Tag Archives: hypothetical questions

I Can Talk the Game

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

In your post on Wednesday [Hypothetical Questions are a Trap], you caught my attention. As an interviewer, I use hypothetical questions all the time. It lets me know if the candidate can think on their feet. I try to use real hypothetical questions for circumstances they will run into. What’s wrong with that?

Hypothetical questions are a trap for both sides of the interview table. Intellectually, hypothetical questions seem to make sense. In reality, they force the candidate to play a guessing game and require the interviewer to suspend judgement of reality.

When the interviewer asks a hypothetical question, the candidate must now search for the answer they believe the interviewer wants to hear. This is a guessing game. The candidate, if they are like me, will have done some reading up on your industry, will understand the basics of industry jargon and be able to create some believable response.

Two problems. Just because I can talk the game, does not mean I have ANY REAL experience in the circumstance. Second, if my response is in the ball park of believe-ability, the interviewer unwittingly suspends judgement and checks the box for a good response. The reality is that I have never been a project manager for any construction project larger than a bathroom remodel. And, frankly, I wasn’t very good at that.

The interviewer cannot fact-check a hypothetical response. It’s hypothetical.

Oh, I will dazzle you with schedules of value, resource planning, milestone review, budget to complete, over and under billings. But, if you had asked about my bathroom remodel (actual experience), you would have a totally different judgement of my skills and ability.

In the Interview, Hypothetical is a Trap

My eyes scanned the page, fell on a question that was particularly troubling. I was with Kimberly, a recent transplant to the city, looking for a job. A head hunter asked her to prepare responses to a list of anticipated questions.

Why would I want to hire you?

“Kimberly, the problem with that question is that it invites candidates to make stuff up or outright lie to the interviewer. Most responses will be trite cliches loaded with meaningless crap.”

“So, how should I respond?” insisted Kimberly. “The head hunter said this question will likely be asked.”

“And he’s right, so you need to be prepared. Remember, the interviewer has an expectation of what an acceptable response would be. The interviewer is playing a game, trying to get you to guess a right answer. Guess wrong and you lose.

“My philosophy is, always try to pull hypothetical questions back to your own real experience. It might sound like this:

Frankly, I can’t tell you why you would want to hire me without understanding the criteria you are using to make this hiring decision. But I can tell you why my last employer hired me, and it is related to something very specific to your job posting.

Like your company, my last company had just installed some computer software, but no one was using it. Everyone finished the training, but still no one was using the software. My first task was to design daily administrative routines to get people started immediately. I then designed reconciliation routines to make sure the data was accurate going in. Finally, I developed a schedule of reports so other managers could make decisions about their departments. Within 30 days, we had moved completely off of our manual systems. Which part of that transition would you like to hear more about?

“Remember, Kimberly, a hypothetical question is a trap. Always move the question back to your own real experience.”

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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