Tell me about … your biggest weakness ... your favourite colour ... the superhero you most admire.
At least 70 per cent of employers still ask lame, predictable questions such as these in job interviews. That's why they often miss clues that a candidate is destined to be a flop as an employee, leadership coach Mark Murphy found in a study his company did, which became the basis for his new book, Hiring for Attitude. ( Click here to read an excerpt.)
(What's the weirdest interview question you've been asked? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The study tracked 20,000 newly hired employees in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, and found that 46 per cent of them had either been dismissed or received poor performance reviews or written reprimands over the course of the past three years.
"Most new hires don't fail for lack of skill. Rather, their underlying personalities and attitudes aren't a good match for the job and the organization," Mr. Murphy concluded.
Their employers didn't probe enough into the attitude behind their skills and their well-rehearsed answers in the job interview, said Mr. Murphy, chief executive officer of Washington, D.C.-based Leadership IQ.
"I'm regularly told by employers that their low performers have really good job skills, but other factors such as being negative, feeling entitled, blaming or being change-resistant turned out to be the reason they didn't work out," he said in an interview.
The right attitude for a job is a blend of the candidate's personality and how they will fit with the culture and values of the organization, he said. "You can have a great personal attitude that's upbeat and positive, but if you are an individualist and like to work alone you may not fit in a collaborative work environment."
Mr. Murphy found five main issues that led to failure:
Coachability: In 26 per cent of failures, the employees were unable to accept and use feedback from bosses, colleagues or customers.
Emotional intelligence: In 23 per cent, the issue was inability to manage their emotions and accurately assess others' reactions or expectations.
Motivation: For 17 per cent, the issue was lack of sufficient drive to reach their potential and excel in the job.
Temperament: In 15 per cent of the cases, their personality didn't suit their job or their team.
Technical competence: In only 11 per cent of cases, the person's functional skills weren't up to the job.
Given these findings, Mr. Murphy said employers have to know what attitudes they're looking for in an employee and ask probing questions to make sure candidates are right for the organization,
A good example, he said, is the Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels chain. "In their interviews, they treat candidates like they treat their guests, and they expect that candidates will reciprocate," he said. For example, "even when candidates are waiting for the interview, do they greet each other? Are they polite and make eye contact? And their interview questions are designed to reveal underlying personality and attitudes."
Interviewing for attitude will become increasingly important as organizations realize they can't hire as many people as they did in the past and they want to ensure they get people with the right fit, Mr. Murphy said.
"When you only have 60 minutes or so in an interview, it makes no sense to ask questions that people can prepare for in advance and don't tell much about underlying attitudes."
He said his suggested "coachability questions" for getting at underlying attitudes may sound somewhat stern, but they are effective. For example, he recommends that the interviewer start by asking about the applicant's previous boss: "Make them believe you're going to talk to the former boss, even if that's not the case."
Rather than asking what the applicant sees as strengths and achievements, questions should ask what he thinks the former boss or co-workers would say were his strengths and weaknesses. Even if you're not planning to contact the former employer, simply giving the impression there's going to be a full review will get people to open up, he said.
Also, "Avoid questions that lead toward hypothetical situations. You want to know how people actually responded in historic moments rather than wax philosophical."
Another signal about good attitude is how people phrase their answers, so listen carefully. "It's not so much specific words, but the way people use them that are tip-offs to potentially weak performers." He has found that high performers tend to answer questions in the past tense, saying: "I did this and I made that happen." By contrast, people who are low performers tend to use the present or future tense: "When something like that happens, I do this."
Hearing someone use abstract descriptions could be a signal that he or she might not have the necessary experience or attitude you're looking for, Mr. Murphy said.
Another finding from his study is that low performers tend to use more adverbs in describing themselves. "High-performing candidates are more comfortable talking about their performance without dressing it up with superlatives. Rather than talking about how exceptional their work was, they let their record speak for them."
TIPS FOR INTERVIEWERS
Common questions to avoid:
"Tell me about yourself." This usually elicits a recitation about how the person always works hard and is good at collaborating. It tells you very little.
"What are your weaknesses?" How many ways are there to say you work too hard and tend to be a perfectionist?
"Tell me about …" Asking for a specific example of how the person resolved a conflict won't tell you about issues he or she has trouble resolving.
"What would you do if …" Hypothetical questions bring idealized answers that rarely reflect reality.
"What kind of animal would you be?" Not surprisingly, most people say lion rather than parrot. Does this give you any real insight?
Coachability questions that reveal underlying attitude:
"What was your boss's name? Please spell the full name for me."
"Tell me about your former boss."
"What is something you could have done differently to enhance your working relationship with your former boss?"
"When I talk to your former boss, what will they tell me your strengths are? What will they say you would need to improve?"