One of the most common problems in hiring today is the prevailing attitude that interviews are a one-way grilling where the goal is to try to catch the candidate off-guard or ask some kind of sneaky question that gets at what you want to know without actually asking it. The premise is often that there are so many interview guides on the internet that a candidate can just look up the question and memorize the "right" answer, so you have to be creative, to find a question they haven't already figured out.
This is all dumb.
First, most jobs don't require the skill of being able to come up with what animal you'd be for a day off the top of your head. Sure, thinking on one's feet is always a good skill to have on a team, but few jobs truly require it, and in fact, some roles should value the opposite (having the ability to tell a higher-up "I'm not sure, let me pull some data and get back to you").
So, if you're asking a dumb question with the hopes of hearing a great answer on the fly, know that you're likely testing for something that the job doesn't actually require, which is a great way to introduce bias into your process ("I really relate to Jake's answer about being a jaguar, much moreso than Jamal's answer about being a sea urchin.")
But you're missing something much more important by treating interviews as gotcha games. The less a candidate is able to prepare for your interview, the worse they will "perform" (which I put in quotes to remind you that your goal probably isn't to evaluate how well they interview, but to figure out how they might operate in the role you're hiring for).
In practical terms, this means you'll spend more time:
- talking about stuff that doesn't matter and isn't a predictor of success, such as jaguars and sea urchins, and
- with dead air, while the candidate scrambles to grab some piece of information from their now-stressed out, scattered mind, to answer your question with.
Neither is getting you closer to making a strong hire.
Here's how you actually get around candidates who rehearse answers to common questions:
- Ask behavioral questions, either about their past experience or a hypothetical (but reasonably specific! scenario). Stuff like "Tell me about a time when you just couldn't make an important deadline," or "What would you do if you found out you'd been pulling from the wrong dataset for a report for the last year?" Even if the answer is rehearsed, you're still hearing about actual things the candidate does/did, in the course of their job. That's good info!
- Ask follow-up questions. Even if you get a fairly scripted answer, you should be prepared to dig deeper. Ask what their role was, what the biggest challenges were, what the results were. Ask them how and who they would inform about their error, and when. Have a conversation.
- Use prep to your advantage. One of my favorite things to do for interviews is to actually send one or two of the questions I'll be asking in advance, specifically so the candidate can prep thoroughly for it. This not only helps ease the nerves of candidates, it helps you get better answers.
My favorite questions to ask in advance: "What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievement?" and "Tell me about a time you went above and beyond to get results." I also let them know we'll be talking about them in-depth, so they should be prepared with details about their role, the challenges they faced, and the results they got.
There are lots of other ways to improve your interviewing (such as creating a rubric that helps you laser-focus on info you actually need to know, and helping you gather and track evidence that relates to the real skills they'll need on the job), but simply getting out of the mindset of the gotcha! game with candidates helps immensly.