Every Sunday, America's corporate titans share their hiring strategies with The New York Times. "I have a very good antenna about people," Starbucks founder Howard Schultz told the "Corner Office" column. "First off, I want to know what you're reading and then I'll ask you why. Tell me what work-life balance means to you." , privileges her "gut reaction." "Number 1, for me, is instinct. It's all about who they are as a person, their chemistry, their charisma, and their gravitas."
The problem with such freewheeling approaches is that qualities like charisma and compassion are faked in job interviews as much as 90 percent of the time, according to one landmark study. Relying on first impressions and stated values is the hiring equivalent of shacking up with your neighbor after a quick curbside chat. Even if your impression is accurate, there's little correlation between personality and job performance. For these reasons, psychologists who study job interviews recommend honing in on aptitude and skills specific to the job.
People are hugely overconfident about their ability to judge others in general, and recruiters may be particularly so. The reality, says Allen Huffcutt of Bradley University, is that the interview is a dicey venue in which to get a good read on someone. "You've got a high stakes situation, an interaction between strangers, and a general inability to verify what candidates say," says Huffcutt, who has spent his career parsing job candidates.
Huffcutt recommends dispensing with questions that invite tactical or evasive answers: "Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses" or "Why do you want to work here?" For the vast majority of positions, softball questions don't get to the crux of the matter: Does the person have the aptitude to do the job?
Interviewers are drawn to open-ended inquiries because they think they'll zero in on personality. But that is a doubly flawed strategy. Not only does personality turn out to be a poor predictor of job performance, it interacts with situations such that people behave differently in the workplace than they do in other spheres. "If you have very direct cues and rewards [as most workplaces do], people will follow those regardless of their style outside of work," says Huffcutt, who advises, "focus more on competencies."
To do that, one needs to ask structured questions or, better yet, administer tests of competence. A classic structured question for managers asks, "How would you handle a moody employee whose attitude is beginning to impact performance?" The best answer is to privately inquire about their well-being. The worst is to publicly chastise them or put them on probation. Despite the direct window onto the candidate's approach, employers are loath to ask such "rote" questions, which might not showcase their own originality and critical thinking!
The Civil and Foreign Service may far outstrip the private sector in aptitude-based hiring. The Department of State and other arms of government administer tests that measure knowledge and "core competencies," which scale closely to tests of general intelligence. According to Purdue's Michael Campion, who has worked for decades with federal agencies including the Foreign Service, tests given to Foreign Service candidates predict job performance partly because they are correlated with intelligence.
If intelligence is the "it" factor, then only one recent "Corner Office" CEO has the right approach. Online entrepreneur Kevin O'Connor favors the stress interview, lacing the discussion with non sequitur such as "How smart are you?"