how does your job interviewer find out what you’re really like?

When you’re interviewing for a job, it’s easy to wonder how the standard hiring process — a résumé screening, job interview questions, and a reference check — will tell an employer what you’re really like. How are employers able to figure out whether or not to hire you based on such limited contact with so many different candidates? What do they think about and watch for during a job interview, but never say out loud?

The truth is, to some extent it’s a crapshoot. Some employers are better at hiring than others, and there are a lot of untrained, inexperienced interviewers out there who are more or less winging it. There are even interviewers who think they can glean deep insights about candidates by asking them what kind of tree they’d be, or what animal they’re most like, or other pet questions with zero correlation to how well the person would do in the job. (I once worked with someone who was convinced she could tell everything she needed to know about a candidate by whether the person accepted a proffered beverage at the start of the interview.) There’s not much you can do as a candidate if you run into one of those.

But here’s a run-down of some ways that reasonably competent interviewers try to figure out what you’re really like and whether they want to hire you. (I’m leaving aside the obvious factors here, like whether you have relevant work experience and a reasonably pleasant and professional demeanor, which you should assume are always in play.)

1. What does your résumé say about you?

Job interviewers will take your résumé at face value — unless you convince them otherwise. They assume that what they see is what they’ll get. So if, for example, all your work history is in field X and you recently got a master’s in X but you’re applying for a job in field Y, they’re likely to assume you’d really prefer a job doing X — and are likely to be skeptical about hiring you for something they don’t think you’re particularly interested in. If that’s not the case, it’s incumbent on you to explain why you’re making the shift. Or if, say, you’ve never stayed at a job for longer than a year or two, savvy interviewers will figure that you’re not likely stay with them for much longer than that either. If you don’t want your interviewer to take your résumé at face value, you’ve got to proactively and explicitly present a different narrative. (In that job-hopping scenario, it might be something like, “I’ve been working in an industry known for frequent layoffs, so I’m deliberately looking for something where I can stay a long time” or “I’ve moved around a bit due to a family situation that has since been resolved, and I’m eager for more stability in my career now” or whatever is plausibly true in your context.)

2. How do you answer the question, “Tell me about a time when…”?

If you’ve ever wondered what’s behind interviewers’ love of “tell me about a time when…” questions (like “tell me about a time when you solved a conflict with a client” or “tell me about a time when you made a mistake”), the belief underlying them is that the best way to gauge how people will act in the future is to find out how they’ve actually acted in the past. It’s easier for job candidates to bluff their way through a decent answer to a hypothetical question (“How do you think you’d handle a high workload?”) but harder, at least in theory, to B.S. the details about a time that you actually did something (“Tell me about a time when your workload in your last job was at its peak — how did you stay on top of it all?”). Plus, getting you to talk about something you know really well — like a project you actually worked on, rather than a hypothetical — is a good way to get insight into how your brain works and how you operate.

3. How do you communicate?

How clearly and directly do you answer questions? Are your thoughts well organized? When you don’t know the answer to a question, are you forthright about that or do you try to bluff your way through? Do you drone on for ten minutes in response to a basic question that only requires a quick response? Do you pick up on conversational cues (such as an interviewer who’s trying to get you to wrap up that ten-minute response)? Even if the job itself doesn’t require especially strong communication skills, you’ll presumably be working with a boss and co-workers who will want to communicate with you and are hoping to hire someone who will be easy to talk to.

4. How do you talk about challenges?

When you talk about challenging pieces of your current and past jobs, do you sound intrigued/excited/driven by the prospect of solving problems and accomplishing something? Or do you sound more like you’ve chosen to just stick to the bare minimum? This is often the difference between an okay candidate and a great one. People who get genuinely enthusiastic when they talk about navigating through obstacles, and especially people with track records of successfully tackling ambitious projects, are the holy grail of interviewees.

5. How do you handle little details?

I’ve always been interested to see how many job candidates act as if only “official” contacts, like interviews, count and completely let down their guard at other points in the hiring process. They’ll be professional and polished with their interviewer, but be rude to the receptionist or divulge way too much about how much they drank last night to the person who walks them to the elevator post-interview. Or they’ll submit a flawlessly written cover letter, but be weirdly sloppy in all their email communications. Savvy hiring managers are watching everything, not just what you say in the interview room. That also means they’re paying attention to things like how quickly you respond to requests for writing samples or references (which doesn’t mean you need instant turnaround, but it’s going to raise eyebrows if you take five days) and how you communicate around things like interview scheduling.

6. How interested do you seem to be in the job?

Interviewers are human and most want to hire people who seem genuinely enthused about the work, or at least reasonably interested in it. And if you’re up against equally qualified people who seem excited about the job while you seem like you could take it over leave it, that can be a tie-breaker (not in your favor). This can be particularly tricky for people who are naturally more low-key and don’t wear their interest on their sleeves. If that’s you, you don’t need to fake pep or perkiness, but try making a point of sprinkling a few statements like “This seems fascinating” and “The role sounds great” into the conversation.

7. What do your former managers and co-workers say about you?

Good interviewers will ask for references from people who have managed you previously, and will ask those references questions that probe pretty deeply into what you were like to work with, where you excelled, and where you needed more support (that’s reference-speak for weak spots, and framing it that way often gets references to speak more candidly than a point-blank request for your weaknesses would).

None of this an exact science, though, and hiring managers frequently get it wrong. It’s not uncommon for interviewers to be stumbling through the process just as much as job candidates are, which can be unsettling to realize — but also strangely liberating, since it means you shouldn’t take it terribly personally when an interview doesn’t result in a job offer.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 96 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    “Do you pick up on conversational cues (such as an interviewer who’s trying to get you to wrap up that ten-minute response)?”

    GAWD YES. The last person I interviewed was not good at this at all. Everyone I interview has to show me a portfolio of work, and it is not going to go well for you if you insist on telling me about every single piece in it in the order you previously decided on. If I ask you, “Do you have anything to show me in X area?” you should not say yes and then keep making me look at Y instead. You should flip to the X section of your portfolio and start telling me about that!

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Also, if I have any contacts who might have worked with you and are not at your current company, I’m calling them, whether or not you’ve listed them as references. The very best source of information, for me, is candid and detailed feedback from someone who’s worked with the candidate previously.

    2. It wasn't me, honest*

      I turned someone down recently who gave a 5-minute monologue on one topic as the answer to every question. It was his area of specialization but I didn’t need to hear about it more than once. I let him get through 3 questions and then cut the interview short.

  2. Let's Talk About Splett*

    I really agree with #5. And sometimes it’s not even as obvious as Alison’s example. Things like, don’t bombard the HR person with tons of specific email questions about how PTO be used and who is the dental provider and what’s 401k match when all you have had is phone screen.

    1. Trixie*

      #5, I work in HR/Recruiting and am stunned how many applicants do not follow instructions. Job postings all sell out it out (include cover letter, combine materials to one PDF, letter of recommendation sent confidentially by recommender) and yet folks do not get it. Many times the hiring manager or committee comments that they do not wish to hire someone who can’t follow the simplest instructions. They do not have time, energy or desire to babysit someone who appears so high maintenance.

  3. Mallory Janis Ian*

    I liked the response from a commenter, in a previous thread, who said that she got around the expectation of bubbly enthusiasm (which went against her natural temperament) by becoming Very Serious instead. That was at a place where she already worked, and the management expected employees to wear some sort of feeling about the job on their sleeves; she couldn’t do perpetual chirpiness, so when she needed to display her feelings about the work, she displayed a serious intensity, instead. I wonder if the same tactic might work in an interview situation, for those of us who don’t easily emote all over the place.

    1. Susan Sto Helit*

      I’ve definitely shot myself in the foot in the past by allowing my fake enthusiasm when discussing the job I was interviewing for (I was young, I needed a job, it didn’t matter a whole lot what it was) to be contrasted with my actual real enthusiasm (at the end of the interview when making small talk about my interests). It must have been clear at that point what it looked like when I was genuinely passionate about something, and it wasn’t that job. I didn’t get it.

    2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      At CurrentJob, we once had a candidate enthusiastically tell us how excited she was about working here, and my personal reaction was “when she sees what this place is really like, she’ll run away screaming”. I think everyone else felt the same, based on the later comments of “she’s overqualified” and “she won’t stay here”. She didn’t get the offer. Of course, it didn’t help her case that she said “I am so excited about working here, I always wanted to do (thing we most certainly do not do)!”

  4. KiteFlier*

    One question I’ve been getting a lot lately as an internal recruiter – “Do you like working there?” I understand what they’re getting at, but if a recruiter is unhappy in their role, they’re not likely to be honest about it with someone they’re trying to bring in the door! I’d rather be asked “What do you like most about working there?”

    1. Irene Adler*

      Good point. Also, the yes/no question is not the best way to get someone to expound as to why they like working at the company. But your version gets past that.

    2. Caramel & Cheddar*

      The question I prefer to both ask and answer is “What’s the best thing about working here / what’s the most challenging thing about working here?” Theoretically even if you hate your job you can come up with *some* positive about it, and likewise even if you love your job it’s an opportunity to articulate things that might be difficult even if you don’t actively hate those things.

    3. AdAgencyChick*

      That seems like such a strange question to ask a recruiter! Isn’t the recruiter’s working experience likely to be quite different from the experience of someone working on whatever it is the company does? I suppose a recruiter would have things to say about benefits and company culture that would apply to everyone, but otherwise I would expect the recruiter’s job function to be so different from the positions she/s recruiting for that I have no idea what kind of help one expects to get from asking that question. Especially since the recruiter has an interest in answering the question “yes” regardless of how she actually feels!

    4. KHB*

      Setting aside the oddness of asking this of a recruiter instead of someone in the department where they’d be working, maybe they’re counting on the fact that most people are bad liars? I remember an interview where I was asked a long string of questions of the form “This job requires a lot of (tedious thing). Would you be able to do that?” After a while, I could no longer keep up the act, and my replies faded from “Yes, of course!” to “Um, yeah, I guess so.” I think I told them all they needed to know – I didn’t get the job.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I got my start doing a tedious thing – data entry and related tasks – because I didn’t mind it and actually enjoyed parts of it. Also when PCs were first coming in, I really had a knack for working on them.
        I was recovering from a bad childhood and being able to sit at a desk and focus on something nonthreatening was a relief. I was born with an analytical mind and the workings of the database were fascinating.
        20 years later, I have a good job as an analyst! :)

    5. Alex*

      I recently asked a hiring panel during a phone interview what they liked most about the organization. After several seconds of silence, one person said “The trees outside are really nice”. Way to sell it there…

      1. Karo*

        I once asked someone why they worked at their organization (trying to get to the same root). I got “I have a car to pay off.”

    6. DDJ*

      I once had a question along the lines “I saw from your LinkedIn profile that you were probably a millenial, since you look so young. But you’ve been here for x years. That seems like a long time for a millenial to stay in one place! Can you tell me what you like about working here, and how they’ve managed to keep you here for so long?”

      I was the hiring manager for the position. And…thanks for all the thought you put into your question, I guess, but bringing my age into it is probably not the best way to go. The exact same question, without all the stuff about my age (I notice you’ve been here for x years, can you tell me what you like about working here?”), would have been fine. I still found it a bit odd to be looked up prior to the interview, but I guess candidates want to give themselves whatever edge they can.

    7. Nacho*

      I feel like they’re basically the same question. It might not be explicitly asked, but it should be common since that the answer to “do you like working here” is “yes” without elaborating about why you like it/which parts you like.

  5. the gold digger*

    3. How do you communicate? How clearly and directly do you answer questions?

    I interview high school students who are applying to my college. I have tried so many times to get past the scripted answers that start with, “I started a non-profit! I set up a volunteer program!” by asking things like, “What do you do in your spare time?” or “Tell me about your best friend” or “Tell me about a book or a TV show you like.”

    I really and truly want to know about the person behind the script. I know students do all kinds of voluntold stuff to look good on paper, but I want to know if this is someone I would want to have a conversation with in ten years at an alumni event.

    If you won’t give me an unscripted, honest answer, I will not be inclined to give you a glowing review.

    1. Irene Adler*

      I can almost see the train wreck here.
      I bet there’s high school counselors out there right now, coaching the students that college interviewers don’t want to know what your favorite book is or hear you talk about your hobby. They aren’t interested in you personally. You need to impress them with a rendering about what selfless accomplishments you’ve made, how you are making the world a better place and how college fits in with these kinds of activities. That’s what they want to hear.

      Be yourself has always been my practice. Took a while to get there, though.

      1. Marillenbaum*

        Which is why I always told kids that straight out when I worked in college admissions. I wanted to know what you geeked out over–tell me about your favorite thing you’ve read, or your tabletop gaming community, or the time you got bored at your summer job and started writing short stories on receipt tape. The things that genuinely make your eyes light up, those are the things that stick with your interviewer more than anything else.

    2. Mike C.*

      I think you really need to be blunt with students like this to get past all the scripted training and what not. Otherwise they’re going to be convinced that they’re passing the test by resisting rather than failing.

    3. The New Wanderer*

      Books, TV, movies, music – all fine. Activities/hobbies/etc not on my application? Also fine. These are ice breaker, let’s chat kinds of questions.

      But personally, when I was in HS I would have totally been thrown by a question like “Tell me about your best friend.” I also (now as well as back then) hated the question, “Who is your hero and why?” If you’re asking because you want to know what traits I value in myself or others, please ask me that directly.

      1. T3k*

        Yes in particular to the last one (who’s your hero). I was just asked this recently and it probably baffled my interviewer because I actually don’t have “heroes” or “idols”. After explaining this, I instead said something like “but I do think A is cool because they do X, Y, and Z…”

        1. the gold digger*

          The best friend question was out of pure desperation – this student answered every single question I asked with scripted bullet points. I already knew about the groups she’d started and the money she’d raised for charity and the offices she’d held and the events she’d organized. All I wanted was an honest answer about who she was behind the resume (yes, she had given me a resume) – and I still didn’t get that with the best friend question!

          I would not want her as a classmate or sitting with me at an event that was supposed to be fun, but I might have hired her for a job. She had a shark-like focus on her objective.

    4. all aboard the anon train*

      Honestly, I loathe questions like that in interviews. I’m there to interview a job, not to become your friend. If we do have a lot in common, that’s great! But I’d feel weird if someone hired me just because we geeked out over a TV show we both loved.

      Not to mention, I’ve seen enough people judge those answers to know those questions aren’t always great to ask people. I have scripted answers for books/TV/movies/hobbies that are “normal” because I don’t want to lose what could be a great job because someone didn’t like the book I was reading.

      I get pretty annoyed when I want to talk about all I did at my last job and they just want know what book I last read or what my favorite hobby is.

      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        Agreed, and for the same reasons. I would worry about being judged or dragged into a conversation about personal interests. I would rather use the time we have to discuss the job. I’d also be quite concerned if the interviewer kept steering the conversation towards personal subjects rather than discussing work. (I should add that personal subjects can and do come up organically, and that’s different.)

      2. Gazebo Slayer*

        Definitely agreed. I have gotten some serious major judgment in areas like that, so I consider them at least as fraught as actual business talk.

        And I once WAS hired because I shared the hiring manager’s fondness for D&D. It was a disaster. I left because I’d only had one paycheck in three months. When I told him I was quitting, he tried to get me to stay by saying he was doing me a favor because no one else would ever hire me. LOL NOPE.

        He was also fond of going on about how all the other companies were big evil soulless corporations whereas he was “making a living, not a killing.” Yeah, buddy, maybe YOU’RE making a living, but the people working for you sure aren’t.

    5. Optimistic Prime*

      Bless you. I work with high school students who are applying to college and I am FOREVER trying to get them to be their authentic selves – not only senior year when they’re applying to college but in the four years before when they are picking their activities, deciding whether and where to volunteer, starting nonprofits, etc. They’re hearing from every other source that they have to follow this very prescribed, cookie-cutter set of activities and classes and it drives me bananas, especially when I’m trying to help them craft an essay and they’ve got nothing.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        I sympathize with the students.

        In a job interview, your employer cares about your ability to do the job well. You’re being judged on how you present yourself, and your job skills and experience. The interviewer doesn’t care about your volunteer work, sports teams, music lessons, chess ability, that time you travelled in Europe, your relationship with your best friend, your favourite movie, or details of intensely personal issues that you’ve struggled to overcome.

        But with university applications, particularly for competitive schools, students are expected to produce an appealing and carefully planned life package – grades, SAT scores, AP courses, volunteer work, winning competitions, internships, sports, music, arts, starting non-profits, enriching trips abroad, *and* there is an expectation that they’ll have a stirring personal story to add human drama and depth to the package.

        They’re not going to go in and say “I’m smart and I work hard to do well at school. But the only reason I’m doing all this extracurricular crap is to get into a good university. To be honest, when I have a day off, I like to sleep in until noon, play video-games in my pyjamas, and hang out with friends.”

        1. Mad Baggins*

          Exactly! I wrote an admissions essay about why I enjoyed watching educational TV, and how I was curious about the world enough to learn from everything I do. My English teacher told me to rewrite it because it was “too weird”, so I wrote about how a family friend was my hero because he worked hard. I bet the admissions committee fell asleep while reading it.

          I think it’s unfair to complain that students have a facade they present to college admissions when college admissions judge you based on that facade. You wouldn’t be at the interview stage if they didn’t have a good script. What if behind the script is an average teenager just trying to jump through the right hoops to please you?

    6. Violet*

      Something I’ve carried with me since high school is the teacher who told us that one of her standard questions of a student when preparing to write a counselor college recommendation is “What is your passion?” I think something like that take the place of favorite XYX question, because it really prompts a person to talk about what makes them tick. And if they can’t think of an answer, that is also telling.

      That might be more appropriate to a college interview than an employment interview. But I did have a final interview for my current position that was basically a test of culture fit, and felt a lot more like a college interview than an employment interview.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        When I was a teen, my passion was “getting the heck away from here before I die from my parents’ non-physical abuse and finding a way to have a happy life.”
        Looks like I wasn’t college material.

  6. mark132*

    I actually practice a lot of the standard interview questions, Like “Share an instance when you had a difficult boss and how you dealt with it.” My wife and I will go over answers before hand so I’m ready with an accurate but better for getting hired answer.

    The question above for instance I have two examples for it. The good example is the fact I was in the Army so I had to deal with drill sergeants etc making my life suck but hey its the basic training, it allows a good conversation, it gets the fact I was in the service into the conversation (which is somewhat valuable). The bad example is the boss who was such a jerk I once considered punching him. I literally laced my fingers together in my lap to make it harder for me to react. The way I dealt with it was by job hunting, but that is NOT what I wanted to say in an interview. “My boss sucked, so I started job hunting, that’s why I’m here today.” That is way too much truth.

    I think one of the better ways to get more response out of a candidate is to share. Engage them in a conversation. Allow for a free form discussion. Get people telling “war stories”, sometimes by sharing war stories. Make it more a conversation vs an interrogation.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Yes to conversations! The best interviews I’ve had were the ones that turned into conversations, still guided by the questions the interviewer asked but involved more of an engaged back and forth. I came out of those thinking, yes I want to work with this person!

      The worst were the interrogations. The follow up questions were all rote and the interviewer showed no interest or emotion at all. Tell me about a time when X? And then what? And how did you measure success? (Particularly hard when the anecdote I used had no obvious quantifiable metric for success, but the interviewer could not break with the script) I left those thinking this interviewer either doesn’t get me or isn’t interested.

      1. Gregor*

        Unfortunately a lot of interviews are exactly that, interrogations, they feel like they *HAVE* to get their list of questions answered come hell or high water. Unsurprisingly I always fail at these interviews.

  7. Canadian Public Servant*

    Dying to know: what was the “correct” response to being offered a beverage? Am I revealing I am a sociopath if I take the tap water?!?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      She thought it showed graciousness if they accepted, and a lack of graciousness if they didn’t. She also judged what they did with the cup afterwards. I expressed skepticism, but she was certain of it.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        She would not have done well in Minnesota. You’re socially obligated to say no twice even if you’re dying of thirst.

        1. JessaB*

          Same in a lot of cultures, I used to work for the American arm of a Japanese company, the culture of saying “no,” before saying “yes,” is a big deal there too. I would be careful of checking that if I were interviewing in a locale or with a foreign company before I decided which way to answer.

          1. KHB*

            On the flip side, when I was working in the UK, it took me weeks to understand that “Would you like a cup of tea?” was code for “It’s time for us to wrap up what we’re doing and go on our afternoon tea break, so you’d probably better come along whether you want an actual cup of tea or not” – so my coworkers were completely baffled when I would answer “Oh, no thanks, I’m good.”

            This is what drives me up the wall about “guess” cultures as opposed to “ask” cultures – so many of these little unspoken rules actually contradict each other, depending on where you are.

            1. the gold digger*

              I finally had to tell a former boss, who turned me down every time I asked him to walk across the street to the coffee shop – maybe once or twice a week – by telling me that he didn’t drink coffee that it wasn’t about the coffee. It’s not about the coffee!

              He was bewildered, but finally came along and got tea.

              1. NoTea*

                I’d be bewildered too, if not downright pissed off thst you kept asking. If it’s not about the coffee – what the heck IS is about? I don’t get it. I don’t drink tea or coffee. Therefore I really don’t want to go to a coffee shop and spend time and money on something I have zero desire to consume.

                1. Optimistic Prime*

                  Yeah, I’m confused too. If someone phrased it as “Would you like to take a walk with me while I go grab some coffee?” Then yeah, sure, if I have time and I want to spend a good 15 minutes with the person I’ll bite. But if it’s just “Hey, wanna grab coffee?” and I don’t, then I’m going to be like “Nah, thanks though.”

                2. Kiwi*

                  That’s interesting. Here it’d be code for “I want to move things towards a more friendly relationship” and/or “I want to bring you into my inner circle and pass on some info you definitely want to get”. Either way, it’s a compliment and not something to turn down unless you really want to keep things very formal with the person asking.

      2. Blue*

        I always bring my own water and my mind is blown that she’d dismiss me because I was prepared. That’s kind of amazing. I did once have a coworker who felt Very Strongly that people should sign their cover letters with an actual signature instead of just typing their name. (Something about it showing commitment to professionalism? I don’t know, it made no sense.) He was on the committee that hired me, and I definitely did not do that, so at least he was open to giving people a chance…

        1. Specialk9*

          I kind of thought that was a rule too, but I’m not sure it got to Thing status in my mind. I don’t think I noticed when interviewing…

        2. The New Wanderer*

          I used to sign my cover letters when I mailed them via postal mail. Now that everything’s on email/online, am I supposed to print out, sign, scan, and attach the signed PDF? Or try scrawling my signature in Paint and cut/pasting it into the document? Seems… unwieldy.

          1. David*

            I took a photo of my signature one time, and I keep that around and include that in any document that calls for it. But honestly, with electronic documents it seems like it’s more just decoration than anything else.

        3. Close Bracket*

          How do you even do this? Was this before applying online became the norm? Did they want people to print out the cover letter, sign it, and scan it?

          1. Not in US*

            I use an electronic signature on all my cover letters. It’s easy, and it’s cut and paste.

      3. Mad Baggins*

        It’s a lack of graciousness to ask your interviewer to go get you some water?? Why doesn’t that mean I’m respecting their time and I came prepared and hydrated?

    2. MsVm*

      As someone who once knocked over a cup of water during an interview (opened portfolio, as directed, on their desk and…oops…), it is now my policy to politely decline when asked if I’d like a beverage. I once hilariously had an interviewer bring me a filled-to-the-brim plastic cup of water (insisting I needed to hydrate), and I literally wedged it into the furthest corner of their desk when it was time to open up the portfolio. Interviews are so loaded with complexity…

      1. Cassie the First*

        I was training someone the other day, and when I stood up to point at something on the screen, I knocked over my coffee cup (had a lid, but with a slit) and spilled coffee all over her papers, the chair I was sitting on, and the floor. It was mortifying. I can’t risk that in an interview!

  8. Hiring Mgr*

    I like to ask what are is your greatest weakeness that you have NOT yet worked on improving…

    1. Irene Adler*

      And what will that tell you?
      Candidates are coached to respond with things that are not controversial, lightweight and tailored to put them in the best light.
      And I’m still gonna say my greatest weakness is chocolate.

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        Yes, the joke was that most “weakness” questions/answers are of the sort where someone identifes a former weakness then describes how they overcame it.

        I much prefer having conversations rather than back and forth questions and answers… For me, the more a conversation just flows the better I feel about the candidate. Bottom line, as Alison says, it’s always a crapshoot to some degree.

        1. Irene Adler*

          Totally agree! When I interview for lab techs, conversation is one of my key ways of deciding whether to hire. If you can’t talk to me now, then how will we communicate with each other when we’re working in the lab? I’m one of those easily approachable people so it’s not hard to talk to me.

          OTOH, when I’ve interviewed, and the interview was conversation-style, I’ve never been offered the job.

          This really frustrates me because the feedback I get is “you don’t know the product line” or “you don’t have knowledge of (insert name of technology here)”. Yet I was never asked about the product line or the technology and didn’t see a way to show my knowledge during the interview. So when the interview becomes a conversation, I figure that means “Irene, give it up. You aren’t getting the job. Interviewer simply wants to pass the time by having an enjoyable conversation”.

      2. Specialk9*

        Chocolate. I love that.

        I actually use that question to weed out jobs that are bad fits. I use a politer version of “micromanaging” and lay out the level of independent operation I would want to have in a role.

        1. Optimistic Prime*

          I do too, actually. I do talk about a more-or-less current weakness of mine, and while I do discuss the steps I’ve taken to overcome it, I also want to see what my interviewer’s reaction is to it and understand whether that’s going to be an issue. If my weakness is time management and this is a super-strict-deadlines-no-exceptions kind of place…I need to know that up front!

      3. Safetykats*

        Um – yeah. I think I would have to ask for interviewer for clarification. Obviously if I haven’t worked on improving something, I don’t consider it a significant weakness. I haven’t taken the time to prioritize my insignificant weaknesses in terms of importance. Maybe that in itself is my most significant insignificant weakness? That I’ve been too busy working on my more significant weaknesses to prioritize the ones that are so insignificant I’ve chosen not to work on them?

        I’m not sure I would be excited to work for anyone who would ask me that question in an interview.

        1. Irene Adler*

          Thank you for this. You sum up exactly my thoughts on the whole idea of asking such questions. Get to the skill set/job requirements please.

        2. Hiring Mgr*

          Now you’re getting it.. By identifying the fact that you haven’t taken the time to prioritize your insignificant weaknesses, you are actually revealing that your true weakness is time management/mutlitasking. The savvy interviewer will pick up on this

          1. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster*

            Or….. perhaps I’ve spent all my time working on my significant weaknesses, and efficiently prioritized that work over my insignificant weaknesses. Your gotchas don’t really make sense to me.

            1. Hiring Mgr*

              I suppose it all comes down to priorities. Where does one prioritize prioritizing their insignificant weaknesses? If it comes at the bottom of the priority list, no problem. However if it’s near the top, and the prioritization had not been prioritized, well then there’s a gap that needs to be accounted for

            2. Not hiring Hiring Mgr*

              Hiring Mgr likes to post “satirical” comments that are apparently supposed to be amusing. They are not actually engaging in a good faith conversation in comments, and it’s a waste of time trying to make sense of their position.

              Frustrating, I know.

          2. Mike C.*

            How is it poor time management if you don’t waste your time with unimportant things?

          3. mark132*

            I can’t tell if you are being sarcastic here or not. But that is a rather bold conclusion to draw given the single answer.

          4. Close Bracket*

            Are you being so dry that I can’t identify the sarcasm or do you mean this? If the latter … O.o

            1. Hiring Mgr*

              Yes, i was intending to joke about the roteness of the standard questions…Not sure how we trailed off into prioritization of insignificance :)

          5. tryingToCode*

            Clearly, the issue here is that by needing to prioritize weaknesses, that means they have too many weaknesses as a candidate.

        3. Beatrice*

          I have weaknesses that go hand in hand with my strengths, or ones that are so much a part of my personality that I can’t change them and still be myself. Those are useful to bring up in interviews because they help shed light on what kind of workplace I’d fit into well.

          For example – I can be very blunt. I like myself that way and I have zero intention of changing it! I value honesty and clarity and accountability and straightforward communication. When a conversation requires a softer touch, I have strategies – I spend more time preparing for it, and I might postpone it if I am annoyed or irritated and a delay won’t matter, or delegate it to someone who is better at delicate conversations, if that’s appropriate for me to do. When I’m looking for a new job, this facet of my personality is something I take into account when I’m evaluating whether I’m interested in a role, and I’ve used the weakness question in an interview to relay all this information about myself, so they can evaluate whether they’re interested in me.

      4. mark132*

        Bonus points if ball your fists and look up at the ceiling and dramatically scream “curse you delicious chocolate” after saying that. ;-)

        One thing I’ve thought of doing just before retiring is doing a handful of interviews and call the interviewer out on the stupid rote interview questions. I’m mostly kidding, but it’s fun to consider in the abstract.

    2. Dr. Doll*

      One of my favorite colleagues early in my career told me about her interview with the person who hired her (both of our favorite senior colleague): Near the end of a very productive interview, he said — and it was completely out of character for him to care about this, he was one of the free spirits of the world — “You’ll be representing this organization widely on a national basis, is there anything that would make it hard for you to do that in a positive way?”

      My friend blinked and said, “Well…I love to wear rhinestone jewelry.”

      (Obviously she got the job and rocked the hell out of it for several years.)

    3. Lasslisa*

      This was just a very useful question for me in thinking of what I want from my next role. Which of my weaknesses do I want to be considered strengths?

      I’m very direct, and honest. Also, I like to be right. I don’t like to make guesses or say things that are wrong (and it bothers me when other people get facts wrong). I’d like to be in a role where that’s a strength, and encouraged, and not a role where I’m pressured to make something up, guess, agree to whatever the customer/exec wants to hear.

      These are “weaknesses” in that they limit me, but I’m not working much on “improving” them because I would rather not be in a role where I have to suppress those things about myself.

  9. Trout 'Waver*

    Or they’ll submit a flawlessly written cover letter, but be weirdly sloppy in all their email communications.

    This. Ugh. I had someone submit a flawless resume and cover letter, give a “meh” interview, and then write the worst e-mail follow-up. I was on the fence about the candidate until the e-mail. I just imagined getting 3-5 e-mails a day like that one from him and was just like “nope”. It also made me think he had a lot of help writing his cover letter and resume.

  10. NW Mossy*

    I just recently made a hire, and Alison’s 7 are a nice summary of what I was getting at in a broad sense. I went into the process with a defined list of requirements and ruled out anyone who didn’t reach one or more of them. My requirements aren’t black/white things like a degree in X or Y years of experience, but instead a list of behaviors that someone who outperforms in the role would show consistently. I then asked a whole slew of behavioral questions to prompt candidates to illustrate how they’ve behaved in the past to see if it matches with what I’m looking for.

    I ended up hiring someone at a lower level than my original posting – his experience level is low (only a couple years out of college), but he did such a great job of demonstrating the behaviors I was looking for that it made more sense to bring him on than to take up a more experienced candidate missing some of the key behaviors. Every piece of his participation in the process showed engagement and professionalism, too, which put him over the top.

    The candidates that I ruled out all ended up showing me something that was absolutely not a fit – examples include a 4-page resume riddled with errors, being totally flummoxed by behavioral questions, poor references from colleagues, and being lukewarm about their ability to do the job and work well with the team. In many ways, interviewing is a lot about looking for reasons to say no, not reasons to say yes. Those reasons aren’t judgment of the candidates as people, but rather a mismatch between what the job requires and what the candidate shows in the process.

    1. Revolver Rani*

      What you describe is similar to what I was taught in an training workshop on how to interview candidates. The idea was that you write down a few behaviors that a person needs to have to succeed in the role – the workshop materials include a brain-jogging list but you are really supposed to zero in on the three most important behaviors *for that particular role*. The materials then have a framework of behavioral questions (the “tell me about a time when…” questions that Alison describes) that are aimed at the particular behaviors you have identified as key to the role.

      There was a framework for asking the behavioral questions, too – it was something like, you want to get at what the problem was, what steps they took to solve it, what the outcome was, and what they learned from it to apply to other situations. So if the initial answer to “tell me about a time when” doesn’t cover all those points, you have ready-made follow-up questions.

      I like the approach because it’s very systematic and encourages you to think carefully about what’s important for the role, and then to probe for those things specifically.

  11. Future Homesteader*

    I might be tooting my own horn a little, but I’m happy to say that these are all things I consider when hiring. This was not as true a couple of years ago before I started reading this blog, so I really owe a lot of this to Alison and the commentariat.

  12. ArtK*

    With regards to item #1, the resume and the context of a career change, I have a question. I know how to signal the career change in a cover letter. Something like “Although I’ve been doing X for quite some time, I’ve been preparing for a career change to Y and believe that I am ready. Beyond my preparation, there are many skills from X that are directly transferable to Y, such as A, B and C.”

    The question is, how do you arrange the resume to support this, if the vast bulk of your employment has been in X?

    1. zora*

      If it’s possible, prioritize the transferable skills in the bullets below each job.

      But you don’t need to rearrange your resume if you are really clear in the cover letter about the career change. That is all she is saying in the article. “I will take your resume at face value unless you specifically tell me otherwise in the cover letter.”

      1. myswtghst*

        Yes, this. It isn’t about overhauling your resume completely, it’s about highlighting those transferable skills when you list your accomplishments on your resume, to support the statement your cover letter makes.

  13. Close Bracket*

    > So if, for example, all your work history is in field X and you recently got a master’s in X but you’re applying for a job in field Y, they’re likely to assume you’d really prefer a job doing X

    People who do this- why? Why don’t you take job applications at face value?

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Why should I waste my time finding out if you really do want Y? It’s really not that hard to be clear in a cover letter, just like ArtK’s comment above describes.

    2. Lily*

      Because there’s no weight of evidence behind the application. If you’ve got six years experience in X and have applied for our job in Y, I’m going to wonder if you’re just trying to find something to keep you employed until you find a better job doing X. I’m going to wonder if you’ll quit in three months, thus wasting our time and effort. And I’m really going to wonder why you haven’t realised that I’ll wonder those things and made any effort to explain your reasons.

      I’m going to wonder all of those because I’ve been there and done that, and I want to hire someone who WANTS to work in Y. You want the job? Tell me why!

    3. myswtghst*

      If I take a job application at face value, all it tells me is that you have demonstrated the same baseline level of interest in the role as everyone else who filled out and submitted an application. And in some industries/roles where there are tons of applicants for every single job, that baseline might be “I am mostly willing and probably able to do at least some of what was in the job posting in exchange for money.”

      If there are # applicants for a role, and I can only phone screen a certain % of those applicants, I’m not going to prioritize an applicant who lacks direct experience AND who didn’t demonstrate something more than that baseline interest – I’m going to prioritize applicants with experience, followed by less-experienced applicants who clearly demonstrate interest and awareness in the specific field/role I’m hiring for.

    4. tangerineRose*

      People probably don’t take these job applications at face value because most of the time when they get a resume like this, it’s from someone who’s sending resumes everywhere, without really considering if they want to work there.

  14. Monday*

    Would this man be considered the opposite of the infamous Liver Donation Boss of AAM?

  15. Dancing Pangolins*

    I struggle somewhat with the references part, because:
    – they were managing me a while back before I worked on my “weaknesses” and therefore would not be able to talk about who I am today as an employee
    – we did not see eye to eye/get along, especially towards the end. They also did not share my expertise, so it was a constant uphill battle.

    Most of my managers fit both of these and I find it unfair that I need to give them as references…

    I would love to hear from other hiring managers what they think about this. Do they encounter managers who give lukewarm references but the others speak highly of the candidate? Any helpful advice would be welcome.

  16. Empty Sky*

    As someone who has done a lot of interviewing I can confirm that Alison’s points describe my approach fairly accurately, especially #1 through #4.

    Even with the experience I’ve had, I still get it wrong sometimes. I’m generally pretty confident that I can identify top performers, and also people who aren’t appropriate for the role due to not having the required experience, skills etc. As for the in-betweeners, of whom there are many… well, I do my best but it’s always a gamble to some degree. I’ve had some that were hired over my reservations that turned out to be stars, and others I was fairly confident of that ended up being flops.

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