It’s nerve-racking to interview for a job, but for most people, sitting on the other side of the table doesn’t come naturally either. Whether you’re hiring a summer intern for your company or an assistant for yourself, or you’re a CEO looking to expand your leadership team, the process can feel frustratingly mysterious. Adam Grant, professor of psychology and management at the Wharton School of business, and author of Originals and Give and Take, brings a nuanced, research-fortified perspective on hiring that will change the way you approach the process, and take a lot of the guesswork out of your hiring decisions. Below, Grant makes a persuasive case for overlooked traits you should be searching for in potential employees, the unconventional interview questions you should be asking—and the tired ones we should all stop asking. He explains why experience and mega-stars are overrated, how you can get references to speak candidly with you, how to spot an organization’s cultural holes, and the value in identifying the potential in under-performing employees—all brilliant, all relevant to just about anyone who works (or wants to). (Meanwhile, if you missed his first piece with us on raising original kids and the key to creative thinking, catch up here.)
A Q&A with Adam Grant
How do you find good candidates? Where do you look?
We know a lot about what to do once you have candidates, how to interview applicants, and evaluate them accurately. But finding them is harder. A few things can help, though:
Lots of research shows that if you get referrals, particularly from the stars within your organization, those candidates tend to end up performing better and sticking around longer. It’s not surprising that a lot of companies offer referral bonuses to their employees to encourage them to think of potential candidates. So this is one place to look—toward the people in your organization.
Refining your job descriptions can also be helpful when you’re looking for candidates. Kieran Snyder, a linguist who co-founded a company called Textio, analyzes job descriptions, looking for words that discourage particular groups from applying. What she’s able to do is re-write your job postings so that you get more applicants and more diverse applicants. For example, women are less likely to apply for a job if the listing uses phrases like “rock star” or “ninja,” or a bunch of sport metaphors to describe the office culture. Instead, you might talk about how important it is to have a strong sense of community, and how much people value being on the team. With this edit, women will be much more likely to see your organization as a place they could envision themselves. Snyder has worked with many tech companies to try to bring in more women and minorities—I think her work is really clever and useful.
What are the tricks to reading a resume?
When you’re trying to read personality from a resume, there are a handful of characteristics to consider, and ways to spot them. The two qualities that stand out for me are conscientiousness (or how gritty someone is), and creativity (or openness):
Conscientiousness/grit: Many employers are looking for at least a minimum level of conscientiousness: That someone is hard working, detail-oriented, organized. On the resume, you’re looking for proper formatting and lack of typos. But you can also create what’s called a behavioral accomplishment record by looking for standout achievements: Did the candidate accomplish something difficult? Get performance awards that recognized them for adding some distinctive value to the organizations they belonged to? The harder working, more motivated candidates tend to rack up more of those sorts of achievements.
If you want to hire someone with a lot of grit—someone who doesn’t just start things but sees projects through—look at the length of commitments to different activities. For example, how long were they members of their college clubs? Longer stays are an indicator of grit.
Creativity/openness: If you’re looking for someone who is going to be creative, you’re looking for a trait called openness to experience. How open are they to new ideas and new places? You can pick up small clues about this from resumes. Do they have interesting hobbies, have they traveled a lot, have they gone out of their way to explore things that might be unfamiliar to them?
What about cover letters?
One of the things I care a lot about—and many employers do, too—is if a candidate is more of a giver or a taker. Is the cover letter all about me and why I’m awesome? Or is it about why I believe in the organization, and how I think I can contribute to the team’s success?
A variation: There’s some fun research on how humble-bragging doesn’t work—recruiters actually prefer candidates who are honest about their weaknesses. This is something that I’ve started to look at more with cover letters: Is the cover letter all positive? Or, when candidates mention drawbacks, are they compliments in disguise, a la Michael Scott’s line in The Office: My biggest drawback is that I work too hard and care too much?
I’ve seen some great cover letters. A favorite recent one was written by a woman who opened by explaining why she wasn’t qualified based on the job description: I don’t have these three skills, I don’t have this experience that you requested. And here’s why I think you should hire me anyway…
What are three of your favorite interview questions?
One of my favorite interview questions gets at whether someone is a giver or a taker by asking them to predict how common a selfish behavior is. People who have selfish tendencies anticipate more selfish behaviors from others (it’s a way for them to rationalize their own behavior). A validated question focuses on stealing from companies—it could be cash, merchandise, intellectual property, etc. For example: What percentage of employees in the U.S. do you think steal at least $10 a month from their companies? The higher someone’s estimate that other people are thieves, the greater chances that he/she is a thief. The way many people answer is they ask themselves: What would I do? Or, what have I done? And then they project that onto other people. An extremely selfish taker would think, Last week I stole $72, it must be pretty common to take $10, so maybe 85 percent? At the other end of the spectrum, a giver might think, How many pens do you have to take home to get to $10? It must be pretty rare: 9%.
A second question I love is: Can you tell me about your proudest accomplishment? This is a great chance to see what people value most. Obviously, there are a lot of different ways to look at answers to this question depending on what you and your organization value.
A third great question is: How would you improve the interview/hiring process? Or, more broadly, you’ve gotten a chance to learn about the organization through this interview process—if you were in charge, what changes would you make? I want to know that candidates are willing to challenge the organization a little bit, that they can give constructive criticism, and that when they notice something isn’t perfect, instead of just accepting it, they can think creatively about how to improve it.
What about interview questions that we should stop asking? Any in particular that make you cringe?
There are a lot! I think in general, people ask too many behavioral questions: Tell me about a time when… These result in apples-and-oranges comparisons: I might just happen to have experience that’s relevant to the question, whereas another applicant does not. It’s better to shift to situational questions instead: Give people scenarios that they might face in the job they are interviewing for, and ask them how they would handle those situations. That way, everyone has the same opportunity to succeed in answering the question.
Another cringe-worthy question for me is: Can you tell me about a failure? It’s much better to say: Tell me about how you dealt with a failure. Everyone has had failures—I don’t care about how you describe yours. I want to know whose fault you think it was, and how you responded to it.
Brain teasers are terrible! Tell me how many cars you think are in LA? Who cares! These questions are trying to see if people can do some kind of rough estimation under pressure. But it’s more important to find out if a candidate is a good problem solver, and brain teasers are not the best way to go about it. [More coming on this topic.]
You warn against hiring for culture fit because it can lead to groupthink issues. Can you talk a bit about this?
Lauren Rivera’s work has looked at consulting firms and other kinds of professional service organizations, and found that hiring for cultural fit is basically used as a proxy for: Are you like me? And organizations just end up hiring a bunch of people who are similar. (Rivera had a great op-ed in the New York Times about this, called “Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In at Work.”) So, the worry is that hiring for culture fit leads to selecting a bunch of people who are clones of each other, and you lose diversity of thought, background, and experience.
So, how do you resist selecting for cultural fit—what do you look for instead?
Hire for cultural contribution. The idea was introduced to me by Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO, arguably the world’s most creative product design firm. (They created the mouse for Apple.) IDEO has had to be very diligent about bringing in diverse people who, instead of just replicating the culture at IDEO, enrich it by bringing something new to the company. IDEO asks: What are the holes in our culture? What is absent? What do we need more of? And they place a premium on those things in the hiring process.
An example: IDEO became known for design thinking. They had lots of designers—people with similar backgrounds. They loved this, it was their bread and butter. But they realized that they needed to make sure they weren’t all thinking the same way, because that limited the variety of ways that they could solve problems. IDEO started to think about what other skills they needed, and one thing they do when re-designing a product or a process is to learn the way an unfamiliar world works. They might go into a hospital if they are trying to change the way a hospital department operates. Or, into a supermarket to redesign a shopping cart. IDEO asked themselves, how can we get better at problem solving? They realized that this is what anthropologists do: They go to new places, explore unfamiliar cultures, and try to figure them out. So, IDEO hired some anthropologists.
They then looked at the company’s culture again, to see what was missing now. And they decided that they need storytelling skills to envision and communicate new products. So, they hired screenwriters and filmmakers.
Every time that IDEO finds a background that enriches the culture, the temptation is to keep hiring more of the same type of person. But the moment you get to that point is when you need to start looking for what else you’re missing.
Beside cultural fit, are there candidate traits that we commonly put too much stock into?
Experience tends to be overrated. Yes, sometimes experience can signal that someone can do a certain skill. But with experience also comes baggage and blinders. There is a lot of research suggesting that people overlearn their early experiences and it gets in the way of them coming up with creative solutions to problems. Instead of requiring at least six years of X, what you really want to know is if a candidate can do X, or if can they learn to do X. And experience is not a good indicator of that.
What part of the interview process might we be overlooking?
I’m always disappointed when interviewers don’t create work samples, which are real examples of candidates doing tasks applicable to the job. To give you an example, when we hire professors at Wharton, we read all their research papers, and we get all their teaching evaluations—we’re able to actually see the results of their work. To get even more information, we have them do mini seminars for our faculty, which allows us to see their teaching styles and also how they deal with tough questions about their research. It’s much more informative than interviewing the candidates about what they study.
Here’s one good example from the corporate world: GE has an aircraft engine plant in Durham, North Carolina. After a number of years of hiring technically skilled mechanics who happened not to play well with others, they wanted to know: How do we hire people who are not only good at their jobs, but who are also good team players? So, GE created this simulation: They dumped a bunch of Legos on the table and they challenged the applicants to work together to build a helicopter. At first, everyone kind of thought it was a joke. But from this simulation, GE was able to see which candidates had a hard time collaborating and sharing—those behaviors came out during the Lego challenge. Other candidates really distinguished themselves in the process by being the ones who stepped up and enabled everyone to work together effectively.
Here’s another example—imagine that you’re hiring people to write textbook manuals (like the kind you read after you buy a TV and you can’t figure out how to set it up): The hiring managers brought applicants in and said, Here’s a lawn mower. Can you write a manual for how to put it together after it’s been purchased? The hiring managers observed the applicants as they worked on this task, and they could tell within the first five minutes who was going to be good at writing textbook manuals—they all did the same thing first: They took the lawn mower apart, so that they could have the customer’s experience of putting it together, and then wrote the manual from the customer’s point of view. If the candidates didn’t have the instinct to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, the company didn’t want them writing their manuals, regardless of how smart and knowledgeable they were.
How do we evaluate red flags in the hiring process before it’s too late?
The negative impact of a bad hire is often double or triple the positive impact of a good hire. The mistake a lot of people make is hiring good individual performers who end up making everyone else’s work worse. One way to evaluate red flags that suggest this could be an issue—as well as evaluate other concerns you might have—is through reference checks.
Reference checks are notoriously biased—everybody has glowing references. You have to find a way to get references to be honest. Ask questions like: “Look, every candidate has weaknesses—nobody is perfect. What do you think are this person’s three biggest weaknesses?”
I like to go further. Let’s say I’ve hired a bunch of people in the past who are constantly dominating the conversation and who never let anybody else contribute, and it’s become really bad for decision making and learning. I’ll ask their references: “Okay, look, what do you think is more likely for this candidate—to be too assertive or not assertive enough?” The references don’t know what the right answer is so they’ll answer it honestly. But I know in this case that I’m more worried about the candidate who is too assertive—that’s my red flag.
When multiple people are involved in a hiring decision, how should the team go about assessing the candidate?
Start off with a standardized set of questions that you are going to ask all the applicants in a structured interview so you can compare the candidates’ responses. Before you do this, though, go to the star performers among your current employees, and ask them to answer those questions as if they were interviewing. Do the same with people who are average or poor performers at your organization. And use your employees’ answers to come up with a scoring rubric to help you evaluate what’s a great answer.
Google has found that you rarely need more than four interviewers. (The data from Google on this is really strong.) It’s best for each of the interviewers to own a subset of the questions—so if my company is interviewing ten candidates, I ask all ten candidates the same four or five questions, and a colleague of mine asks each of the ten candidates a different subset of four questions. We all do our individual scoring of the candidates’ answers. Then, we come together to discuss and make a group decision.
When you find a good candidate, how far should you go in order to hire him/her?
I think this is much more art than science. A lot of it depends on how much you need this person, how indispensable he or she is. But in my experience—and based on the data we have—people tend to overvalue superstars, especially if they’re hired from the outside. It’s not necessarily clear if their skills are transportable or not, and these outside stars haven’t yet learned what they need to do to be successful in your organization. (Boris Groysberg at Harvard Business School talks about the research behind this in an article called, “The Risky Business of Hiring Stars.” And Matthew Bidwell does interesting research on how organizations pay more for external hires but get less.)
There’s also some really cool work by James Baron showing that if you take your B players—a lot of leaders will talk about employees as A, B, and C players—and give them some extra rewards, you can often eliminate the difference between them and your A players. This works because the former B players end up feeling uniquely valued and they become extra loyal—and you get more of their ideas and their engagement than you would with outside stars, who feel they can leave at any time.
So, any time you’re chasing a star and thinking, I have to have this person—it’s worth asking yourself: Who are my fastest learners, who could I coach and mentor and develop to become a star like this? And how do I make sure that they get the attention and appreciation that they deserve?
There’s a lot of media attention around hiring millennials. Should the interview process be any different for millennials?
No, absolutely not. I think discussions about millennials are so overblown from a work perspective, and especially when it comes to hiring.
Research shows that millennials have the same work values as Gen Xers and Baby Boomers—they even rank their top five values in the same basic order. Everybody wants a job that is interesting and challenging and allows them to learn. Everybody wants a job that can support their lifestyle outside of work, and help them gain status and compensation. Everybody wants a job that helps other people, that allows them to make friends, that has decent work-life balance. Generational differences in work values are tiny to the point of being trivial.
And when you look at work habits and styles—yes, on average, sometimes millennials are a little bit more entitled, and maybe a little bit more impatient (as in expecting to get promoted sooner). But generation is not a strong predictor of how entitled or impatient someone is. The distribution of people in each generation overlap a ton. Just because I was born in the same twenty-year span as someone else, doesn’t mean we have anything in common personality-wise.
I think the reason people believe millennials are more different from other generations than they actually are is because millennials tend to care more about self-expression than social approval. So the millennials who are really entitled, they’re much more up front about it—they admit it and will tell you, Yeah, I think I deserve the following things… Whereas maybe a Baby Boomer might think those things but didn’t say them out loud to avoid rocking the boat. It seems like there are more extreme and idiosyncratic behaviors and preferences among millennials because they’ve grown up in a world where everyone is expected to express themselves, and they want you to do that, too. It’s not that the psychology is very different internally among the generations—you just see more of the strong negatives, but also the strong positives, with millennials. Via Goop.