We are Asking the Wrong Questions (Part One)
May 06, 2014
There are a few of my practices that Human Resources professionals are not so fond of. Don't worry, it isn't anything illegal and you won't be seeing my name on the "Nightly IIA News." However, I was consistently frustrating my HR department. And I'm willing to bet that, no matter where I might have worked, the associated HR department would not have been pleased with me.
Now it's not that I was a particularly dislikable person. In fact, I am convinced that the people who worked in Human Resources felt I was a joy to be with and they looked forward to my visits with breathless expectation. (I chose to believe this and I beg you, make no efforts toward finding the truth of the matter; my delusions and associated fragile ego are far too easily shattered.) However, I had my own thoughts regarding interviewing potential internal audit employees. I do not like the kind of questions HR professionals want asked, and they do not like the kind of questions I ask.
When I am interviewing potential internal auditors, one of the primary things I am looking for is the interviewee's ability to react to the unexpected. I ask questions with that purpose in mind. However, the types of questions HR wants asked make it impossible to put potential auditors in a situation where they are faced with the unexpected. HR wants questions like "When was the last time you were challenged and how did you react" or "What responsibilities did you have in your last position" or "Describe a difficult work situation and how you overcame it" or "How do you handle stress and pressure" or "How do you prioritize your work". A brand-new shiny quarter to anyone who hasn't been asked at least one of those.
(Parenthetical Aside #1: To refresh my memory, I went to an article titled "Top 20 Interview Questions." I quickly recognized them as the questions HR was requesting/requiring me to use. I found these questions in 5 seconds. Any interviewees worth the time you are spending talking with them should be able to find those questions in similarly short order. And, if they have even half the brains bequeathed to the higher forms of mammals, they should be able to formulate some type of coherent response well before walking into that interview. The result is an exercise in futility as I have learned nothing more than that the interviewee can prepare to be interviewed. That is not one of the top-ten/you-got-to-have-it/how-can-we-possibly-live-without-it skills I am looking for in an internal auditor.)
(Parenthetical Aside #2: I never have used the following in an interview, but desperately wanted to. I give it to you and, if you ever get the chance to use it, pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease let me know how it goes. It is a two-part question that begins "What is your greatest weakness?" The interviewee will respond [based upon the excellent training he or she received from just about anyone who has two cents to share about how to prepare for interviews] by making a strength look like a weakness. "Well I'm just too organized and that means I wind up getting the work done too quickly." Follow with the golden question. "How, exactly, is that a weakness?" Again, please let me know what kind of gibbering puddle of goo results.)
Now, go back and look closely at the questions HR departments want asked. What do they accomplish? And, when you really look at them, aren't they about the most banal questions you've ever seen in your life? (Quick admission: In spite of the rant with which I currently regale you, I have asked some of these questions. I quell before you asking forgiveness. HR made me do it.)
Rather than fall back on the expected and mundane, I approached the interview process by coming up with the weirdest most obscure questions possible. I did my darnedest to ignore nigh on everything HR advised.
And from the use of those questions – by trying to identify the people who could think on their feet, who were not flummoxed by the unexpected, who were professional enough to roll with the punches – I hired some of the best auditors in the company. I hired future leaders.
But all this is just an introduction to the point I really want to make. You see, I believe that we all may have missed the opportunity to ask some pointed questions that could reveal an important facet of those interviewees; questions that identify the people who can get the real work done.
But my introduction has taken up a lot more time than I expected. And I don't think the point it wound up making is all that bad. So, next Monday I'll finish this all up with a little something I picked up from Wondercon. (Don't know what that is? Go back to my post on April 21st for some background.)
And I'll end Part One by saying that the second best thing you can do in interviewing is to actually surprise interviewees with the questions you ask. Find out if there really is a brain buried back there. And for Part Two, we'll discuss what may be the best thing you can do in interviewing - some questions I never thought of asking.