It is no secret that the number of open positions currently far outstrips the number of candidates available to fill them. According to March 2022 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the gap between the current number of job openings and the total level of unemployment now exceeds five million. Given such a dramatic and critical imbalance, making good hires is among the most important priorities for HR leaders in organizations of all sizes and stripe this year. And it's not just because people are hard to find. 

A survey from Harris Poll, for Career Builder, found that 74 percent of employers admit to having at one time hired the wrong person. Then, a Robert Half study looking at the cost of bad hires reported that a total of 16 weeks is wasted when a bad hire is made. Hiring the right people the first time is critical.

Many HR leaders and recruiters in small and medium enterprises have turned to pre-hire assessments as a means of attempting to isolate great hires. Recent research from the Aberdeen Group found that just over half, 57 percent, of all companies use some form of pre-hire assessment, ostensibly to improve selection. But the trouble is, they don't work that well. Besides opening the door to the creation of discriminatory and highly homogenous workplaces dominated by very similar individuals, these tools are frequently misunderstood both by the user and those administering them.

About the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), arguably the industry's most popular pre-hire personality screening tool, University of Pennsylvania organizational psychologist and The New York Times No. 1 best-selling author, Adam Grant said, "The MBTI is astrology for nerds."

Worse, the most clever candidates try to beat the test; they will tailor responses to better align with what they perceive to be the cultural and practical requirements of the position. According to 2019 research by Nicolas Roulin and Franciska Krings, which appeared in The Journal of Applied Psychology, "On the basis of readily available information about the culture, applicants derive the profile of an individual who potentially would thrive in this context, and then adapt their responses accordingly." So it's not uncommon for pre-hire assessments to deliver the exact opposite of their intended result: A good hire. So, many firms then turn to targeted selection for help.

Targeted selection is a process whereby the same questions, or very reasonable facsimile thereof, are divided up among multiple interviewers who later compare the candidates' replies for consistency. An example of a targeted selection question might be, "Give me an example of a time when you used your fact-finding skills to solve a problem."

The logic behind targeted selection is that it eliminates bias across multiple candidates, while creating an objective frame of reference to discuss and rate candidates across multiple interviewers. Additionally, proponents of targeted selection believe that a candidate, under pressure, will have difficulty tricking the system. That is, they won't be able to sustain consistent dishonesty across multiple versions of the same question.

Therefore, they assume, targeted selection will reveal the best, highest-quality hires. The problem is, the brightest candidates prepare for targeted selection questions, and likewise prepare answers designed to please the interviewer. Whether their answers are true or not, authentic or not, or credible or not take a back seat to whether or not they are more likely to check a box the interviewer is seeking to check. So targeted selection is (or should be) out.

There is, though, a far better, and far more practical way of finding quality hires than costly assessments and complex group interviewing schemes. Just ask, "Oh?"

I've been using this simple two letter interrogative in interviews for more than three decades now, to help separate winning candidates from everyone else. I use, "Oh?" as a follow-up to bold statements, insufficient statements, superficial statements, or just statements I want to know more about. "Oh?" has a sort of magical quality about it. It cannot be ignored. It's too informal to mean, "I don't believe you." It doesn't invite any sort of canned response. It might mean, "Tell me more," or something altogether different -- but most wouldn't be caught dead asking you to clarify what you meant by it. "Oh?" is just "Oh?"

But academics, psychologists, and business leaders all agree that using "Oh?" in the interview process can lead to better outcomes. "Open-ended and exploratory questions, like 'Oh?', allow for an organic conversation, and result in a more accurate evaluation of the candidate's relevant and transferable experience," says Carnegie Mellon University's Diane Taylor. Used along with other intelligent and well-thought-out queries, "Oh?" can produce higher quality hires by addressing some of the shortcomings found in other recruiting tools.

"Oh?" will require a candidate to think on their feet. "Oh?" almost always elicits a completely candid and honest response, because most don't have a repertoire to draw from that includes responses to "Oh?" That's because virtually no one spends time getting ready for the "Oh?"

According to Agnieszka Goulin, head of people at Spacelift.IO, "I like asking the 'Oh?' question as most candidates do not expect such a question. They have not prepared their answer prior, and thus their answer will be a unique response they came up with at the moment. It showcases their critical thinking and their ability to remain calm under pressure." Responses to "Oh?" will typically most closely match the personality and cultural orientation of the responder. Because in responding, they are foremost considering only how to answer the question, not how to make a cultural impression.

Adam Sanders, founder and director of the Relaunch Pad agrees. He told me, "There is more information out there than ever before about what hiring managers want to hear. This makes the typical interview questions easier than ever to answer, if you're willing to prepare a bit beforehand. All of this leads to candidates interviewing with a persona of what they think will get them hired and companies hiring that persona. It's a bad match for both parties in the long run but it happens all the time. I've found that 'Oh?' is a very effective method to take the interview from canned responses into a more self-reflective conversation. Most candidates only prepare for the typical surface-level questions and 'Oh?' requires them to dig deeper and improvise on the fly. I've found that I get more honest and authentic answers this way."

But beyond reducing bad hire, risks often missed by assessments and targeted selection, there are other reasons to use "Oh?" -- like tearing away at veils.

"'Oh?' is an excellent interjection when an applicant has been giving superficial responses. According to Stephan Baldwin, founder of Assisted Living, a digital marketing agency in the health care industry. "When an interviewer says 'Oh?', candidates usually get uneasy and start digging deep into your questions. They assume that the phrase signals inadequacy, as if you were expecting more from their reply. And sometimes, you really are ... health care demands employees who are wholeheartedly interested in what they're doing. It's worth finding out what really drives people to join your team."

Making quality hires requires that hiring managers know more about a candidate than meets the eye. "Oh?" helps them get to a deeper level of dialogue. It encourages people to talk freely and to share openly in a way that few other questions do. It's disarming and welcoming. When used properly and sparingly, the "Oh?" can enable interviewers to collect a depth of information that before would have remained hidden. The "Oh?" can also quickly build relationships between interviewers and interviewees.

Finally, the tremendously casual nature of "Oh?" can help rapidly create bond and rapport, then a deeper connection with a candidate. Few candidates will expect the informality of "Oh?" Using it can change the tenor of not only their responses, but also the nature of their relationship with the questioner and the company. Done well, the interviewer is inviting the candidate to a much broader conversation about possibilities, dreams, and, hopefully, mutual ambitions. It's a moment when the candidate may, or may not, start to take ownership of their future role.

As psychotherapist Dr. Heather Browne shared with me, "Oh?" can lead to a place where the interviewer and candidate "can dream together. And in this way, the candidate will stand out if they so choose. These are the moments we live for in an interview. It's either the transformative connection where you create together, or it's the clarity of misaligned thought/belief/mission."

It all starts with two simple letters: "Oh?" -- a tiny little word that can have huge implications for the quality of your future hires.