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In Five Years Time?

It’s one of the classic HR/interview questions, isn’t it? Where you see yourself in some hypothetical future state, having mysteriously gained awesome prophetic powers that enable you to accurately foresee not just your own career trajectory, but the future health of the interviewing company, the economy in general, your personal life circumstances – and presumably that bus you step out of the way of just in time sometime in 2017. The biggest mystery is not that interviewers assume we have gained these powers simply by combing our hair and ironing our best formal wear, but that we show the humility and social grace to attempt an answer.

It’s a point well made by Neil Morrison at his Change-Effect blog, in the context of affording the candidate a sense of their on-going humanity and hopefully not too severely damaged dignity. From my own experience, it’s a point that many an interviewer – despite their years of experience – could do with taking on board. I can still recall a job interview with a highly respected University where I arrived in the state of combined optimism and agitation that tells you that this is a position that you feel genuinely excited about. By the five-minute mark, the questions and the atmosphere they were creating had firmly persuaded me otherwise. By the ten-minute mark, I was deliberately giving answers that I hoped would be judged as disastrously as possible. (Three days later, I had to find a way to politely turn down their written offer. I can only assume that the other candidates fared even worse against their inexplicable criteria.)

Neil’s experience is plainly far from unusual. CBS News recently published a list of the 25 weirdest job interview questions of 2012. Many of these are plainly foolish, but Number 23 – “On a scale from 1 to 10, rate me as an interviewer” – must surely rank as downright dangerous.

There are times and places for ‘stupid questions’ – the kind of innocent enquiry that reveals that the person being interrogated has not thought through their argument or made it as obvious as they might like to believe. Any question that can be paraphrased as ‘Really?’ probably falls into this category. With a degree of self-knowledge (although not necessarily on the part of the protagonist), this can be genuinely funny: consider the case of Karl Pilkington. As the Guardian commented in a book review:

Everyone knows someone like Karl Pilkington. He’s that daft, endearing friend that spouts improbable bullshit all day, then makes an amazing insight, before lapsing back into bullshit again. It’s like monkeys typing Shakespeare […]“

Except that a) he’s actually a professional radio producer, b) you ‘arrive at’ Karl Pilkington knowing that it’s supposed to be funny. (Apply emphasis according to personal taste.) And Shakespeare, of course, had his own line in ‘fools’. Although King Lear isn’t what you might call a conventional model for recruitment interviews either.

But there’s another point. Yes, I know the ‘five years time’ question is partly about ambition and aspiration and whether the candidate demonstrates having any (and possibly, given their answer, whether they’ve demonstrated it in the past). It’s not utterly stupid. But it evades so much of reality – not least the ability, interest or willingness of the organisation to fulfil the candidate’s ambitions – that I think questioning its purpose is legitimate. Let’s go back a stage, and ask ourselves something different. What’s the purpose of asking questions?

My best answer to this – and I’m so glad this isn’t an interview – is that we ask questions so that the answers we receive can help us to heighten our understanding. And so that there is an opportunity for opening up a dialogue. Interviews are also opportunities for the candidate to identify if the potential position is suitable for them, although many may leave the room less than convinced by that argument. Questions are a means of exploration, not just interrogation (and as such, the principles that apply to giving and receiving feedback during performance reviews apply.)

Witty and humane as Neil’s piece is, I think his argument goes beyond showing some respect to the person across the table. I’d hope that it involves showing some respect to the professional process and practise that the interviewer is supposed to be both pursuing and demonstrating. Maybe Question 23 wasn’t so dangerous at all. Maybe HR should make it mandatory? After all, it’s a profession that’s always strongly argued for the virtue of seeking constructive feedback …

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