Why “What If” Questions Don’t Work!

Why “What If” Questions Don’t Work!

by Jeanne Knutzen | September 1, 2015

0 Blog, Hiring.Best Practices Behavioral Interviews, Candidate Selection, Employee Selection, hiring, Hiring Manager, Interviewing Tips, Placement, recruiters, Recruiting, What If Questions

what if questionWhy “What If” Questions Don’t Work!

In the “Hiring Smart” workshops we do for recruiters and hiring managers,  we often hear participants  talk about their favorite interview questions – questions they  “always ask” prospective job candidates as a way to get them to reveal something really important about who they are.   We’ve heard questions that are everything from “what‘s your favorite animal and why” to a whole series of “what would you do if” questions designed to keep candidates away from their more “canned” responses which are interviewer turn offs.

My response to this information is always the same…

While it is a good thing to identify interview questions that you can ask all job candidates and make it easy to compare the responses of different candidates, be careful about what questions you “always ask”.   We often find that interview questions that people think are particularly clever or engaging  often don’t produce the type of information that is job relevant or helpful in determining who is the best candidate.

What if questions, for example, almost never produce information about how a job candidate actually behaved in their previous jobs, or how they are likely to behave in the future.   They are designed to tap into the candidates thoughts and ideas, not their patterns of behavior.

The most powerful principle in candidate evaluation,  “how people have behaved in the past is the best predictor of how they will behave in the future “ requires recruiters, interviewers and hiring managers to obtain information about actual past behaviors, not what the candidate thinks might happen if.   

Yes, people change……but the decision to hire a candidate who needs to make some important changes in order to do well in a particular job, is likely not your safest bet if the goal is to minimize hiring errors.

And , as  tempting as it is to come up with unusual or clever questions that are sure to keep job candidate’s “on their toes”, it’s typically the simple questions that ask candidates for the “facts” about their real life work experiences, that work better.          

For example, let’s say you are a recruiter trying to hire someone for a boss who has very high expectations for performance and has a history of losing employees who either quit or are terminated because issues in performance are either never addressed or go unresolved.  Your goal is to find an employee who can work thru this challenge, i.e. who will find a way to resolve important differences between boss and employee in a way that works for both.

If the question you ask all job candidates is

“What if you find yourself in a situation where you and your boss don’t agree on how well you are performing in your job,  how would you deal with that?” ,

….the answers you are likely to get will fall into three categories…..

The avoider’s response.  “I would avoid that type of conflict altogether by asking for a list of expectations up front” (avoiding the real question of what happens when those expectations need to be changed or aren’t being met.)

The idealist’s response. “I would talk to my boss about our differences, and work with them to find a solution” (in the perfect world that’s what we would all do, right?).

The traditionalist’s response.  “I would go to HR with this dilemma and ask for their help in getting it resolved.”  (hmmmmm….what if there wasn’t an HR?)

Like most “what if” questions, this partgicular question allows the interviewee to…..

  1. … avoid the gap we all know exists between what we’d like to have done and what we actually did.
  2. …sound good, without revealing much about how they actually did on the job.
  3. … hide their lack of experience.   The interview answers tend to sound the same regardless of background or experience.

A better line of questioning in this scenario would be much simpler and straight forward……

Tell me about a time in your work history when you had a conflict with your boss over their expectations for your work that differed from your own.   

How did you experience that conflict?

What did you do to resolve it?

The answers to these questions can’t be made up. And if they sound too “ideal”,  a few probing questions will ferret out what really happened.

Questions that get at “real life” experiences and accomplishments tend to look more like….

                “Provide an example when…”

                “Tell me about a situation where…”

                “How did you behave when..?”

                “What happened next..?”

                “How much of that goal did you personally contribute..?”

                “Play out that conversation for me..?”

                “What changes did you make after that..?”

Most hiring managers want to hire candidates who have already mastered the important challenges embedded in the work itself.  “What If” questions tend to elicit ideas, philosophy and opinion, which can be titillating, but not part of the facts the interviewer needs in order to predict future behavior on the job.

HiringSmart is an instructional tool kit provided by the PACE Staffing Network to our clients and friends.  If you would like a HiringSmart tool kit which includes tips on how to pin point the type of employee you need to hire and then interview prospective candidates effectively, contact us at infodesk@pacestaffing.com  or call us at 425-637-3312

This article was written by Jeanne Knutzen, President and Founder of the PACE Staffing Network.  PSN offers a network of general and specialized recruiters and a full menu of recruiting support services.    

If you need help finding or hiring the right employees, contact us at infodesk@pacestaffing.com or call 425-637-3312 for a confidential conversation about your current or upcoming hiring needs.

Jeanne Knutzen


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