Interviews are awkward. The stakes are high, everyone’s nervous. They do not lend themselves well to pleasant chitchat.
I say this because the most compassionate read of why I would have ever started interviews with “tell me about yourself” is that I wanted to begin with some easy conversation, giving the candidate a chance to show themselves off in whatever way they please.
But what I’ve learned over time is that racially equitable interview prompts should only serve one purpose: to explore whether or not the candidate can do the job. That’s it. No cultural fit, no “trick questions,” no working out the trauma of that horrible interview you went through in 2013 (that’s oddly specific!) You ask two kinds of questions: “when have you done [skill required for job]?” or “how would you do [skill required for job]?”
But what if you still feel drawn to “lighten it up” in some way? If you’re white or middle-class like me (or a man, not like me) I ask you to question whether that is a semiconscious discomfort with your own racial, class, or gender power, perhaps leading you to focus on being likeable rather than showing respect. My sense is the best way to respect a candidate is to ensure they know exactly what you are looking for (ideally ahead of time) so that they can present the most accurate and relevant picture of themselves to you.
If, on the other hand, you find “tell me about yourself” a useful way to gather data about the candidate’s qualifications, I would love to sit down together and ask what you are learning. Because the only things I gathered from that answer swam heavily through the toxic waste of my own racial bias. And a recent study showing that Black employees are penalized for promoting themselves on the job would seem to indicate this is a guaranteed trip down racist lane.
So, let’s keep it simple — nix “tell me about yourself” and just stick to the boring, but ultimately enlightening, job description. You’ll save everyone lots of time, even if (or maybe especially if) they show up in tuxedos.