How to Recruit Smarter: Stop Asking Questions and Watch People in Action

In: BlogDate: Sep 09, 2022By: Henry Stewart

We all know how to recruit, right? Shortlist then go through our routine interview questions and choose who answers best? But is this the smartest way to recruit? Or are we just hiring the people who are good at interviews but may not be right for the role? 


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Let's stop asking questions at recruitment interviews.

Imagine you are manager of a football club and you want to recruit a new star player. What would you do to find one?

Well, I imagine you would watch them play. You would see their skills, and also how well they worked as a part of a team.

But let’s say instead you decide to ask them questions, about how well they play or their team interaction. Would that make sense?

You’d be more likely to recruit somebody like John Motson (a UK football commentator, who has never played the game) than a great footballer.

Traditional recruitment methods don't work

What is the point of asking people “when they’ve performed at their best” or “how well they’ve worked as part of a team”. Or that classic of “what is your greatest weakness?”.

What you end up with is the people who are best at answering questions like this, not the people who are best at the job.

Or as the company Next Jump puts it, questions are unreliable because answers are subject to "LHF" (Lying, Hiding, Faking).

So at their Super Saturday recruitment days the main activity is a project undertaken by 4 to 6 of the applicants. At lunch each is given detailed feedback from the Next Jump team (all of whom attend and observe). 

The group then perform the activity again and the key is how they respond to the feedback. Next Jump sees attitude and whether people are "coachable" as more important than technical skills (though they test for these too).

Recruit for attitude, Train for skill

I love this. Work out the attitudes and behaviours you want, and possibly the skills, and set up your "interviews" to test for them.

At the South Bank Centre, an arts venue in Central London, they used to short-list for their front-desk staff from an online form.

Now they long-list. They bring people in, in groups of 200 and get them to interact to get a sense of their attitude and to perform the tasks involved in the job.

The reasoning was simple. Why are we basing our recruitment on what people write in an online form - when in the job they will never have to write anything.

At our interviews for facilitators at Happy, we ask no questions. First, we get our applicants together in groups of 6. Why? Because one of our key criteria is to be positive and supportive.

We have no interest in asking them “when were you positive and supportive of somebody”. Instead we see how they interact with colleagues, so we know how positive and supportive they actually are.

Then we train them, so they know exactly what we are looking for. And then they train each other.

In days gone by we used to ask our applicants “what makes great training. People would deliver the exact answer we were looking for, with involvement and lots of questions.

But, when they were asked to deliver, they often did the opposite and instead delivered lectures. We don’t like lectures at Happy! So now, we simply don’t ask that question.

In the second interview, like with Next Jump, we take them aside and provide feedback on what they did well and what they need to improve. We then get them to do the session and see if they respond to the feedback, to see if they are coachable.

Show don't tell

At no point in these interviews do we ask any questions. And this, I believe, can be done in recruitment for any job.

When I was Chair of Governors of my local comprehensive, I had to recruit the new headteacher. We did have some standard interview sessions, with questions.

However we also got them to meet with parents, to meet the children, to facilitate a session with our most difficult departments and to run a full staff meeting.

And the person who did best at the practical sessions was very different to the one who did best at the interview questions. And I know now, was definitely the best candidate.

So, instead of asking them questions, what can you get them to do that is as close as possible to the job?

If you are interviewing a techie, get them to fix something.

If you are interviewing a software developer get them to do some coding.

If you are interviewing a GP, get them to diagnose people.

If you are interviewing for customer support, get them to talk to customers, whether real or one of your staff.

In your recruitment interviews, are you testing people's ability to answer questions (with the danger of LHF) or testing their ability to do the job?


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Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he has built a company which has won multiple awards for some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

Henry was listed in the Guru Radar of the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. "He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business," explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

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