Jan 14, 2015

How I try to catch out liars and bores in job interviews

I have used specialist background checking firms but never polygraph testing.

I spend much of my working life trying to identify new talent to hire, or take on as partners. Inevitably this means lots of personal interviews of one sort or another. Yet I am ashamed to say my techniques are not exactly very scientific. I should be more rigorous and systematic in my questioning and recording of answers — especially since the price of getting an interview wrong goes up all the time.

In my defence, many of the most important cross-examinations I conduct are not job interviews. They are discussions with entrepreneurs that might eventually lead to a business partnership. So they are much more of a mutual screening process than a conventional recruitment exercise. Typically, these are self-made founders who do not want to work for anyone else: instead they are looking for a financial backer who can add value.

When the world is awash with capital, exceptional companies can pick and choose whose investment cash to take — hence it is often, in effect, me being interviewed. I rather enjoy the challenge of convincing someone to want to work with us, as long as I genuinely believe there is chemistry. If the deal seems like a lost cause, I can be poor at going through the motions.

I prefer one-to-one interviews. Panel interviews are typically more formal, stilted and less revealing. I accept they are the method by which institutions, for example, make appointment decisions, since governance protocol and logistics dictate that roles such as the CEO can only be approved by a committee. These sorts of organisations are also much more aware of what a legal minefield employment law represents, and are thus careful to avoid any possible accusations of discrimination.

The internet has made many interviews an increasingly formulaic and charmless ritual. Candidates churning out prefabricated answers scraped from career websites can turn the whole meeting into a ghastly role-play. But while personal information is usually off-limits, I do want to explore the character of the individual sitting in front of me. What motivates them? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What were their triumphs and disasters? How resourceful are they? Is there anything they are trying to hide? How hungry are they? Any interview where the applicant trots out rehearsed lines is a waste of time.

I also want precision and detail where appropriate: exact tasks in previous jobs; a specific pay package. Interviews are almost as artificial as exams in judging people — but short of taking on staff on a trial basis, there is no better practical method I know to select the right human capital.

In contrast to corporate interviews, encounters with entrepreneurs tend to be more uninhibited and blunt, but also more informative. The talk will not be about whether the interviewee’s face fits the organisation: instead I will be trying to judge if we can trust each other and make money together.

One of my all-time heroes, the inventor Thomas Edison, was a hard taskmaster at interview. The New York Times in 1921 published a list of some of the roughly 150 questions he fired at potential recruits: “‘Victims’ of his method said ‘Only a walking encyclopedia could answer the questionnaire’,” it wrote. But his laboratory got results, so he must have employed able assistants.

Of course detailed, multiple references are paramount; verifying a CV is essential in these litigious times. I have engaged specialist background checking firms to confirm qualifications, solvency and possible criminal pasts. I have never used polygraph testing, but several employers I know swear by psychometric testing and behavioural profiling — not just for new workers, but for existing team members, especially those seeking new responsibilities.

Certain executives are great at interview but hopeless in the job. Such a breed typically embellishes their resume as well. The huge advantage of cultivating talent and promoting from within is that these are co-workers you have witnessed in action rather than the theoretical pitch and promise of an interview, and a CV that might be full of misrepresentation.

Ultimately interviews are a necessary evil of the workplace, and usually the least bad option when it comes to finding the right brainpower.