When I interview job candidates I always ask: If we had a party, what would you bring? Some people come up with fun answers (one woman who was married to a radio personality offered to supply the DJ). Some offer panegyrics to their acclaimed artichoke purée with garlic pita crisps. Some say, "The napkins." And some look annoyed and ask me what I'm getting at.
I've always justified the party question as one that provides insight into a candidate's personality. And it does--a little. Mostly though, I ask it when I still have 10 minutes to kill before shuffling the poor applicant off to his or her next meeting. That's after I've dutifully reeled off the same six or seven unimaginative questions ("What kinds of things would you like to work on?" "What accomplishments are you most proud of?") that everyone before me has already asked and everyone after me will ask again. As the candidate trots out an answer that probably felt fresh when he sat down with the CEO three hours ago, I wonder what exactly I'm supposed to be adding here.
I understand why leaders want to expose prospective hires to an array of employees, and vice versa. CEOs demonstrate respect for their staff members by soliciting their participation in personnel decisions. Employees are more likely to accept colleagues they've vetted themselves. Different people may detect different strengths and weaknesses. And job candidates can use this experience to assemble a fuller picture of the company experience.
Yet while employees interview job candidates all the time, rarely does anyone advise them how to do it. Should managers ask one type of question, peers another, and underlings still another? What is each group trying to assess, aside from the vague notion of cultural fit? Even personality can be tough to gauge under such strained, artificial conditions.
Then there's the peculiar role reversal that takes place when interviewers are as eager to impress as the interviewed. Employees who are insecure because they're new or low level or simply lack confidence often want to distinguish themselves in the prospect's eyes. A piece of their brain attends to what the candidate says, while the rest darts off in search of an insightful question. They envision the candidate conversing with his spouse back home: "…and this one guy, Brad, struck me as super sharp. I could learn a lot from him." Others, unnerved by a prospective hire's perceived superiority, use the opportunity to do some early turf-staking. "I'm pleased to hear you've worked with such large energy concerns. Of course, I handle all those accounts here, but it's always nice to have someone around who sympathizes with me."
So sure, have job applicants meet with Jeff in accounting and Abby in marketing and Bill R. and Bill J. in R&D. But when scheduling the interviews, tell each one what specific insights you hope he or she can supply. If all you care about is personal chemistry, let them know that. Then they can relax and concentrate on whether the stranger in the expensive suit seems like someone they want to share a mini-fridge with for the next five years.
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large.