Making the most of bad interview questions

September 22, 2014

A friend of mine recently sent me a brilliantly written article by Forbes columnist Liz Ryan titled ‘Smart answers to stupid interview questions’. The writer takes pot shots at the inanity of the job interview process, particularly around the buffet selection of ‘stupid questions’ that have taken pride of place at every interview table. She summarizes them into three classically stupid questions: (1) What is your greatest weakness? (2) With all the talented candidates why should we hire you? and (3) Where do you see yourself in five years? You have to read the article yourself to find out what she really thinks should be the true answer to those questions. However, I smiled as I read the piece as she may as well have been talking about an interview in the cool climes of an Uppherhill office as she was talking about one on Wall Street.

Firstly, having sat in on countless interviews from the most junior entry level employees to potential CEOs I can say with utmost certainty that the most favorite answer to the first question about what is your greatest weakness is“Impatience”. Invariably, the successful candidate who said “impatience” during her interview cannot answer your email in a week let alone a day. She is impatient with slow people around her but never turns the lens on herself when output is required to be delivered within reasonable time frames. She is impatient when work is not delivered to her on time by subordinates and often does the job herself because she believes in the mantra that “if you want a good job done, you have to do it yourself.” Be very careful of the candidate that answers impatience as a weakness. It’s a much easier and less wicked vice to admit to having than other vices like “I love backstabbing my colleagues by talking smack about them to the boss at any given opportunity.” Or the team building classic: “I love hearing good ideas and taking credit for them when the boss asks whose idea it was.” I’d love to see the candidate who admits: “I hate taking orders from anyone and that’s generally a weakness I struggle with, but I am seeing a counselor about it. Does the company medical policy cover psychological counseling by the way?” Folks: no one is ever going to admit their greatest weakness to you unless you are either (a) their priest or (b) their soon-to-be-ex-lover.

The second question relating to why should the company hire you over and above the other candidates provides a moral and cultural quandary to many candidates. You are asking the candidate to brag and to show up the other candidates making them pale in comparison to yourself. In many cultures, bragging about your achievements at the expense of making your peers look inconsequential is frowned upon and viewed as conduct unbecoming. Your resumé should speak for itself and, failing that, the interviewers should use their powers of comprehension and deduction to arrive at which of the candidates is the best amongst those before them (which they actually do end up doing anyway!). However, one can also argue that this question gives the candidate the opportunity to sell himself, demonstrating self-belief and confidence that are basic requirements and the staple for every single job description in this world, right? Wrong! This is not the annual Baringo goat auction. The candidates do not need to say why they are great for the interview panelists to determine if they are suitable for the job. Furthermore, the candidate doesn’t even know who the other candidates are anyway, otherwise it would end up being a slugfest: “If you guys are thinking of hiring that Susan lady who walked out of here, you must be totally nuts. She couldn’t organize a party in a brewery even if the instructions were stapled to her forehead.” Therefore how then will the candidate be able to give an honest answer as to whether they are the best candidate for the job when, chances are, there is another candidate who they know is undoubtedly better than them. This question, if anything, is asking the candidate to lie. Just like question one about greatest weaknesses.

The final “stupid” question asks: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Look, I get it. We want to see if the candidate has (a) ambition to grow herself and (b) a medium to long-term outlook on her chances of sticking with the organization. Once again, we are asking our candidates to lie. Truth be told, no one knows where they will be in five years, let alone tomorrow. We wake up every morning thankful to our chosen deities for giving us the chance to live another day. We pray (for the spiritually inclined) and hope (for the non-spiritually inclined) that we will be alive in five years. Then we pray or hope that we will be financially freed from the shackles of this very employment we are groveling for so that we can follow our true passion be it sailing, growing exotic bonsai trees or painting serene landscapes. Because, as you all very well know, we work so that we can live, and if we didn’t have to live, we wouldn’t have to work. There are of course one or two frenzied exceptions who live to work, but obviously those are the ones following their true passion and who don’t see what they do as work. They are few and far between and a complete fresh of breath air to be around. Their joie de vivre is heady and intoxicating making us wish that we too could be doing what we truly love doing which is likely not in someone else’s organization. How many good candidates have we lost because they didn’t want to lie about their weaknesses, their perceived talents or their location in the future? One thing’s for sure: a 30-minute interview is the worst beauty contest ever.
Twitter @carolmusyoka


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