Interviewing – the art of employing the story teller

Not too long ago ‘competency based interviewing’ became the rage and now it is based at the core of HR and interviewing practices. Most employers who consider themselves to be up to date with industry practice have been using this method for so long that it is deeply ingrained as the way things are done.

Competency based interviewing moves beyond simply asking people what they have done and explores how they did it, who was involved etc. It takes the interview a step deeper and quickly identifies the people claiming to have done work they haven’t but what it has also done is create a new form of imbalance – the story teller. The story teller is the one who can elaborate on details and has in fact resulted in, in many cases, the most eloquent person getting the job versus the most competent.

Many candidates and employers will judge an interview on how much they enjoyed the stories that are told. The story telling art however, is also reliant on the person being either quick on their feet or very well prepared.

Often employers comment on the preparedness of a candidate for an interview – how much research they did on the company, how well they answered questions resulting in the story teller who has done the most homework getting the job, not necessary the most competent. While sometimes the competent person is too busy focussing on their current job to do homework or perhaps finds it difficult to tell people things that they know the people already know. It is like a wife asking a random person to read her husband’s Facebook profile and then tell her about her husband.

Yes, there is information out there about companies but it’s the shallow stuff. The truth about what a company does, how they do it, is only learned on the ground.

Another question that points to modern interview techniques favouring the story teller is the question of why have you applied for this job – unless it’s a manager applying for the position of a clerk – the question is answered best by the story teller. Everyone has reasons why they look for a new job and generally those reasons are not positive. Even the most positive answer of looking for a new challenge has a story of frustration behind it. Employers don’t want the true answer of ‘I’m unemployed and I need a job’ or ‘I just can’t work with my current boss’ or ‘The office politics is too much’. The person who comes up with the best story, usually along the lines of flattering the potential employer wins at that question. The person with the most flattery to spew out is usually the story teller.

One of the questions that is a real favourite among employers is asking for people’s weaknesses or the politically correct phrase of areas of development. Sometimes employers ask these straight out and sometimes they mask them with asking for feedback around someone’s last performance appraisal. Either way, the story teller wins again – especially the one with enough savvy to make the weakness sound like a strength! Honestly, if someone has been working for 10 years, their weakness should not be an area of development – it can be something that they work on regularly but people who have matured into their roles have learned to manage their weaknesses and if they haven’t, they are hardly going to be honest about it in an interview because lets face it, it will count against them.

This, like the question of why you applied for the job, is not about being honest, its about telling the best story.

People who are established in their careers are usually aware that they could do things better – and within each function that they perform, there may be a different area that can be improved on. Continuous improvement is a way of life for your competent employee, not dwelling on or isolating weakness or ‘development areas’. The interview questioning counts against this person.

With most employers out there employing the story teller, it is little wonder that we sit with performance issues, frustrated employees and deep frustration that our labour laws are so restrictive in terms of dismissing someone.

The question is: how do you, as an employer, move beyond employing the story teller?

Many employers combine assessments, case studies and competency based interviewing techniques. The topic of assessments is as broad as there are assessments available and is really a topic on its own. That said, here are a few points to consider:

Assessments have their limitations in that the personality assessments produce results based on how the individual sees him/herself, not on how others experience the person. The latter would actually be far more beneficial to a future employer. Potential assessments in terms of numerical, logical and verbal reasoning can be a guide, however most of these assessments are not designed in South Africa and have proven show bias towards certain ethnic and educational backgrounds… more importantly, they don’t take into account minor disabilities or the fact that someone may in fact just not do well in taking tests.

Case studies do give people an opportunity to show what they can do, however they usually require a lot of work on the part of the employer and they can get quite academic in nature.
The important thing to remember is that one interview strategy is not necessarily the best for all industries and all jobs but all interviews are about one thing – finding the best person for the job! Employers want competence, not story telling!

A way to get to the heart of competence is scenario based interviewing. In scenario based interviewing the interviewer presents the interviewee with facts and details and asks them how they would handle that situation and why would they take that approach. It is much like a whole bunch of mini case studies that allow the person to show how they can apply what they have learned in their career to date. This empowers the person to present their true value proposition – not only does my C.V. tell you what I have done, but my interview shows you how I can apply what I have learned along the way and DO what you need me to do.

In conclusion there is no sure way to get the best candidate but employing the best story teller is bound to have a negative result on your team. Yes, sometime the story teller is also the competent one, but beware of choosing the story teller over competence – especially in fields where story telling and beautiful eloquence are not inherent requirements of the job!



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