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OWNER'S MANUAL

The Undercover Interview Technique

Want real insight into a job candidate's fit? Try adding the undercover interview to your hiring tool kit.

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Interviews can provide great insight. But do you know what a potential new hire is really thinking?

Sometimes you don't. That's why the undercover interview can be a great tool.

Here's how it works. Most interviews include some form of tour, even if the tour is just a quick stroll around the office area. Handle that tour correctly and you might learn a lot more than you ever imagined about a candidate's motivations, interests, and fit for your business.

For example, years ago I was in charge of manufacturing. My boss had just finished interviewing a candidate for a management position and was about to show him around the plant when some crisis (there always seemed to be a crisis) came up.

I happened to be in the hall. My boss saw me and said, "Jeff, can you show Tom (not his real name) around? He's interviewing for the opening we have in customer service. Great! Thanks!"

And off he strode to slay another dragon.

By accident I slipped under Tom's "how important is this person in the organization?" radar, a device many job candidates employ.

He didn't know my role. My boss didn't introduce me by title, and I didn't introduce myself that way either because I wasn't into titles. When Tom asked I said, "I work in the manufacturing area," because that's what I always said.

And Tom couldn't tell what my role was by my clothing. Even though all the other managers dressed "professionally," I had shifted my personal dress code to jeans and polo shirts: I spent 90% of my time on the floor, liked to get involved, liked to get dirty... okay, who am I kidding.

I hated khakis and had found business reasons not to wear them--plus, when you out-perform you aren't always required to conform.

So Tom assumed I was just a shop floor guy. Within minutes he said things and asked questions he never would have had if he knew my role in the company.

I learned:

  • He was asked to resign from two previous jobs but it definitely wasn't his fault. His bosses created conflict by constantly holding him back.
  • He felt focusing on productivity--both professionally and personally--stifled creativity. "I'm an ideas guy. I'm not hands-on."
  • He wanted to know if there were policies against dating employees, especially those that might report to him.
  • He asked how often he would have to interact with my boss since he already could tell my boss was a jerk.

My boss had planned to hire Tom until I told him about our tour. "Wow. I had no clue. He was great in my interviews," he said. " How did you get all that out of him?"

"I didn't," I replied. "He just told me."

Here's why the undercover tour works:

  • Some candidates put on a great show for the CEO... but they don't try nearly as hard if they think a person is beneath them. Think of it as the waiter test: If you want insight into how a person treats people, take them to lunch. How they interact the waiter is a much better indication of their interpersonal skills than how interact with you.
  • Some candidates want to know the "inside scoop" about the company (which is fair enough since interviews are a two-way process). They will often ask the undercover tour guide questions they will never ask you, giving you better insight into their perspectives and agendas.
  • Some otherwise great candidates simply don't perform well in interviews. A tour conducted by someone other than you gives those people the chance to relax and show their true (and often positive) colors.

Next time you have an open position, give it a try. Choose someone in your organization whose opinion you trust. Don't introduce them by title, and tell them to be relatively vague about their role in the organization if asked.

When you finish your formal interview, just say to the candidate, "(Jeff) is going to show you around so you can see what we do. Take all the time you need, and I'll see you when you're done."

Sneaky? Not really. The more you know about the candidates the better hiring decision you can make. Plus you get a second opinion about a candidate from a person you trust.

The undercover tour is just another way to give potential new hires a chance to show they are a great fit for the position and your business. Most will shine. Some will not.

Either way, you get to make a better hiring decision.

Isn't that the ultimate goal of every good hiring process?

IMAGE: Halfdark/Getty
Last updated: Oct 23, 2012

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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