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Conduct a Job Interview Like a Spy

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I sometimes get asked if spy interviewing techniques can be used in a business scenario. My answer is a resounding Yes! People act predictably in situations and that includes in job interviews. Your job as an interviewer is to spot and then read those patterns – which is what a spy would do in any interview situation.

A word of warning: The spy interview process should make interviewees want to tell you what you want to know. It should feel natural and comfortable to him or her to do so. You don’t want to use threatening techniques to get the answers you need on your new hire. I believe everything you need to conduct a truly informative job interview is completely ethical and comfortable to both parties.

Conducting a spy interview

Step 1: Know Your Desired Outcome

Before you interview anyone, the first step is to know your desired outcome. The goal of any interview is to find the best candidate for the job. This means that you’re looking for a specific set of data such as:

  • Whether their personality is conducive to success in the role (coachability, positive attitude, etc)
  • If their skillset matches the baseline needed to perform in the job
  • How their knowledge level matches the baseline needed to perform in the job
  • Presence of effective in-person communication skills
  • If they can follow directions and pay attention to details
  • How each of the above compares to other candidates you’ve already interviewed

Next, you will need to know which of these factors is most important to the job. Do you prefer an individual who is highly coachable but less trained or one who can be let loose without oversight? Do you need someone who can present well in client meetings or will he be sitting behind a computer terminal all day?

The more specifically you know which pieces of data are essential to have, the less distracted you’ll be by unimportant data. Which means you’ll ask better questions on the fly during the interview.

Step 2: Establish a Baseline of Behavior

Have you heard lie detection “tips” before such as to watch for fidgeting or nervous behavior? The problem with this advice is that it’s only true for those whose nervous behavior matches what you’re looking for!

For a more accurate sign of lying, you’ll need to figure out what that person’s “baseline” behavior is. A baseline is an informal measure that determines what is normal and what is not. These are not universal norms and are specific to the individual in front of you. Observe how your candidate sits, stands, laughs, gesticulates, and speaks.

To further establish a baseline, ask questions or make compliments which elicit reactions. For example, ask a question you know the answer to in order to determine how the candidate answers truthfully. If during the interview process you don’t see their “tell” of truth, then you’ll know to dig deeper into that answer because there’s some incongruence going on.

Step 3: Ask Targeted Questions

Your candidate knows what he or she wants to say in the interview. Your job is to pull the truth out of the data they’ve chosen to present.

To do this, you’ll ask general questions and hear their response. Then, you’ll ask more targeted questions to uncover the truth.

Spies know that some of the best interview questions might seem very basic:

  1. Why do you want to work here?
  2. Please describe an example of a time you were in a leadership role and failed. What were the lessons learned and your subsequent change of behavior?

The value lies in the open-endedness of the question. By leaving it open, you force the candidate to reveal either what he values or what he believes you value. Both provide useful data you can use to dig deeper and get better answers than if you’d asked more specific questions which yield and easy yes or no answer.

This is because all information a candidate shares (or doesn’t share) is a tell to their personality and value system. For example, if they heavily push their experience and downplay their education, the individual might not have performed well in school or may not value formal education. These are opportunities for further questioning.

Step 4: Watch for Baseline Changes

When you ask questions, be sure to look for body language patterns which deviate from the norm:

  • Is his posture firm until you ask probing questions about salary?
  • Does she tap her feet until you ask about that employment gap?
  • Is he normally loud and extroverted until you ask about his accomplishments?
  • Does she look you in the eye until you ask about education?

These changes indicate an attempt by the candidate to manipulate how he or she is coming across to you – and potentially indicate stretching the truth about his qualifications.

Other signs to look for:

  • Distancing with the body – pulling away, shifting the feet, sitting back in a chair
  • Protecting the body – crossing the arms, putting a hand over the neck or chest
  • Qualifying language in response to a question – “In my opinion…” and “To tell you the truth…”

There are, of course, tells which aren’t a sign of deceit. A quiet person may become gregarious when speaking about his technical expertise, a topic he’s more comfortable with than small talk.

In all these instances, trust your gut. If something feels off, then it probably is. That’s a sign to ask more targeted questions.

Remember, too, that at the end of the day your interviewee is evaluating you as much as you are evaluating them. Finding that good fit is a two-way street and sometimes even the best techniques aren’t enough to snag the top-tier candidate.

Now you’re ready to conduct a spy interview.

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