Why “Gotcha” Questions in a Job Interview Don’t Work

An interview with Bill Heyman, President and CEO of Heyman Associates, a retained executive search firm specializing in senior-level communications positions

A job interview is always stressful. What techniques do you use to help candidates relax and be more open?

We start with small talk at first and spend time getting to know someone’s personality.Job search concept in word tag cloud You get the most open and honest information when a person is comfortable, so I try to be as personable as possible at the outset. We encourage people to be their true selves, to listen carefully before they speak, but to make sure they get their points across.

I think that any interviewer who tries to make the conversation more stressful will cause the candidates to become very stiff.  They will not give their best answers and will think through the questions more than you want them to.

There are two significant aspects of the search process. One is technical competency – we want to know if the candidates are good writers, for example. The other aspect relates to the intangibles. What kind of individuals are they? Do they have integrity and are they team players? It’s easier to learn when a person is relaxed.

I might ask about your dream job. It’s not a trick question. We want to learn what motivates you.

You can often anticipate questions, so don’t be surprised when a recruiter asks about your management style or to describe how you handled a crisis in a previous position. In other words, don’t torpedo a job interview by not being prepared.

Our job as a recruiter is to be a really good listener when evaluating people. Often an interviewer talks too much because he hasn’t done his homework or is too lazy to ask the right questions. Then candidates need to look for a natural opening to be heard without seeming intrusive.

Throughout an interview, I’ll also share personal anecdotes to affirm their responses as much as possible, so they stay on that track and actually say what they’re thinking (vs. what they think I want to hear).

What do you think of so-called “gotcha” questions? Are they useful in getting at the real answers?

No. “Gotcha” questions set up a negative and adversarial interview situation. It doesn’t bode well for the interviewer. These questions do not get to the root of much of anything. They put candidates on the defensive and you don’t get the best from the candidate or represent the hiring company well.

It’s not what we believe. We’re PR ambassadors for our clients. We are friendly and solicitous, and not confrontational.

How can a candidate be memorable for the right reasons? What makes someone stand out for you? What is the role of the interviewer?

First, there is simple common sense interview etiquette. Look me in the eye, have a firm handshake and smile. Be respectful and address me properly.

DebatesMost importantly, be well prepared. There is so much information available to a candidate by doing a web search about the hiring organization and its competitors. Businesses are going through significant transformations. There is virtually no excuse to go into an interview not well prepared. Search the interviewer, too, so you know his or her interests and background.

Part of being prepared is asking good questions. At end of interview I’ll ask a candidate if he or she has any questions, and I’m amazed at how often I hear “no.” This is an opportunity to learn more about the company.

You can ask why the position is open, or what kind of writer the company is looking for. Have those questions ready. Show your passion for the job. Demonstrate that this is the job you really want, not just because you’re unemployed, but because you love health care, or the company makes the best hybrid cars. Show energy and enthusiasm.

The interviewer needs to be prepared, too. When I represent a company in a search, it’s my responsibility to encapsulate what they are seeking. Nuance is very important. It’s my job to be sure a candidate doesn’t feel he’s been treated poorly.

A recruiter has no right to be pompous or arrogant. We get to represent great companies and we need to cherish that opportunity and create a setting in which we can evaluate candidates. That means treating the candidates with respect and giving them the opportunity to demonstrate their true selves.

What kind of training do you give your staff?

We use a behavioral model. This entails learning what a job candidate has done, because that’s a predictor of future success. We train our people to ask the right kind of open-ended questions. For example, if someone says she’s written speeches, we might ask for an example of how she handled a speech for the chairman when she had little preparation time.

We have a culture of open and honest communications within our organization and encourage that same openness with clients and candidates. We are process driven and consistent with our reporting to clients. We have regular updates and encourage regular and frequent communication with clients.

We train our staff to be engaged when speaking to clients and candidates, to be active listeners and to not ask trick questions.

We have entry-level staff sit in on interviews so they can learn to evaluate people. After an interview, we regroup to discuss whether the candidate was prepared and demonstrated the appropriate behavior and passion.

What are the characteristics you are looking for in candidates, regardless of the position?

Our focus is on the intangibles that make people successful. The real tipping point is the ability to build relationships and general self-awareness.

In a study we co-sponsored with the University of Alabama, we found that crucial intangibles are rooted in interpersonal relationship skills.

In another study with the Journal of Public Relations Research, we learned from participants that strategic decision-making capability, problem-solving ability, and communication knowledge and expertise are the three most important qualities of excellent leadership.

It’s not a good sign if you go into an interview not having read the newspaper today or don’t know what’s going on in current events.

This generation gets its news in sound bites. When we ask a young candidate if there is anyplace in the world he could work if he had his choice, he will often say “Apple.”  He claims, “I’m an Apple junkie,” but that may only be about the company’s phenomenal products, not its communications programs. Apple is well known for its lack of transparency in its communications.

Candidates should do research so they understand the reputations and culture of companies in the news, especially if they are interviewing for a position with one of those companies

What is the best interview experience you’ve ever had?

The best interviews are when candidates are prepared and insightful. I met a person recently who was less experienced than the other candidates but she was obviously comfortable in her own skin. She had done a lot of research and asked a lot of questions.

I was impressed with how she described the crisis situations she had handled. She listened carefully and put me at ease. She was such a strong candidate that we submitted her credentials to the client. When I asked her for references she was happy for us to pick up the phone and call them. She was confident.

The best ones are when you KNOW you’ve met the perfect candidate.

What is the worst interview experience you’ve ever had?

It’s difficult to pinpoint one. But it’s concerning when people are not prepared. It’s inexcusable when a candidate says, “I want to work at Deloitte because I’ve always wanted to be an investment banker.” You try to be courteous give them as much time as you can but some candidates talk too much about themselves and don’t listen. On the other hand, there are the people who don’t talk at all, but need constant questions and give you “yes” or “no” answers.

I’ve had candidates call the client directly. When that happens, they are not respecting us for what we’re paid to do.

The worst interviews are the ones that do not give you a better understanding of what the person actually does in his or her current job. You also don’t remember the person later that day.

Bill Heyman
Bill Heyman

William C. Heyman is President and CEO of Heyman Associates, an executive search firm that focuses on one profession: communications and public affairs, including public relations, media relations, government relations and public policy, social and digital media, crisis communications, executive communications, investor relations, branding and internal communications.

Bill has been named a PR Power List Supporting Power Player by PRWeek, which said, “In an industry where talent is everything, Heyman helps connect some of the most senior pros to jobs, making him an indispensable asset to all those involved in executive searches.”


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