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Exposing the “Veneer of Superficiality” Interview

As a recruiter I abhorred the idea that an outstanding candidate for an important job was being judged by a person who wasn’t a very good interviewer. Sadly, after having debriefed over one thousand different interviewers, I estimate that about two-thirds fell short. And too often the assessments of those who were valid were overridden or discredited by those who weren’t.

As a recruiter I abhorred the idea that an outstanding candidate for an important job was being judged by a person who wasn’t a very good interviewer. Sadly, after having debriefed over one thousand different interviewers, I estimate that about two-thirds fell short. And too often the assessments of those who were valid were overridden or discredited by those who weren’t.

The obvious weak interviewers are managers and executives who spend 30-40 minutes assessing a person and judging them largely on their assertiveness, appearance, communication skills and intelligence. Everyone who uses a 30-minute speed dating approach to interviewing also falls into this same group using the “Veneer of Superficiality” interview. This approach isn’t even as good as a coin flip in predicting performance, since the best person wasn’t hired, the best presenter was.

Hiring managers who focus largely on the person’s depth of technical skills also fall into the bottom half of interviewers. The problem here is that people don’t fail due to their lack of technical skills, they fail because of everything else, i.e., soft skills, management skills, team skills and motivation to excel. And getting everything else right can’t be determined by assessing a person’s technical skills or asking clever questions.

Overcoming this seemingly insurmountable problem, turned out to be pretty easy. I call it “The Behind Closed Doors” interview with credit to Charlie Rich, at least for the theme, if not for the content.

How to Control the Interview Behind Closed Doors

After losing a few good candidates to weak interviewers of the kind described above, I decided to be proactive and do something a bit unusual.

In these cases, I’d have the candidate prepare a short write up of two major accomplishments most comparable to the key performance objectives of the job. One of these would be an individual accomplishment and the other a team accomplishment. I’d then present this write-up to the hiring manager along with the candidate’s resume, and ask the manager to review the accomplishments at the beginning of the interview for about 30 minutes and only continue the interview if the candidate seemed strong.

Let me unpack this idea with some background first and an example.

The Performance-based Hiring process I advocate was based on successfully completing over 750 search projects covering senior technical staff and management roles. All of these started by having the hiring manager describe the job as a series of key performance objectives (KPOs) by asking the question, “What does this person need to do over the course of the first year or two to be considered an outstanding success.”

Knowing this I could then ask candidates to describe accomplishments most comparable to see if there was a fit.  This was the information needed to set-up the “Behind Closed Doors” interview.

For example if one of the KPOs for the role was to lead the preparation of the two-year product roadmap, I’d only present candidates who had accomplished something similar. In this case, the candidate’s write-up would likely describe some technical accomplishment related to the product line and the other how the person led the team to develop the detailed roadmap.

By having the hiring manager review the two accomplishments at the beginning of the interview, it ensured the candidate was being assessed based on their actual past performance doing comparable work, not on their presentation skills or personality. Just as important, the candidate was more comfortable being judged on their work product rather than being asked random, trick or clever questions that had little to do with their actual ability to handle the open job.

When I first tried this approach I was a bit skeptical it would work. For one I thought hiring managers would just revert to their natural superficial approach to judging candidates despite having the evidence in front of them. For another, I thought that candidates might over embellish their accomplishments. It turned out neither problem occurred. Candidates were cautioned that hiring managers would validate their accomplishments requesting clarity on the specific details presented. On the flipside, hiring managers were advised to dig into these details to fully understand the candidate’s role and if there was a fit for the job.

While not every candidate got hired based on this approach, all were more accurately and objectively assessed based on their past performance doing comparable work.

Controlling what goes on behind closed doors is how you expose and pierce the “Veneer of Superficiality” interview. Try it out whenever you think it might be necessary.