Should You Treat Job Interviews Like Hostage Negotiations?

At the end of my first interview for what would become my executive assistant job, I decided to pull out a question that I had read in Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist: “I would really like this job. Do you have any reservations about hiring me?”

The question worked; my interviewer said “well, your resume was poorly formatted and included some misspellings,” and I said “I think you might have gotten the resume that my temp agency prepared on my behalf; this is my resume,” and on the emphatic this I placed my perfectly formatted, high-quality bond paper resume in front of him.

I got the job. But I can also see how a hiring manager might find that question intrusive or inappropriate. The fact that it worked for me had much more to do with the person who was interviewing me than it did with my ability to spit out the question.

The Atlantic, with the help of professional hostage negotiator Chris Voss, has a new list of questions for job seekers to memorize and pull out during interviews. I find myself as wary of these questions as I am of the one I pulled from Brazen Careerist; they might work in the right situation, but they could also be extraordinarily bad ideas.

Take the standard interview request for salary history. Here’s how Voss suggests you should respond:

The first thing to do is say, very gently, “Are you making me an offer, or are you fishing for information?”

Wow. I’m picturing an entry-level job candidate whipping out this question and immediately getting scratched off the “potential hire” list. I mean, the salary history question comes fairly early on in the interview process, right? Long before any interviewee can reasonably assume he or she is being made an offer. The question isn’t exactly the same thing as PUA-style negging, but it is a question designed to chide the interviewer. It’s a “tut-tut, I know that you’re fishing and I’m not going to bite.”

Here’s another piece of advice from “Ask a Hostage Negotiator: What’s the Best Way to Get a Raise?”

So if someone says, “Let’s revisit your raise in 3 months,” what you want to do is not let that go. Put them in a position that makes them sound like that’s an unacceptable response. You ask this question and in this way: “How am I supposed to do that?” You have to use those exact words.

If Voss had told The Atlantic something like “if someone says they’ll revisit your raise in three months, confirm a next action before ending the conversation, such as: okay, I’ve put a reminder in my calendar to get back to you in July and schedule that meeting,” I would have been completely on board. But asking “How am I supposed to do that?” feels like you’re asking your supervisor how to do your own job. You should know how to set up a meeting to revisit a raise. You should know how to collect quantifiable evidence of your accomplishments and make a case for an increased salary.

What does Voss think will happen if you ask “How am I supposed to do that?”

There are two or three possible answers to that, and you want to be prepared for all three. One is “You’re right, you can’t.” The very worst possible answer that everyone imagines is “Because you have to.” How bad is that? The reality is that there’s no downside to that answer, and that’s maybe 20 percent of the time.

The big disconnect comes when Voss explains what he believes is the secret objective of any negotiation:

A hostage negotiator’s agreement with the guy who’s barricaded is, “I want you to live.” So if my approach to you is, “I want you to be famous for hiring me. I want your promotions in many cases to come because I was so successful because you hired me, working for you. I propelled your career as a great hire.” You want to say things that make the other side stop and think and then rethink their position. And they’ll only rethink that position if it benefits them. So that’s how you take, in an employment negotiation, you want them to rethink their position where they’re thinking of you as being a critical component of their future success.

Essentially, this tactic is about flipping the balance of power between you and your interviewer or supervisor, and it only works if there is an actual balance of power to be flipped. In the majority of hiring situations, nobody is going to get promoted because they hired someone to perform an entry- or mid-level job. Nobody is going to become famous for hiring Dan in Accounting or Katie in Marketing.

People who do hiring know that they need to find job candidates who can both meet and exceed expectations, but having worked alongside hiring managers I don’t believe that they necessarily look at any single job candidate as “a critical component of their future success.” Instead, they’re more likely to think “Is this person going to work with us, or is there always going to be some weird power struggle going on?”

I’m curious to hear what Billfold readers who work in hiring think about these new negotiation questions. I’m also curious to learn when the first wave of entry-level job candidates will start asking, very gently, “Are you making me an offer, or are you fishing for information?”