The main objective of job interviews used in recruitment processes is to collect the maximum amount of relevant information about each candidate, but doing this in a reliable way is not as simple as it sounds.

Much of the information that interviewers must extract from the interviewee is not expressed directly by the interviewee, but is inferred indirectly from his/her behaviour and what he/she says.

In that space of ambiguity that exists between what is expressed and what is inferred there is a lot of space for interpretation, but also for error and, in fact, there is reason to believe that one of the most popular questions in job interviews is fundamentally useless and biased , as the organizational psychologist Adam Grant points out.

The unfair question that should not be asked in job interviews

There is a point in job interviews, when basic information has already been collected on each application, where the interviewers decide to go one step further and find out how the interviewee behaves in specific challenging work situations.

Normally, logistical limitations mean that it is not possible to pose a challenge in real time similar to that found in the job you are applying for , so you try to access this information by means of an indirect question.

It starts like this:

"Explain to me what happened on one occasion when, in a previous job…"

And from that approach, different variants can be chosen:

"… has been especially proud of how he dealt with a conflict".

"… he experienced a tense situation with a client, and how he resolved the situation".

"… he came to think that he did not have the strength left to reach all the goals set, and what he did about it".

Unlike other types of questions, these refer to real situations, and the answers have to take the form of a narrative with approach, knot and outcome.

The latter, together with the fact that are referred to real work situations , may lead one to think that they provide truly relevant information, since in the end what is important in a selection process is to know faithfully how someone behaves in the professional sphere, how they achieve their objectives.

However, Adam Grant points out that this kind of mental exercise does more harm than good to the job interview. Let’s see why.

1. It is unfair to young candidates

Grant points out that this kind of exercise puts younger candidates in a clearly inferior position, since despite the fact that they may be very skilled and have the theoretical and practical training needed to do the job, they have not managed to accumulate a reasonable amount of outstanding experience that can be explained at this stage of the interview. In the end, the habit of confusing lack of stories with the lack of experience necessary for a position makes a dent in the selection processes.

2. It is a memory exercise

Another of the disadvantages of this type of approach is that the mentality of the person interviewed passes to a mode of memory retrieval and not to one of real time conflict resolution. This means that the information revealed does not talk so much about what really happened, but rather how it is remembered.

It should be kept in mind that decades of research in psychology have shown that memories are always changing, the strange thing would be that they remain unchanged. Specifically, it is very common for memories to become mixed up with one’s desires and intentions , even if one is not aware of it. Therefore, it may be that the scenario offered by the people interviewed is much more optimistic than the event that actually occurred.

3. Interferes with verbal skills

These exercises are more useful for selecting people who are good at storytelling than for identifying those who are better at dealing with conflict or stress. The lack of capacity and resources to explain what happened, for example, says nothing about how someone would perform in the workplace, and likewise explaining an interesting story about how a job was done in the past does not say much about what would really happen if a similar problem appeared in the present.

4. Differences between jobs count

Another drawback is that work contexts can be very different depending on the job. If candidates are given the chance to recall a past work event, they are likely to talk about a very different type of organisation than the one they choose to work for in the present.

The key is to pose hypothetical situations

According to Grant, in order to avoid the aforementioned drawbacks and obtain relevant information about the candidates , recruiters should pose imaginary situations and ask the interviewees how they would act in the face of such challenges.

In this way, the range of situations from which each candidate departs is restricted, making the situation more just, and at the same time they are invited to participate actively in the resolution of a problem in real time , something that will reveal important aspects about their work performance, their level of creativity, their intelligence and their predisposition to work in a team.

For example, they may be asked to think of ways to get a brand to create viral content on the Internet linked to its image, without spending more than 10,000 euros, or they may be given the task of leading an imaginary selection process, with the profiles of several candidates explained and the express need to coordinate the process with heads of two different departments.