The Worst Kind of Interview Question

Take a moment to think about your greatest weakness. That thing you hate doing, or that nagging item that has reared its head on many a performance review. Maybe you are hopeless with administrative details. Maybe you really hate sticking your neck out to “cold call” new prospects. Maybe you struggle to have tough conversations with underperforming team members. Do you have yours in mind? Great.

Now imagine that an interviewer asks you a hypothetical question that plays on that very weakness. For example, you’re the type who hates to deal with underperformers, and you are asked, “How would you deal with someone on your team who was clearly missing performance expectations?” Could you come up with a good story for this? Maybe one about how you would move quickly, decisively and objectively, putting emotions aside and doing right by both the company and the underperformer him/herself? Perhaps…a story that bears ZERO resemblance to how you would actually handle this in real life? 

Hypothetical questions are terrible, because they give a candidate a license to fabricate reality. The only value you can get is if a candidate gives a clearly terrible answer. A good answer, however, tells you essentially nothing. 

Consider this—what kind of candidates are best prepared with great answers to hypothetical questions? There are two types that come to mind most often. One is the active/desperate job seeker who has been asked this question 3 times in the past month. The other is the candidate for whom the subject of your question is a significant problem, and they have been given lots of coaching and feedback on the right way to do it. In other words—great answers to hypothetical questions can actually be a negative indicator of your candidate’s potential!

When I share this point in my workshops, I often hear resistance related to problem solving or “business case” questions. So let’s be very clear about the distinction here. A problem solving/business case question requires the candidate to solve a novel (and challenging) intellectual problem in front of you. This approach has its merits, though it also has risks and should not be overused (the subject of a future blog...) A hypothetical question is one that a candidate has a good chance of having encountered or at least thought through in his/her past, such that they can paint a fictional picture for you based on what they know you want to hear.