Image: Flazingo Photos Image: Flazingo Photos

“So, um, let me ask you, why do you want to work at this company?” “Well, err, I’ve always wanted to work for a small business in the invoice financing space….”

I’m not so sure. And I think the interviewer wouldn’t be convinced either; so why ask? The objective of an interview is to get to some sort of truth; about attitude, aptitude, cultural fit, work ethic and so on. The more skilled the interviewer, the more ‘truthful’ the conclusion will be. And, of course, that truth may well not align with a transcript of the answers given by a candidate. What a good interviewer is looking for can be found more in the pauses between answers, their phrasing and structure than in the words themselves. So should our interviewer be asking more searching questions? Oddly, I don’t think so.

Certainly, without the right questions, it’s harder to get at what we really need to know. But more often than not, interviewers have all they need to make the right call. The problem – where there is one – lies in what the interviewer is looking for. This breaks down into two substantive issues; the values that are sought after and the way in which they are assessed. This is just as relevant before the interview room as it is within it.

We see a lot of leading employers making inspired hiring decisions. But we also see great companies missing out on the best candidates, not because they fail to attract them – but because they actively reject them. All too-often, this happens at the very first stage; CV or profile screening. Too many employers place far too much value on experience. There is very little that a bright and energetic graduate can’t pick up in a matter of weeks or months that would bring them up to speed with – and outstrip - a less enthusiastic peer who happened to have that internship 12 months ago.

I am routinely astonished by employers’ requirements. “They absolutely must have experience in SAAS marketing”. “They should have a good working understanding of the food distribution landscape”. And so on. There are times when there is no room for nuance; we recently helped a business with a Paris-facing role, for instance: yes, the candidates had to all speak fluent French, and quite right too. But quite why an entry-level account manager must have worked in account management before, or an operations associate has to have in-depth operations experience is beyond me. To be clear, I’m talking here about entry level roles. For senior positions, the rationale is very different, and rightly so. But when we’re dealing with a candidate’s first, or perhaps second, job, experience counts for far more than it should do, all too often.

So what should employers really be looking for? Well, after meeting the key basic requirements (language ability; having a degree in a certain area and so on), cultural fit is perhaps the single most important factor. Without this, an unsuccessful employment is ultimately certain; and with it, there is at least a chance of success. But ‘cultural fit’ is itself all too often misunderstood and deployed as a socially acceptable euphemism for ‘our type of person’.

Cultural fit should be values-based: work ethic, working style, attitude to learning and so on. After cultural fit, the next deal breaker is aptitude: given the right training, time and support, could this person be excellent at this job? This is a matter of judgement based on the requirements of the individual role. So an assessor should be asking ‘What do you really need to do this job well?’ and then challenge each and every conclusion. I know from personal experience, for instance, that while consultancies like to think that their demanding work requires a high level of mathematical prowess, in 90% of cases it simply doesn’t. Finally, we come down to the peripheral or incidental factors – which should only come into play where there is a genuine dead heat: experience, degree subject and technical ability above anything that is a baseline requirement for the role.

So, I’ve covered what assessors should be looking for – which raises the next question: How do you identify or assess for it? As I insinuated, it’s more about a nuanced reading of the answers than asking the right questions. It’s about using – and trusting – intuition. It’s about joining the dots between apparently unrelated comments. It’s about seeing through the polished answer to a less credible set of motives or, indeed, seeing future excellence in that not-so-polished response.

If you want to understand work ethic don’t ask ‘So, how is your work ethic?’ – and don’t ask ‘Tell me about a time when you bla bla…’ either. Try asking instead about their degree, their summer job, what they found tricky and what they found easy. Which bits they enjoyed and which bits, honestly, they hated. Ignore the soundbites and try not to have a fixed response in your head. Above all, listen. And then, once they have left the room, keep an open mind, make sure you note down all of your immediate reactions and thoughts and sleep on it, having reminded yourself of what you are really, actually, looking for.

By Tom Davenport, co-founder at TalentTech start-up TalentPool