Hypothetical Questions Make Room for Lies

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You say to stay away from hypothetical questions. We have been giving all candidates the same case study question. “What would you do if…?” First we think it’s fair to give all candidates the same question and we want to see how the candidate thinks on their feet. But, you say to stay away from hypothetical questions?

This is a great question and one I get all the time in my online program Hiring Talent.

There are several ways to look at your issue. The biggest problem with hypothetical questions is that they aren’t real. The response cannot be fact-checked. Because the hypothetical question leaves out all the nuances with reality, it leaves a lot to interpretation by the candidate. It’s like taking a multiple choice test where none of the alternatives fit. The candidate ends up guessing at what the interviewer wants to hear. That may have nothing to do with the candidates experience.

Hypothetical questions also leave a lot of room for the candidate to make up stuff or outright lie. Candidates spend time with headhunters role-playing answers to questions. Candidates read up on industry trade journals to get the jargon down. They may be able to create a plausible response to the hypothetical question, without ever having real experience.

You say, you want to be fair to all the candidates in the pool. My focus has little to do with being fair. My focus is to find out as much about the candidate’s past that has direct relationship with the work in the open role. I have a lot of data to collect. The only pivot point of fairness is the critical role requirements in the position.

Your intention in your hypothetical is noble. There are things you want to find out about each candidate. Maybe “thinking on your feet” is a critical role requirement. I would still look at the candidates past behavior.

Instead of “What would you do if…?” Try this.

  • Tell me about a time when you had only a short time to prepare for a project, where you had to think on your feet?
  • What was the project?
  • Who was on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • What factors created the urgency to mobilize quickly without time for planning?
  • What did you do? Step me through how you responded?
  • What was the result?
  • What did you learn from the project? How did that impact your next project?

Hypothetical questions can be improved by simply moving the response to a real event in the past.
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