Curiosity Killed the Cat, But Good Questions Win Jobs
I broke my own rules for interviewing. Curiosity made me do it.
In more than 15 years of interviewing people for jobs and internships, I have come to look as much for evidence as answers. Don't just tell me that you work hard; show me when you did.
With about 200 internship interviews a year, I get a chance to compare how people act in a systematic way. I have taken to changing the variables to see which questions work and to see how people respond.
Curiosity is a key journalistic trait and one that should be demonstrated in an interview. I do not ask candidates whether they are curious, but for years I have taken notes on their questions.
I counsel that the basic job interview has four parts: a greeting, the main part, built around the interviewer's questions, the candidate's question window and a close. I began to notice that students at the more prestigious schools always had questions when I asked for them. Were these schools really attracting students with more curiosity, or were they simply schooling them better? I didn't think curiosity was necessarily related to book smarts or income.
"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." -- VoltaireSo, in almost all of the scores of interviews I did for the 2006 internship season, I broke my own rules and dropped the third part of the interview. I tried not to invite anyone to ask me a question. I asked question after question, right up to the end of our time and then I thanked them and ended the interview.
Some looked startled. They seemed to feel that the interview had ended abruptly. Some asked, "That's it?" I said yes and sent them off.
The people who were genuinely curious got their questions in. The best question-asker was a first-year student, who didn't yet know how interviews go and who was just seeking information. She and some others asked questions throughout. One student broke in when I told them the interview was over, "OK, but I just have to ask ..." That was good. He really wanted to know.
The curiosity gap between prestigious schools and the less well-known schools narrowed. While I had been used to seeing all the students at the top-notch schools prepared with questions and only about a third of the students at the other schools, I now found that about half the students at top schools didn't have a question unless I invited one.
Colleagues, who seemed to think it was a little unfair of me to purposely drop part of the interview, protested that some students might have just been intimidated or acculturated to feel it was impolite to ask questions without being invited. I find myself thinking that for reporters, anyway, curiosity ought to outweigh other considerations.
Having satisfied my curiosity, and explained here what I did last year, I am back to asking candidates whether they have any questions and noting them, trying to determine whether they are genuine.
Our question to you: What is the best question you have ever heard from a recruiter or job seeker? The wildest question? The worst question?