considered. Yes, I’ve had this happen. Yes, I really do appreciate it. I enjoy when a hiring agent takes the time to explain to me why they believe I’m not a fit. Right or wrong, feedback helps me to correct my approach and teaches me something about their organisation.

That’s one of my critical objectives when I interview: I want to know who I’m likely to work with. This directly informs the decision I’ll have to make if they offer me the position and if I choose to accept it. I want a reasonable assurance that I understand what I’m getting myself into. I also want to know what the job I’m interviewing for actually is; in most instances, the job that was advertised has little (if anything) to do with the actual position. Finally, I want to gauge the professionalism and sense of humour of the people I’ll be working with … or for.

Remember that a person in the workplace is only showing you a momentary performance of a character that they’ve devised in order to blend it. The real person hiding behind the approved corporate mask is hopefully far more interesting.

The same objectives hold true when I’m on the other side of the table. When people interview with me, I want to determine whether or not they’re a good fit for my organisation. I also want the applicant to know whether or not they’re a good fit, and why we each feel that way. I ask a lot of challenging questions and use unorthodox techniques to get inside a candidate’s head specifically in order to learn things about each person that a pedestrian interview simply can’t reveal. I also build time into the interview process to go over with the applicant what the position actually entails, what the people on the team are like, what the operating culture is like, and how we function in and out of the workplace. I want the person on the other side of the table to know what we’re all about so that they can make an informed decision about whether they want to be one of us. That goes for all of applicants, not just the one we’re most taken by. [3]

With all this said, I’ve decided that the classic corporate interview process itself is a useless farce. It’s weak theatre. It’s a primary school interpretation of Cats, played out in neckties. Neither the interviewer nor the candidate will achieve their objectives by discussing meaningless questions like ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ And yet, companies the world order carry on with this counter-productive process because most of them simply don’t know any better. After all, you can’t emulate a best-practice that you’ve never seen any more than you can win the Cliburn if you’ve never attempted to play the piano.

In the same vein, job applicants slog through bad interviews, one after another, using the same tired approach because they don’t know that they have better ways to go about it. Candidates march into a room full of strangers with a head full of pre-written responses meant to satisfy a finite list of stock questions. They practice responding to interviewer inputs like a minor non-player character in a video game. Then, after playing the game exactly as the ‘experts’ advised them to, candidates get disappointed and confused by a dearth of useful feedback when they should be getting critical information and making a strong, positive impression.

Yes, I realize that many HR ‘experts’ frown on my approach. With respect to HR people everywhere, I understand the core of their argument. They insist that it’s critical to conform to a standard script when attempting to secure a position with people that don’t know you. Many of HR people that I’ve worked with treat job interviews like they’re a Viennese Waltz: if the applicant demonstrates that you can follow the interviewer’s lead without missing a step, then they’ll be favourably inclined to offer the candidate a second dance. A job offer only comes after several perfectly-executed waltzes, and the early ones aren’t intended to be meaningful of qualitative. Only the last one matters, assuming you make that far. If you accept this interviewing model, your best tactic is to be the perfect submissive partner: react predictably when prompted, refrain from making any moves that the dominant partner didn’t expect you to make.

It’s the optimal tactic to employ when you have perfect knowledge of others’ innermost thoughts and of future events. That is to say, never if you can possibly avoid it.

That’s fine if your objective is to secure a job as an assembly-line robot. Oddly enough, I’ve never once sought a job as a robot and have never tried to hire a person to fill a robot’s position. I want to work with people that creatively solve complex business problems for the betterment of customers, stakeholders and regulators. That requires a great depth of people skills. I don’t expect people to listlessly and robotically answer rote queries with pre-recorded sound bites. If I wanted someone to do that in the workplace, I’d put Siri or Cortana on the payroll.

We’re not going to fix the useless interview protocol – from either side of the table – until we change how we think about the entire process.

I believe the mind-set that you take into the interview room is the most critical factor in making the interview successful. This applies to everyone. Both sides want the same thing: for the candidate to be strong fit for position requirements in terms of culture, productivity, personality and goals. If everything comes together, the hirer and the hired both ‘win.’ If only one side is satisfied by the hiring action, then the interview was worse than a waste of time. Hiring the wrong candidate prevents getting the employee the hiring manager actually needs. It’s critical to make sure that the selection is right for everyone involved. That, in turn, requires everyone present to learn who they’re squaring off against.

When I teach advanced interviewing skills, I liken an interview to a fencing match: it’s not meant to be a one-way exchange. In fencing, each swordsman has to rapidly assess their opponent’s skill, fighting style, handedness, vision cone, balance, reach, and reflexes. Once you get a bead on your opponent, you have to craft an offensive and defensive strategy that allows you to employ your strengths against your opponent’s vulnerabilities, and to deny your opponent opportunities to exploit your weaknesses or to lead with their strengths. All of this has to be inferred through a shrewd interpretation of each other’s opening moves and reactions.

To really abuse the simile, some interviewers’ questions telegraph their intent. If you watch their body language and listen carefully to their tone, you can tell which questions they truly care about and which are merely administrative flourishes.

When I was on my university’s fencing team, the start of every match with a new opponent was a very still affair for the first several seconds. As an opening move, each fencer would wait to see what the other would lead with. Advances were tentative until one or the other fighter took a gamble on an attack strategy. Up until the first point was scored, most of the manoeuvres were often rudimentary: probes, intended not to hit, but to see how the other fighter would react. This was the only time that a ‘canned’ or ‘standard’ manoeuvre was appropriate. [4]

This was a different from the matches that we fought against other members of our own team. When I fenced with my mates, we all knew each other’s preferred styles, weaknesses and reactions. Those bouts were a lot more exciting because we had to get wild and unpredictable in order to score a hit on each other. Knowing someone well meant that we could be a lot more expressive. We could confidently try new tactics, because the other fighter already knew you and had accepted you. They wouldn’t spar with you if they didn’t consider you worthy.

As for outsiders … we treated all of those bouts like we would a tournament match. A fighter stepped into the lane opposite and raised their blade. You had no idea what they were likely to do, how good they were, whether they had any sense of restraint, whether they even knew the rules of the sport, or how much they cared about winning. That’s why every duel with a stranger required some subtle back and forth to test one another’s mettle before committing to a course of action.

I believe strongly that the same principles apply in interviewing. No, you don’t get to stab the other person. You do, however, have a responsibility to give better than you get in each exchange. If you already know the person opposite you, great! Have a meaningful conversation. If you don’t know your opposite number, then your first order of business is to figure them out.

It doesn’t help that most people avoid introspection and have only a vague idea of who they really are and what they believe. Expect mixed signals. LOTS of mixed signals.

I submit that it’s each party is responsible for making a concerted effort to learn as much as they can about their opposite number. If the necessary information isn’t coming through in the drone of hackneyed stock questions, then it the underserved party to go on the offensive: draw verbal steel (metaphorically only, please), and fight back! Seize the information that you need to make a sound and justifiable decision, even if it means you have to gamble on some swashbuckler-like conversational dodges, parries and counterattacks.

You need to engage your opponent with exploratory dialogue in order to see how they react. Read their tone, body language, and response time. Adjust your vocabulary and delivery to determine how sophisticated your dance partner is. Challenge their questions before you answer them. Ask for clarification. By offering different lines of thought as possible points of divergence, you can then suss out which direction they’d prefer to go. Introduce humour. Take the discussion off-topic. Start interviewing the interviewer! [5]

That’s not as difficult as it sounds. In the next column in this series, I’ll illustrate some concrete question-and-answer examples that should illustrate what I’m trying to say.


[1] The count is up to 20 years now and I haven’t changed my opinion on this.

[2] Many years ago, I had a bizarre phone interview with a FORTUNE 500 tech corporation that was 100% technical-binary. Their open req was for a project manager for client-side application delivery. The actual interview was nothing but chapter-end quizzes from the Microsoft TCP/IP Fundamentals book. I interrupted the so-called interviewer halfway in and asked why we were spending our time discussing frame headers and port numbers when that information would never once be used on the job. The bored Level 1 interviewer claimed that everyone joining their team had to be network protocol expert no matter what their actual position was. I feel very sorry for their janitor.

[3] There were originally five hyperlinks in this paragraph, all to columns I’d published previously on Business Reporter on the subjects listed. All of those made it in to Why Are You Here? If you want to read them.

[4] I preferred to fight sabre (rather than foil or épée). I also preferred offense to defence, and primarily used feints rather than lunges to score a clean hit. It’s all a matter of personal style. There were many opponents that I scrapped with who forced me to adopt very different tactics, since my preferred approach wouldn’t work against them.

[5] Twenty quid says that right now, somewhere in the world, there’s an HR manager going completely apoplectic over this advice.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

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

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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