Questioning Everything

I’ve been involved in a job search over the last few months after being unexpectedly “separated” (as companies like to say these days) from my last gig. I won’t go into detail here since, even as a self-proclaimed humorist, I still can’t find much that was funny about the situation. But shi… er, stuff happens and life goes on and trite sayings abound. So of course I’ve been diligently combing through job listings, networking, tweaking my resume in response to a position’s requirements, and having a beer with breakfast. But never on days when I have an interview scheduled. In the morning.

A good interview should be challenging — meaningful questions asked to elicit illuminating answers. There are many online resources offering both professional and crowd-sourced insights into interviewing techniques. You’d think perhaps someone planning to interview you might take a few moments to become familiar with such resources. But interviewing is like folding sheets — everybody thinks theirs is the right way.

My search for “effective interview questions” took a mere 0.49 seconds to call up over five million pages, and then I needed only the time required to take a few sips from my beer to identify the most useful results. Nearly every article I looked at offered the very same insight: “Past results are the best predictor of future behavior.” (I like to think of this as the Law & Order approach to identifying viable candidates; does the applicant, a.k.a. “the suspect,” have any priors? Think of your résumé as a “sheet;” the conference room where your interview is conducted as the “sweat box;” there’s an authority figure grilling you relentlessly in a quest for the truth — the analogy is complete.) Interview questions embracing this method are typically positioned as, “Tell me about a time when…” filling in the dot-dot-dot with position-relevant activities. And yet I have been asked so many questions along the lines of, “Imagine there was…?” or “What would you do if…?” These put the discussion into the hypothetical realm and — hypothetically — anyone with half a brain could concoct a satisfactory response when personal accountability is taken out of the equation. “How would you handle an employee with an attendance problem?” is easily answered: “Address it early; review the company policy with the employee; identify contributing factors; clarify next steps and potential consequences; continue to monitor and communicate closely; acknowledge improvement.” This is 180 degrees from how many managers actually *do* handle attendance problems — ignore them until the employee’s sole option is, “Come in today or don’t come back.”

I’ve been asked what my dream job was. You’re supposed to offer an answer to connect your “dream” to whatever the current opportunity or career path is within the hiring company: “I’d love to meld my passion for spreadsheets with a desire to overwhelm underlings with minutiae while denying their vacation requests. This opening on your custodial team looks like the perfect starting place from which to pursue my vision.” I flub this question every time because I just can’t buy into the conceit behind it. At one interview when this came up I was very tempted to respond with, “Certainly not anything the future may hold for me here since everything I’ve seen so far suggests this place won’t survive the current fiscal year.”

The other question I despise is, “Tell me why you’re the best-qualified person for this job.” Yeah, like there aren’t dozens of other applicants with similar backgrounds who are all just hoping to squeeze a few more dollars and an extra week of vacation from a new gig.

Then there are the off-the-wall questions that come along randomly from time to time. Tech companies seem to make extensive use of these, but for the average mid-level management position they seem off-putting and superfluous. “You have two eggs and access to a 100-story building. What is the minimum number of attempts to determine the highest floor from which you could drop an egg without breaking it?” Candidates with a mathematical bent are inclined to use a quadratic equation to formulate an answer, but the correct answer for any supervisor-and-above position is, “Zero attempts.” Any white-collar employee worth his or her salt knows that you can’t open any windows in office buildings these days, for security and climate-control reasons. Duh. I interviewed for a consulting job years ago where someone asked me why crickets rub their hind legs together. I said it was likely a nervous tic that revealed itself when the cricket was trapped in a mindless conversation from which there was no hope of escape. It may not surprise you to hear I did not receive an offer from those folks. Here are a few other questions that some leading workplaces are alleged to ask as part of their screening processes:

What is your personal brand? The template for the “correct” response should result in something like, “I’m an experienced people manager who uses innovative motivational techniques to encourage enthusiasm and loyalty in employees.” That’s OK as far as it goes, but your prospects for employment might be greater if you offered, “I’m willing to work sixty hours a week for below-market wages while generating competent output.”

Where do you see yourself in five years? Likely being asked this question yet again after both this and my next company become untenable and implode from directionless management.

What’s your spirit animal? I would be tempted to respond with, “A dead chipmunk.”

If I gave you $50,000 right now – what kind of business would you start? A very profitable one. Could you make the check out to “Cash”? Let’s celebrate your generous offer this morning with a beer — I brought some with me to the interview.

I could go on but don’t want to risk the few places where I think I actually have half a shot to question whether I’m talking about them.

John Branning

About John Branning

Besides what I contribute here, you can also ignore some of my earlier posts by not visiting my website, www.JohnBranning.com, as well as by not purchasing a copy of my books: “Selfie-Facing: Analog Musings in a Digital World,” which made the list of "The Best Self-Published Books of 2016" as seen on the Huffington Post, and my latest, "Keys To The Truculent Me."