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How to Avoid the Biggest Mistake Interviewers Make

by Dr. Brad Smart

3 minute read

    After interviewing candidates for hire, do you have an agonizing feeling in your gut that candidates gave you such vague answers you didn’t really get to know them?  

    Do more than half of the people you hire turn out to be disappointments?

    If so, you are in good company.  Dr. Brad Smart has conducted more than 6,500 hiring interviews and has taught thousands of managers how to avoid costly mis-hires.  At www.TopgradingCaseStudies.com you can read dozens of case studies in which companies large and small improved from hiring 26% high performers to 85% HIGH performers.   

    Here is an conversation we had with Brad to discuss the interviewers biggest mistakes:

    Q:  Brad, what is the #1 mistake interviewers make?

    Brad: Interviewers simply don’t ask good follow up questions when they get vague answers to questions, particularly questions about mistakes, failures, or weaker points.

    Q:  For example …

    Brad:  Suppose you are talking to your candidate about a job 5 years ago and ask, “What would your manager in that job, Susan Smith, say you should improve at?  Suppose your candidate responds, “She said I should communicate better.” This could mean a lot of things … maybe the candidate is slow to return calls, or uses bad grammar, or speaks too softly, or is uncooperative with peers, or is not a good public speaker, or is cold in most communications, or breaks confidences, or fails to speak up when there is a problem, or 20 other things.  Maybe “communications” is not a weaker point … or a fatal flaw.  You just don’t know.

    You could assume that “everyone could communicate better” and go on to the next question.  But you haven’t learned if the candidate has a serious communications problem.  That’s how a lot of mis-hires occur.  You should have asked follow-up questions, probes that pin down exactly if the candidate has a serious communications problem.


    A:  Give us an example of generalities and of how to fix them.

    Brad:  OK.

    C(andidate): My manager, Susan Smith, criticized my communications skills.

    Y (ou): How exactly did she want you to communicate better? (Rephrase the question.)

    C: It was my communications with my peers.

    Y: In what specific ways did your manager want you to communicate better with peers? (Ask for specifics.)

    C: I guess I asked them to support my initiatives but did not communicate enough to really get them on board and supportive.

    Y: Give me an example? (Ask again for specifics.)

    C: Ok, as a sales manager I asked my peers to support big promotions, but at times I wouldn’t be clear about exactly what operations or marketing managers should do

    A: How would Susan rate your peer relations overall? (Nail down how serious it is)

    C: Susan rated me Good my first year, but challenged me to rise to Very Good by the second year, and I did. It wasn’t rocket science – I just needed to be more thorough initially and be more available to answer questions.  On a team survey my peers rated me a 6.5 in Peer Relationships the first year but 7.5 – 8 after that year.  (Good for you.  You probed enough to get a clear picture of the problem AND how serious it is.  It’s apparently not very serious.

    Q:  Are candidates as honest as in this example?

    Brad:  Yes, because Topgrading injects candidates with a powerful “truth serum,” one that high performers welcome but low performers hate.

    Q:  What is the Topgrading “truth serum?”

    Brad: Candidates are told from the start that THEY will eventually have to arrange reference calls with former managers and others YOU choose.  So if you were to talk with Susan you’d say the candidate admitted having some issues with peers, and would she please comment on that.  Candidates know that they can’t get away with fudging the truth, so low performers and BS-ers drop out. They know they can’t get away with hiding their weaker points so they tend to hint at them … but really tell all when interviewers probe.

    Q:  Got it.  So your recommendations #1 use the truth serum #2 keep asking probing follow up questions if the candidate has give vague answers, and #3 conduct reference checks like with Ms. Smith to verify what the candidate said.

    Brad:  Right!

    Q: How can our readers learn more?

    Brad:  They can email the Growth Institute team at jackie@growthinstitute.com to request the Topgrading Hiring Manual, a 25-page eGuide, or learn more and download the Course Outline at growthinstitute.com/topgrading.


    Dr. Brad Smart

    Dr. Brad Smart

    Brad completed his doctorate in Industrial Psychology at Purdue University, entered consulting, and since the 1970s has been in private practice as President and CEO of his own company, now called Topgrading, Inc., based in the Chicago area. Brad is frequently acknowledged to be the world’s foremost expert on hiring. The company consults with many leading companies and hundreds of small and growth companies. Brad has conducted in-depth interviews with over 6,500 executives. He is author of seven books and videos, including Topgrading 3rd Edition: The Proven Hiring And Promoting Method That Turbocharges Company Performance; The Smart Interviewer: Tools and Techniques for Hiring the Best; and the training series Topgrading Toolkit, featuring the 12 Topgrading hiring steps and demos of all the interviews. In addition, he has co-authored the following books: Topgrading for Sales: World-Class Methods to Interview, Hire, and Coach Top Sales Representatives, with Greg Alexander; and Smart Parenting: How to Raise Happy, Can-Do Kids, with Dr. Kate Mursau.

    Brad completó su doctorado en Psicología Industrial en la Universidad de Purdue, ingresó como consultor y, desde la década de 1970, ha ejercido en el sector privado como Presidente y CEO de su propia compañía llamada Topgrading Inc., con sede en Chicago. Con frecuencia, se le reconoce a Brad como el principal experto en contratación del mundo. Brad ha realizado entrevistas en profundidad con más de 6,500 ejecutivos. Es autor de 7 libros y videos, incluida la tercera edición de Topgrading: El método de contratación y promoción que acelera el desempeño de la empresa; The Smart Interviewer: herramientas y técnicas para contratar a los mejores; y la serie de capacitación Topgrading Toolkit, que presenta los 12 pasos de contratación de Topgrading. Es coautor de Topgrading for Sales: Métodos de clase mundial para entrevistar, contratar y asesorar a los principales representantes de ventas, con Greg Alexander; y Smart Parenting: Cómo criar niños felices y capaces de hacerlo, con la Dra. Kate Mursau.

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