how to ask references about a candidate’s personality

A reader writes:

I run a nonprofit and hire part-time workers to work in recreation-type centers across the city. Strong interpersonal skills are part of what we look for. However, interviews make people nervous, and it can be a little hard to judge those skills in interviews.

My question is about checking references and getting managers to talk about interpersonal skills with us. For example, we recently interviewed someone who was great on paper and good during the phone screen, but was much weaker in person and seemed so nervous that it was hard to get a read on what she would be like day-to-day. I moved forward to the reference check just in case. No one would give me anything other than glowing reviews about her interpersonal skills, and it sounds terrible now that I’m typing it out, but I just wasn’t convinced. If managers had said “yeah, Mary can come across a little oddly on first impression, but she has XYZ strengths that helped her build strong relationships,” then I would have had my mind put more at ease.

We ended up not hiring Mary for a few reasons, but mainly because it just felt too risky based on our gut reaction to her.

But since this comes up every once in awhile, how should I handle situations like this? How frank can I be when asking past managers about social skills? Can I say “Mary came across a little oddly in our conversation, like she was extremely nervous; is that something that has been an issue in the past?” I’m having trouble thinking of direct questions to get at this issue!

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 95 comments… read them below }

  1. staceyizme*

    This one is hard. Because you don’t want to be prejudicial or hasty in turning someone down, but the truth is that how someone shows up to an interview counts towards your perception of their competence in major ways. So you can’t really go ahead and hire someone who is unable to work with you in terms of sharing space comfortably during the interview. There are going to be exceptions, but in no case where you’re unable to understand why the awkwardness is unfolding should you default to “of course there’s a reasonable explanation” and just proceed with advancing that candidate. The only thing that gives me pause here is the contrast between “glowing reviews” and your disinclination to believe them. Is there any chance that you were a little “off” that day, yourself, OP? Maybe something about the way that you interacted or the way that you came across? If not- well, you can’t hire an unknown.

    1. allathian*

      This is true. But it’s also true that many people absolutely rock every interview, but turn out to be mediocre employees at best or annoying troublemakers at worst.

      1. This is She*

        And the reverse — I am a damn good employee, if I say it myself, but I don’t interview all that well, unfortunately.

  2. Smithy*

    When it comes to valuing soft skills at work, I think that the more you can take the time to really articulate exactly what kind of interpersonal skills you value – the better you’ll be at interviewing, reference checking, but also in coaching staff.

    Are skills valued by being able to quickly connect? Maintain a relationship over time? Verbal communication of directions? Building group cohesion? Demonstration?

    Maybe it really is all of those, but taking the time to drill down what is valued and why can really help

  3. Modest Anony Mouse*

    I’m inclined to be skeptical of gut reactions to how people present during interviews.

    We ask candidates to give a short, prepared presentation right before or after a traditional interview (presentations are a core part of the position), and I’ve often been surprised by how differently people appear during the presentation and their interview. Someone who is awkward and shy during the interview can turn into a strong and confident presenter.

    Is there any interpersonal task that you could simulate when interviewing? That would give you a better idea of the person’s suitability.

    1. Mel_05*

      Me too. I interview pretty well. Not amazing, like the woman from a week or two ago, but pretty well. And it’s because for brief, interview lengths of time I can be sunny and charming.

      But, I can’t keep it up. The first full week of work at a new place is draining. I get super quiet and people get horribly worried that they’ve made a mistake. Every. Time. Then I get settled and it’s fine.

      And on the flip side, some people interview horribly, but once they’re not a bundle of nerves about the interview, they’re perfectly personable.

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        I’m glad you said this. We once hired an intern who just SLAYED the interview. You couldn’t imagine not working with her. But then when she reported on day one, she was suddenly a turtle closed up in a shell. She did eventually come back out–and the hire was worth it. But it took a bit of time.

      2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        Yep — I do not interview well at ALL. Both my career jobs, I got started as a temp and knocked everyone’s socks off, then got hired in permanently (and subsequently promoted) on the basis of having demonstrated my general awesomeitude. Which is fantastic, to a point, but has never really helped me much in terms of improving my interview skills. :P

        (Mostly, the problem is that I am neuroatypical with associated social awkwardness and also have a very healthy self-esteem about my capabilities, bordering on ego, and I get nervous that me telling people how fantastic I am is going to cross the line into egotistical and off-putting, so I get all wishy-washy. As long as I can *demonstrate* the awesome, rather than just talking about it, I seem to do okay.)

        1. MissDisplaced*

          That’s really interesting Red Reader. I identify with your description, but I’ve never heard this called neuroatypical. I also strongly identify with Myers-Briggs INTJ type, which sounds a little bit similar.

          I also tend to tramp down my skills and favor “we, the group, the team, etc.” rather than “I did, I directed, I accomplished” in interviews because I had understood companies value “teamwork” so much (I actually prefer working mostly solo), and also because it was how I was brought up being female (as in don’t brag or rub other’s noses in the fact you’re smart). But at one interview, someone in Europe asked me bluntly: “Well what did YOU do?” Needless to say, I did not get that job.

          1. Nanani*

            Not to speak over Red Reader but I think this needs a warning:
            Neuroatypical isn’t a personally type or something you identify as – it usually means the person has some sort of diagnosis. Neurotypical people have “normal” brains and no diagnosis (e.g., autism) to make them *A*typical.

            *I do not know Red Reader and this is not meant to ‘splain their brain, just to clarify the meaning of the word neuroatypical

          2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

            Nah, I wasn’t intending to link the NA and the ego, they’re two very separate things (for me at least) – they just seem to occasionally trip over each other and cause problems. I’ve always figured that finding the line between “I’m awesome and well aware of it” and “I’m gonna bury everyone under my ego” would be easier without the combined neuro and social wonk, but maybe that’s not the case, I dunno :)

            1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

              I think it’s challenging for a lot of people, including many AFAB people because of socialization. Adding neurodivergence (or even just a hearty degree of social awkwardness) to the mix probably things more difficult. I could get into all the reasons why I suspect that’s the case, but I won’t.

              Honestly, if you’re receiving well-crafted behavioural questions during your interviews, and your previous jobs required any degree of collaboration with others (and it was successful), it’ll be pretty difficult to own your awesomeness in a way that comes across as egotistical unless you actually have an ego issue. So go let your awesomeness flag fly a bit more :)

        2. calonkat*

          I also seem to interview poorly, I’ve been in one job now for over 10 years, and they love me and keep giving me promotions. I’m really good in phone interviews too. But I’m apparently just odd in interviews, and can’t get a job based on that. But everywhere I temped wanted to hire me permanently (or keep me long term as a temp in one case, but that company was awful.)

      3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I’m happy to read this, because now I know I am not alone. I can ace interviews (although I can’t sleep the night before then I’m completely drained afterwards) but I can’t it for much longer than that. Having to smile at all kinds of random people really knocks the stuffing out of me. Luckily my line of business involves deep concentration for long bouts at a time, so my introversion can recover as I work. Then, a while later, people realise that yes, Rebel rocks at her job, I’ve earned respect and can totally work even with random people once they know they can count on me.

    2. Kiwilib*

      I’ve sometimes had a peer show candidates around. Some candidates relax, as the interview’s over, and the peer gets a different impression than the interviewers. Especially useful for nervous candidates.

      1. TechWorker*

        Also useful for the other end of arrogant or rude candidates who may drop their guard with a peer :p

    3. Anon for Today*

      I’ve ignored my gut twice about a candidate’s interpersonal skills (one was very pleasant and charming, the other wasn’t but was just extremely nervous) and both times were a disaster. Now I try not to get dazzled by someone who is very charming and do my best to put others’ nerves to rest while really paying attention to answers to my questions.

        1. Anon for Today*

          She used lots of buzzwords and just extremely charming to the point that I overlooked the fact that she glossed over a lot of my harder hitting questions. She had such an outgoing personality that it overshadowed some of the warning signs in her, what I now recognize as, canned answers. Plus, I just had one of those feelings…it’s hard to explain…

          1. Tired of Covid-and People*

            So she came across as phony. What are canned answers? Doesn’t everybody practice their interview answers, and read books telling them how to respond? Interviewing is such a game.

    4. Brusque*

      Yes that sounds quite fair. I’m extremely vary of charming people who seem unfazed by almost everything unless situations of high scrutiny are part of their job description.
      I’ve had an internship in a psychological faculty during my time at university and met some extremely upbeat and charming diagnosed narcissists there. Yes I mean real narcissists, they where in therapy for that.
      Dazzling personalities I can tell, but hell did they have issues! And it was quite common to hear that they easily got almost any job as soon as they got interviewed but couldn’t keep them due to their antisocial tendencies.
      So unless its an entertainer, a stand up comedian or an improv artist I’d be vary of anybody who is far too calm and happy during an interview. It’s a stressfull situation. It’s normal to be a bit nervous. So if there’s nothing but careless joy it makes me nervous.

      1. Koalafied*

        I do a fair amount of public speaking in my field, and for me there’s a strong correlation with how well-qualified I am and how nervous I am in interviews or public speaking. If the role/topic is 100% within my existing skill set and work I have years of direct experience doing, I’m a very relaxed speaker. If I know the material backwards and forwards, then I’m confident that I can answer any question that might come up off-the-cuff without any special preparation, and that means I’m not worried no matter how high the stakes are.

        But if there’s any kind of stretch involved, I typically will prepare ahead of time by trying to anticipate what they might ask me about that would stump me and brush up on those areas, but it’s an unknown-unknowns problem – I can never be sure I’ve thought of everything that might come up. So in those situations I get nervous because I’m afraid there will be a question I wasn’t expecting, didn’t prepare for, and will be unable to answer or sound stupid.

        It’s like the difference between being asked to explain how quantum computing works, where I know the broad strokes but definitely couldn’t answer ANY follow-up/probing questions, vs being asked questions about my cat. There is no question about my cat that I won’t have something to say in response to. Some parts of my work are like that, too.

        1. Anon for Today*

          I think there’s a difference between being able to confidently answer questions with specific examples that can be verified and just speaking off the cuff bulls*** and being vague when being pressed.

          1. Anon for Today*

            Oops, sorry, hit send too soon…not to say that you were being deliberately vague because you were nervous because you were unsure or unfamiliar. I’d like to think that most normal interviewers could know the difference (at least I would).

        1. allathian*

          Yes, but the secret is not to hide it too well! A bit of nervousness is normal and shows that you’re invested in the interview. No nervousness at all can happen if you’re totally uninterested in the job, as I was at times when I was unemployed and had to apply to X jobs a month to keep getting my benefits and sometimes had to interview. Obvious self-sabotage would have been penalized, but there were times when I was hoping they wouldn’t hire me. No nervousness at all can also mean that the person has some pathological issues. I’ve worked for a “narcissist” once, and I won’t willingly do it again. I was hired by someone else who moved on, and this was the replacement. I lasted two months before I started looking for another job and I left pretty soon afterwards. I doubt they had an official diagnosis, but they certainly ticked all the boxes.

          I’m also surprised that some people who’ve been diagnosed with narcissism are actually in therapy. In general, narcissism is one of the most difficult mental health issues to treat, because most narcissist refuse to believe that there’s anything wrong with them that needs treatment.

          1. Anon for Today*

            TBH, I’m surprised narcs get diagnosed by a professional at all, give their aversion to therapy. I would think it would be almost entirely accidental (like through couples therapy) or court ordered.

    5. Tabby*

      Guilty. I don’t interview well, unless it’s a working one. Im far more comfortable shiwing you my ability to deal with the dog or cat than telling you about it. It’s just how i am. Im better at interaction with animals than I am with humans. Ive somehow managed to be an anxious dog whisperer; I once accidentally managed to get one client’s nervous dog to become super attached to me, and I still don’t know what I did.

  4. MissDisplaced*

    I think in a way, you’ve sort of answered this in your first paragraph. It might help to give the reference more context, especially if the applicants may have had held other or different jobs previously. Something like:
    “I’d like to about Mary’s interpersonal skills. This role and job is for a nonprofit in recreation-type centers across the city. As such, strong interpersonal skills are part of what we look for, specifically X and Y, if you could think of anything that sets her apart in those areas.”

    1. tg*

      I would still have no idea what you want if you said that. I think the person above who suggested drilling down to identify more exactly what skills you need is right, you need to think about exactly what you need.

      1. WellRed*

        I agree, tg. Need more information about the role and how interpersonal would fit in (need to have patience with disdavantaged youth and be able to hold the hands of wealthy donors).

  5. Khsd615*

    I would reconsider telling a candidate that they seem soft-spoken in the interview. As someone who has interviewed a TON in the last two years, that would be difficult to respond to in the moment. Interviews are so artificial- you’re trying to come across as confident and competent while also being fully aware that a team of people is judging you- HARD. Talking about past experiences is the easiest way for me to showcase my personality for sure but it would really throw me to feel like someone was making assumptions about me so quickly.

    1. TechWorker*

      Would you prefer the interviewer assumed you *are* too soft spoken for the role though? I feel like if the interviewer tries hard to be indirect you can end up not getting the answers you actually need… which means when you’re comparing the candidate to others you end up with doubts and (as in this case) end up not hiring them.

      Surely someone saying ‘you seem quite soft spoken’ and then giving you a chance to elaborate is not really making a snap judgement it’s giving you their impression…

      1. boo bot*

        You could ask the same question without that line? “This job requires fielding some pretty difficult personalities, can you tell me how you’d approach that?”

        I think it’s probably an important thing to ask any candidate – someone who comes across as outgoing in an interview could also be conflict-averse in other circumstances.

        Not totally related, but I would also want to be more specific about “difficult personalities” because as a candidate I would have no idea if that meant, “this job requires working with the public,” or “this job requires working for a narcissistic tyrant who puts magic curses on us when we make mistakes.”

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, I agree that saying someone seems too soft-spoken for a role is can come across as criticism of someone’s personality. It’s much more productive to ask questions about how they would act in a certain situation, and to bring us back to the topic, it would also be useful to ask references about how a candidate was able to handle the sort of situations you’re wondering about.

        2. Elise*

          Additionally, as a soft spoken person myself, sometimes we can be great at dealing with difficult personalities because we aren’t just talking over each other. I’ve taken over many customer interactions in my public service days where two strong personalities were banging their heads at each other and my soft touch (while still enforcing policies and boundaries) was more successful. So I would be able to use those as an example, but it would be embarrassing in the interview itself to be told I’m too *something* for a position and asked to defend myself. I’d frame the question in a different way to get the answer.

    2. Threeve*

      Yeah, that would kind of get my hackles up. Particularly because the difference between “soft-spoken” vs. “measured and thoughtful” can sometimes be a matter of appearance, age or gender.

    3. Not A Girl Boss*

      Yeah, especially since I am usually awkward during first meetings because I’m so terrified of making a bad impression (the book “how to be yourself” has helped me with this). I would want to melt in a puddle under the table if someone attacked me about my worst fear mid-interview.

      That said, a job where I’d be making first impressions all day long is a hellish nightmare to me. I’m great if I get to meet a small team and have some time to open up. But new people every day is a hard pass.

      1. Khsd615*

        It could just be the specific example of ‘soft-spoken’ that is getting to me. I can be quiet, don’t love small talk, hate getting to know people in large groups, am an introvert, etc. but have no problem being assertive in my job. In an interview setting where I feel like I need to be at least somewhat deferential, that ‘quiet’ part of me can take over but that feels like a result of the interview dynamic, not a true representation of what I am like when on even footing speaking with colleagues. So I would be frustrated to hear soft-spoken as a concern because it feels like the result of a situation I have no control over.

        1. Yikes dot com*

          Moreover, I think people also fail to account for how much harder it is to explain anything about your job for another employer without context and with the added stress of needing to frame it to strangers who are not clients. The truth is most people leave jobs because of reasons. And honestly, if leaving a job was seen more like ending a relationship, where being able to say “it wasn’t a good fit” or “it just didn’t work out” is acceptable, this would all be so much easier. Between not wanting to look like you are “bad mouthing” a former employer and how many people are literally under NDAs as part of their seperation agreements, sometimes people seem disgenious because they are in a position where they literally can’t just explain it the same way you would from inside the job (even to external parties).

    4. Alianora*

      I disagree. I’m pretty well described as soft-spoken. I would appreciate the chance to address any concerns the interviewer had about that. Being soft-spoken has been really helpful when working with difficult personalities, because it’s like a natural buffer. Actually, I bring it up myself in interviews sometimes because I know I come across that way and it helps me get ahead of that perception.

      Although it seems like some of the other commenters are considering it a negative description, whereas I think of it as more neutral. So if an interviewer described me that way, I wouldn’t take it as a judgment, exactly. Just a true statement.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I can be soft-spoken (so long as current affairs don’t come up as a topic!) and I think it’s a great idea to “get ahead of that perception”, it’s perhaps not a trait interviewers would comment on. Come to think of it, if they did comment, it could make me totally clam up (“you come across as rather shy, are you always like that?” gulp!)

  6. Pretzelgirl*

    I have a friend I could see being like this. She is an incredibly hard worker, has worked since she was 14. But she is very awkward with people she doesn’t know. She is shy and soft spoken, when you first meet her (but is the total opposite when you get to know her). Its gotten a bit better, as she has gotten older but is still present. So I could see where this could come in handy for her.

  7. Dandy it is*

    I was interviewing this poor woman once who was so nervous she could not stop shaking. It was awful. I had tried to calm her down by redirecting and asking more about her. I went with the general do you have an hobbies. She looked at me in horror for about 15 seconds and finally yelled out “I like stuff and things!!!” She was then completely mortified and said I can’t believe I said that. After another minute or so, she looked at me and said she liked to travel (before times) and photography. Unfortunately, I knew she would never be able to make it through the interview with the boss or handle him on an ongoing basis.

    I don’t have a power out here or can say she got the job and it worked fine. We had to pass. It has been over two years and I still feel awful for her.

    1. WellRed*

      You did what you could and I think you make the right call. For the record, if someone asked me about hobbies in an interview I’d be momentarily stumped (I don’t knit or fish or anything that makes me think “hobby.”) fortunately, I interview mostly well.

      Hopefully, after that experience, she found a way to cope with interview nerves.

      1. Andy*

        The worst about hobby question is having to guess which hobbies are “good” and which are “bad” per interviewer biases.

        And which count and which do not count, given that I don’t have all that much time to engage in hobbies. It is sort of thing you loose when the kids are small .

  8. Not A Girl Boss*

    I’ve started to ask a lot more questions about who candidates get along with and how they interact with people to solve problems, and it tells me so much more than I hoped/expected about their personality type.

    In your case, a question like “How do you normally break the ice with a new client?” or “What clients do you click best with?” or “What energizes you?”

    My new favorite question is “if you had a group project, what are the traits of people you’d want on your team, and who are people you’d hope didn’t end up on your team?” because the answers tell me so much about what they value in social interaction and have been shockingly honest so far. I’ve gotten answers like “I hate it when I’m on a team and no one pauses to ask what I’m thinking” which would be a bad fit for our culture where everyone jumps in with both feet and if you have an idea you’re expected to blurt it out. And I’ve gotten horrifying answers like “I prefer to be the team lead so I would only want people who are good listeners.” But I’ve also gotten answers that hint to a really good fit like “I want people who are always thinking of ways to improve things” or “I’m detail oriented, so I need to balance that with people who can help me sort out the big picture.”

    1. Firecat*

      That’s a great question.

      I know for me the not on my team would be knowledge hoarders -people who don’t share their knowledge or purposfully obsficate their tasks.

    2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      These – especially the group project one – are such great questions not just because they give you a sense of whether the candidate would be a good fit for your team, but because they’re very good fodder for assessing the candidate’s self-awareness through references. If you ask a reference about the types of teams where the candidate has been most or least effective, and it seems to align well with what the candidate said in the interview, that’s an instant EQ check mark right there. If not…

      For example, I’ve had a colleague who went on a lot about how they needed their teammates to be thoughtful and humble. The challenge with this colleague, though, is that they did not cope well on teams where they weren’t in an obvious team lead position or where anyone else involved has the same domain knowledge as them. “Thoughtful and humble” was really about something else.

      1. Not A Girl Boss*

        Oooh that’s such a good idea to ask the reference checkers too!

        Yes, I have found that candidates who really harp on wanting “good listeners” or “team players” are aren’t good listeners or team players themselves. Which kind of makes sense, often we want people on our team who are the opposite of us.

        1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          FWIW, though, I’m the kind of person who might say that they really value team members who are actually open-minded and good listeners, but only because I’m exhausted from having to stickhandle the non-team player I described. So there’s a chance that some immediately iffy-seeming responses might be coloured by a candidate’s previous environment. Similarly, I suspect that candidates who are a bit less assertive might might provide answers that might be red-flag raising if they came from someone with a more dominating communication style.

          I like also asking what types of people they’d prefer to not end up with, because it’s likely to help you make far better sense of their first answer.

      2. Autumnheart*

        Oof. I don’t think there’s a good interpretation to be found about someone who needs *their teammates* to be the humble ones. That immediately makes me think, “This person wants to be the only star on the team” and would make me wonder what lengths they would go to in order to foster that perception. Being able to share credit, or especially, to *award* credit to someone who isn’t taking their share, is a pretty important quality.

        1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          I’d agree that yours is the most likely interpretation. The person who said this, oddly, didn’t seem to want the spotlight or take credit so much as they simply don’t cope well when a situation presents the opportunity to stray from a structure they’re comfortable with, so they can’t work well with something they don’t own or control. Everything going on there is such an unusual blend of intrapersonal and interpersonal traits that it would have been difficult to figure out from these questions alone, whereas asking a reference would uncover at least some of this.

    3. Michaela*

      As I candidate recently I asked a similar variation on this theme: “What are the gaps in your team’s skills set?”

      One said nothing that they had all the skills and just needed bodies, meaning in my mind they don’t want people to collaborate. Another was a start up and they said everything, so not particularly surprising on that one. The third, which is where I landed, mentioned stuff like data analytics and stakeholder management, so they had an idea of what skills they already had, and what they needed for a better rounded team.

      It’s really thanks to AAM that I ask these sorts of questions now, and the responses are truly fascinating.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        Oh, I really like that! Made me think of how when I was laid off, it was because I was seen as “just another body” without unique skills to contribute (I have them, the mgmt of that group didn’t know or care). In my current team, I am definitely recognized as having skills that would otherwise be missing so I feel valued. It makes a huge difference.

  9. Erelen*

    As the person who is “soft-spoken” and “not very assertive,” please ask! You might be surprised. I’ve heard those concerns before, and I’m always happy to explain that while I am not traditionally assertive, I am plenty stubborn and simply have a different way of dealing with people. In some ways my non-confrontational methods can be more effective when dealing with difficult personalities. And if those concerns are expressed to my former coworkers… you’ll have to wait for them to stop laughing for them to tell you it’s never been a problem. :)

  10. DRS*

    As the hiring director — I can say that I have had a mixed bag when going with ‘my gut’. One person looked great on paper and even during the interview — turned out to be the worst part-time person I have ever employed. Another was such an introvert that I couldn’t even get her to look me in the eye. However, she had multiple disabilities and after speaking with others who knew her, I decided to give her a chance. When I hired her, I told her that she didn’t have to have long conversations with the people that she assisted but she had to say hello when they walked in the door and listen to what they were asking for — 3 years later, she has gone from part-time to full-time and she is now the head of her department. She starts conversations with people, raises her head, looks people in the eye and is very friendly with our repeat visitors! She has come such a long way that it makes me very glad that I listened to my gut!

    1. allathian*

      Yes! This is great. I bet that her confidence has increased a lot because she knows she’s a valued employee.

  11. JohannaCabal*

    I’m going to go ahead and admit I’m not the best at interviewing and I’m sure I present as very nervous.

    That said, if you sense that a candidate might not work out, listen. When I was responsible for hiring, I had a terrible gut feeling that one candidate would not be a good fit. They presented themselves well during the interview and on paper were a good fit. Yet something felt off . I shrugged it off as the position needed to be filled.

    Candidate turned out to be a Bad Employee. Argumentive, felt the job was beneath them, wanted time off on Day 1. Bad Employee lasted only two weeks. Those were two weeks too long.

    Looking back, I wish I had stepped back and asked myself why my gut was telling me they wouldn’t work out. Later, I took another look at that person’s resume and realized they were from a totally different industry where they got to touch shoulders with celebrities. I realized then that the candidate was looking for a stop-gap job after being let go from their last job and the job we offered was indeed a step down.

    Lastly, I will say that the Bad Hires I’ve seen all interviewed very well with confidence while my star employees tended to underplay themselves. Hmm….

    1. Mel_05*

      Yeah, I don’t know that I think every confident interviewee is going to be bad, but there are a surprising number of people who’s main professional skill is to interview well.

    2. Firecat*

      Yeah, I’ve known some absolute flounders that can talk a big game.

      That’s why I think the behavioral interview questions go so far.

    3. Anon for Today*

      Same here, trusting my gut and really asking myself “what bothers you about this candidate” has really helped me (conversely, asking myself, “what about this candidate would make them successful in the role” when the person presents really well). Your “gut” isn’t just a feeling, it’s a reaction to the information that was given.

  12. Yikes dot com*

    I feel like hiring managers/interviewers sometimes don’t take into account that a job interview is an extra awkward encounter because the interviewee is always going to be less informed about what is going on and what is expected of them than in literally any other work situation. I can’t even think of a work situation that is directly comparable to the first rounds of a job interview in terms of the POV of the interviewee. I can see how the later stages of a multiple round interview with real negotiations could reflect on how someone would be in the role, but I think the process is genuinely slanted too heavily towards the employer to be too hard on someone for being nervous or less confident. They actually are in a situation where they are being scrutinized beyond what is normal for the workplace without clear guidelines.

    1. Mel_05*

      The only thing I can think of is sales. My nightmare. They’re constantly researching new clients, trying to sell them on the company, figuring out how to work with them. If you’re hiring for sales, you probably do need someone who isn’t awkward in the interview.

      Although, I would implore all hiring managers to consider other skills their sales people will need as well. Like clear communication and reading comprehension. For the sake of everyone who works with them.

      1. Yikes dot com*

        Sales is actually the exact opposite. I can’t think of any group of people who are given more direct explicit guidelines about what to say and what not to say than people who work in sales or honestly anything with clients. Without a script, the only thing a sales person typically can do is say something to effect of “I’m not sure, but I can find out for you.”

        1. anon for now*

          That hasn’t been my experience at all. I’ve worked closely with sales teams and done client facing work, but aside from “cheat sheets” of information, no one has ever had a script.

          I think it may depend on the type of sales.

    2. TechWorker*

      Hmmn I don’t know, I can think of some more awkward work situations.. like idk presenting work to an important client who hates it and picks holes in it? Or having to face up and explain a huge and expensive error? Normally the worst that can happen in a job interview is that it’s embarrassing, you don’t get the job and you never see the interviewer again. Not to catastrophize :p but imo there are definitely higher pressure work situations out there!

      I think most hiring managers are aware that interviews are an artificial situation – but (usually anyway) everyone’s being judged on the same criteria, so there’s only so much you can reasonably take it into consideration.

    3. Autumnheart*

      How about the first day of a job? You have to be shown and told everything, even where the bathroom is and what people are expected to do for lunch. It’s almost always insanely boring, but you have to appear engaged and enthusiastic, even if you literally have nothing to do but read on your phone because your desk/computer/access isn’t set up yet. Meanwhile, everyone’s hoping you were a good pick and won’t turn out to be a dud. Nervewracking.

    4. Fitzroy*

      Just to balance this a bit – I work in HR, supporting hiring processes, and have to work really hard to be fair to the very confident candidates. My gut feeling is always “phony” – I think I identify so much more with the slightly nervous, awkward candidates, and want them to succeed, that I’m sometimes unfair to the “better” interviewers… And from what I’ve seen from many hiring managers, that is not so rare. So, it’s totally fine to be not completely polished and flawless all the time. Obviously, if you are shaking so hard you can’t form a sentence, it will make the interview impossible.

  13. Bookworm*

    This one can be hard because it can be awkward (but so are interviews!). As someone who even once read feedback that I wasn’t supposed to see that I apparently needed to work on my social skills, I do appreciate that you’re willing to ask references about it. Too many either aren’t willing to or seem to only let the interview as the only point of reference.

    If there were other issues then that’s understandable, but it really could have been that one interview that was an issue. I’ve also gotten feedback that I wasn’t “excited enough” for the job or that I seemed quiet and shy. It can be worth references straight up what your candidate is like on a day to day basis but again: if there were other factors then it might not have been a good fit overall.

  14. ambivalent*

    I am one of those people who frequently over-rules their ‘gut feeling’ when hiring, and comes to regret it later. I have a very analytical mind and have difficulty getting past my inner voice saying there is no LOGICAL reason not to hire this person, etc. For the shy person (unless being sociable is a job requirement) I would find that much less problematic than arrogant or entitled behavior, so I’d probably have given them a chance based on their good resume.
    But it’s true that as an introvert, I might be more ‘suspicious’ of extroverts, and that could decrease diversity in my group. It’s really helpful to have a trusted interview team. If a bunch of them agree and tell me they had an off impression, even if there’s nothing very concrete, we don’t move forward.

  15. Ace in the Hole*

    I really appreciate Allison’s suggestion to ask candidates about it directly. I am exactly the type of soft-spoken but good at conflict person she mentioned. People often read me as being nice, laid-back, “sweet,” etc. and assume I won’t be able to handle difficult people or social conflict.

    Actually I do fine with those things. In fact, coming across as non-threatening, compassionate, and laid-back tends to work in my favor… people tend to get less defensive when I disagree with them or ask them to do something they don’t want to do, sometimes going from screaming fits to calm compliance in a matter of minutes. I have no problem setting firm boundaries and standing up for myself. I just do it nicely.

    1. Amtelope*


      I’m naturally quiet and come across as “nice,” but I’ve also had a metric ton of experience dealing with difficult clients successfully at this point in my career. One client who previous people in my position had defined as “unreasonably demanding” turned out to actually be highly anxious and prone to “if I don’t make sure everything’s perfect by checking it six times then there will be some catastrophic error that will wind up on the evening news” anxiety-spirals. What worked was hearing out her concerns calmly and convincing her that she could trust our skills and experience and let go of micromanaging. It’s not always about how aggressively you can push back.

      1. Alianora*

        Exactly! I really enjoy customer service because I run into this kind of scenario a lot. 90% of the time, people with a “difficult” reputation just want to be heard. If you can be empathetic and adapt your communication style to that person (chattiness, blunt language, etc), being soft-spoken is not a barrier at all.

        1. Ace in the Hole*

          Yes, exactly! I’m fully able to express empathy and understanding for someone’s feelings at the same time as I tell them I can’t/won’t do what they want. When you treat someone with compassion and respect, it often opens a door for them to start treating you the same way.

      2. Ace in the Hole*

        “It’s not always about how aggressively you can push back.”

        Yes, exactly!

        My favorite interview example was when I worked at a public agency known for having very rough customers. A guy dashed through the door after closing and got very mad when my coworkers told him we wouldn’t serve him. When I say “very mad,” I mean he was kicking his own belongings around, grabbing broken bottles violently enough that he cut his own hands, etc. Things were escalating because my coworkers were becoming more forceful and this dude was just ramping it up. Finally I got them to back off and talked with him. I explained why we couldn’t serve him (he wanted a cash disbursement – the cashier left 10 minutes ago and we can’t access the safe), and that one of my coworkers needed to leave to pick up his son. Since we couldn’t leave until all customers were gone, poor guy was going to be late getting his kid and they didn’t get much time together. So could Customer Dude please come back tomorrow and we’d be happy to help him then?

        That was all it took. Guy calmed down, packed his stuff, and apologized to the crew on his way out!

  16. Aglaia761*

    Thanks for this post Alison,

    My company is hiring 2 new people and this helpful to figure out what traits are key for success and what traits don’t really matter.

  17. Argh!*

    It’s sad that “interrupting” is always considered rude. In some cultures, and when people feel comfortable with each other, interrupting is part of the give-and-take of conversation. If you are always deferential, some people can’t really handle that, either. They repeat themselves or trail off, and in an interview, you are supposed to be putting yourself out there. If you don’t say enough because you don’t want to interrupt, you could be remembered as not having much to offer, or being shy, or just not being remembered at all.

    If one person on a panel is running their mouth, and the rest of the panel is letting it happen, should the interviewee interrupt or just sit there letting someone else steal their opportunity to shine?

    1. Anon for this*

      Interrupting is rude, but so is having one-sided conversations where you don’t give other people in the room time to speak. In both situations, you are dominating a conversation or meeting at the expense of other people. Of course, there are times where if you are with the latter person, you have to interrupt them to say something/get the conversation moving, but that shouldn’t be the default behavior.

    2. allathian*

      I’m from a “polite interaction” culture, where interrupting is considered rude and the expectation is that you don’t speak until the person who’s speaking has stopped. In practice, it isn’t as stiff as this especially in less formal situations, but for example on our talk shows, usually only one person is speaking at a time even if they’re disagreeing profoundly, and this without the moderator having to mute mics.

      In some cultures, you interrupt to show you’re an engaged listener. When I was in college, I spent a semester in France. When I went, my French was already good enough for me to follow and pass Master-level courses with decent grades in French. After a month or two there, I was talking with some of the French students, really fired up, and I kept interrupting them and I was completely unfazed by being interrupted. Some time after that, I noticed that I was being treated as “one of us”. They no longer felt it necessary to take into account the fact that I was a foreigner, because I had adapted to their communication style.

  18. Meaghan*

    I realize that you may not have the ability or time to do this with every candidate, but maybe for a strong one, try to end the interview with a less-stressful activity. Someone above mentioned having a peer (or yourself) give then a tour. You could take them out to lunch, maybe include other people so the focus isn’t all on them, and try to discuss topics other than work. Anything you can do to break out of that typical interview question-answer routine may help them relax and come out of their shell a bit.

  19. OP*

    Wow, funny to see this letter run again! I don’t have an update, but I’ve thought of Mary from time to time and I hope she’s doing well, as she seemed like a smart and interesting person.

    On the original letter, I shared in the comments that not hiring her was ultimately an easier call because the experience she’d listed and spoken about as work were all volunteer experiences, something I did not realize until I was speaking to her references and they called her a volunteer. I understand why someone might do that, but it was off-putting, and I didn’t feel like I could put the same weight on those glowing references, since as a volunteer coordinator, I know our volunteers are awesome but also we don’t hold them to the same standard as paid employees since, you know, they’re working for free.

    It otherwise would have been a much tougher call, because while she was several standard deviations more nervous/having unusual behaviors (like closing her eyes when answering questions) than other candidates, she also had a lot of great qualities. And while the job did involve quickly building rapport and projecting confidence, as I’ve learned more about neurodivergence, ableism, and just general hiring best practices, I also recognize more how many different pathways there are to doing that. If this situation came up again, I think I’d feel more comfortable engaging with both the candidate and the references about that directly, since I’m realizing how beneficial open communication about stuff like this can be.

    1. JohannaCabal*

      Honestly, the fact she labeled her volunteer experiences as work is a red flag all on its own.

      Let me guess, if she’d been more upfront that this was volunteer experience, you might have considered her? My dad’s old company had to rescind an offer to a candidate who lied about having a degree yet if the candidate had been honest, it would not have been a problem (position did not require one).

    2. calonkat*

      oh, I close my eyes sometimes when answering questions, especially if it’s about specific things (not me example: section of tax code). I have terrible short term memory due to what would now be called a TBI (my memory gets better every year which at my age is cool), and not having visual distractions helps me to align things in my head so that I don’t mix stuff up and start a sentence with one thing but finish with a different thing. When I’m nervous it’s worse, and I’m nervous in interviews. But I’ve never claimed volunteer time as paid time, so this isn’t about me!!

      1. Argh!*

        I do this sometimes, too. I haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, but I think I have it. Sometimes I just have to shut out visual distraction in order to get the verbal part of my brain cranked up.

  20. Anon for this*

    I’ve had a reference-checker once ask something along the lines of “We noticed during the interview that Soandso seemed quiet…does this align with your experience?” Not sure if the LW asked anything like this, but it’s a good question since it gives you an opportunity to directly compare your observations with someone else’s (particularly someone who has had more experience with the job candidate than you).

  21. germank106*

    Years ago I hired for a position that required a personality that was able to butt heads and stand their ground firmly. One of the candidates had all the qualifications on paper but was so timid that we could barely hear her answer the questions. I finally asked her “Tell me what you would do if you encounter situation Y but you need situation X.” It was as if someone had flipped a switch. The timid woman receded and out came the person that would stand her ground. It was just a matter of framing it as a practical situation. She did so amazingly well that she ended up running the Department a few years later.

  22. 2legit*

    I have to bring up the idea of bias, which I normally never would.

    We gravitate towards people we like and trust… who have similarities to us…

    I am not saying that your ” gut feeling” should never be used… when I was a kid, my gut feeling led me to turn around and retrieve something.. which helped me fight back when a group of boys hit me in the face with a backpack.

    But in the corporate world, “fit” is often an acceptable way of saying that someone doesn’t fit into a clique… similar to a high school world… the “nerd” won’t “fit” with the cheerleaders… in other words, in that environment, you value personality over talent, skill, and hard work. It can be obvious but it’s a grownup version of not valuing someone. No one flags it as a foul.

    What kind of checks do you have in your hiring process to ensure that it’s evolved, grownup, and focused on the right things?

  23. Anansi*

    This is something I try to be aware of as a reference giver, because sometimes just saying someone is great and not acknowledging personality issues can backfire. I remember a few years ago giving a reference for one of my former staff members. He was a great employee, and always spoke up with thoughtful additions, but he was pretty quiet before he got to know people. I basically said exactly that when they called me, and the reference checker actually said how helpful that was because being able to speak up was a big part of the role and they had been worrying about that.

  24. Lorraine*

    We had a situation years back where someone excelled at their interview but was so… I think the term used was ‘robotic,’ that the hiring manager ended up inviting them back for just a cup of coffee to see if she relaxed. She did and it was a great fit that worked out really well. I think sometimes in questions of inter-personal fit, a regular chat can be a useful supplement to the hiring process.

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      yeah, although as Alison says, a more casual conversation is the type that’s most likely to screen out anyone who doesn’t fit the cis het white male mould, so I think you’d at least need a few boxes to check to make sure you don’t just swing it on subjectivity.

  25. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    I like the last example Alison gave of a candidate being soft-spoken and the HM worrying whether they’d be able to tough it out. A friend of mine was in that very position, but she surpassed all of her targets managing her team of 12 beefy car manufacturers without ever needing to raise her voice. It reminded me of Susan Cain in “Quiet” where the quiet introvert lawyer did the most thorough research and was able to bring up the most telling points in a meeting, despite the fact that speaking out at a meeting of top-flight clients was totally nerve-wracking for her.

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