Unusual interviews: 4 ways to reveal a candidate’s true self

The more we hire, the more we realize the pattern: same old polished CVs. Same old interview questions. Same old rehearsed answers. We keep asking ourselves: “Is that who he or she really is?”

For us, interviewing is to decide on culture fit (no toxic people, please). How do you do that by just sitting and talking? Interviewees could find all the interview questions on the web, and they would say whatever they think you want to hear. Most of us are not experienced in assessing people via interviews, either. It’s tough to read between the lines, or to catch a facial expression in a split second that might reveal something.

To see an interviewee’s personality, you need to break the interview mold. Candidates expect to come into a room, sit down, and talk. Disrupt that. Don’t just show the room, sit down, and talk. Try these four tactics to make an unusual interview instead.

1 — Team test

Go beyond the interview room. Have your team members interact with the interviewee during his or her visit to your company. Julie Gurner, doctor of psychology, organized her team members to pick up the interviewees, greet them at the office, and show them around. Each team member got a checklist beforehand and could vote from their observation. What did the interviewees talk about during the drive? How did they treat the driver? What was their attitude toward the receptionist? These various touch points will form a holistic picture of who they really are. Interviewees can suppress their not-so-nice side in a small room, but not every time, everywhere.

2 — Surprise test

Interviewees can guard and rehearse their answers, but not their reflexes. Planned surprises are the best way to shed light on an interviewee’s personality. One example is the “pen drop” test: During the interview, the interviewer would “accidentally” drop a pen to the floor between him and the interviewee. Those who instinctively bend down to pick it up are keepers. It’s hard to fake that split second of innate kindness.

Combining this with tactic number one above, Heineken took its surprise interview to the next level. For an internship that involved its UEFA Champions League sponsorship, Heineken elaborated a three-stage interview. First, the interviewer led the interviewees to the room hand in hand. Then he suddenly collapsed on the floor during the interview. When the interview was about to end, there was a fire alert and the firefighters called for help to rescue a Heineken employee from the roof. The whole Heineken team took part in these surprises and rated the interviewees afterward. Friendliness, helpfulness, and courage were the criteria of the job, and the guy who got it clearly showed what he’s got.

Similarly, Rabobank in the Netherlands set up their traineeship interviews from the doorstep. The interviewees were first stranded by the receptionist, then suddenly got a rubber ball rolled at them during the interview. On their way out, they were “accidentally” transported to a hockey pitch and got to play with the Rabobank hockey team. The interviewees had no idea that their initiative was gauged all the time.

To maximize the effect of this tactic, you need to identify the core qualities of a successful person on the job. Then weave your surprise moments into the interview. Most importantly, involve your team! You will not only strengthen the team’s bond, but also reinforce the team’s value and mission.

3 — Food test

An opposite approach to tactic number two is to put the interviewees into a familiar setting — a lunch or a dinner. The idea is to have them lower their guard and reveal their true behaviors. The interviewer can invite the interviewees for a meal and observe how they treat the food and the restaurant staff.

One famous cautionary tale is The Salt Shakers, in which the interviewees would fail if they salt the food before tasting. That simple act reveals a person’s presumption, prejudice, and a lack of empathy (for the chefs, in this case).

Even subtler, you can just observe the way somebody eats. This actually happened to me at my student job. We were having lunch with the project leader, and he said that he could read a person’s personality via the way they eat. “For example,” he pointed to my empty, clean plate, “I can see that you are very tidy and pay attention to details. You finished everything. There are no leftovers or spilling around the plate.” No need to say I was in awe. Apparently you are not only what you eat, you are also how you eat. Need to find someone who pays attention to details? See if they have spilled food after the meals!

4 — Reference test

No time or resources to set up the team test, surprise test, or food test? This tactic is for you: Ask interviewees very specific questions about how they executed their previous jobs. If they did customer support, ask how they handled complaints and requests. If they did project management, ask how they juggled projects and their team’s manpower. After that, pick up the phone and do reference check. Not just call the ones who managed them, but also their colleagues and customers. Ask the team members if the interviewees managed projects efficiently. Suggest the customers to recall their experience with the interviewees’ support. Those who work directly with the interviewees, or receive the interviewees’ work directly have a clearer idea of who they are on a daily basis. Hotjar, one of our customers, have had many successful hires via this simple method.

Have you employed any of these tactics and got results? What works and what doesn’t? Feel free to comment below!

Originally published at recruitee.com on September 21, 2016.

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