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Pressure Cooker Interview Questions: Assessing Grace Under Fire

ONE OF THE MORE COMMON METHODS for measuring candidates' abilities to land on their feet is to challenge their assumptions and beliefs during the interview. Stress interviews can intimidate candidates, squelch spontaneity, and consequently allow for little bonding and few shared insights. Asking a candidate, ''Why shouldn't I hire you?'' ''Why aren't you making more money at this point in your career?'' and ''Why, with this resume, would you see yourself as remotely qualified for this job?'' only makes the person defensive and more inclined not to give you real answers. Besides, ''if the interview seems like such a challenging obstacle, then imagine what the real job will be like!'' goes the candidate's reasoning. In such circumstances, the carrot-and-stick routine will do little in the way of making the position or your company appear especially attractive.

So, why have this section in our book? First, because many employers still apply this methodology, it is important to evaluate and reexamine some of the more sophisticated pressure queries. Second, and more important, note that there is a big difference between stress interviews and stress interview questions. Every interviewer should be able to apply a pressure question when the need arises. That's especially the case when the position you're filling has lots of high-maintenance customers to tend to or if it historically suffers from high turnover. In such circumstances, a number of questions to test an individual's mettle might come in handy. Furthermore, if you sense that a candidate is a little too cocky, then a skillfully placed pressure question could help humble the individual somewhat.

Following are some of the more effective ''stress'' queries that force individuals to volunteer self-critical insights. Remember again that an entire interview composed of such challenging queries will only cause ill will on the part of the candidate. So use them sparingly, but be prepared to pull one or two of these queries out of your hat when the situation arises.

Tell me about your last performance appraisal. In which area were you most disappointed?

Why Ask This Question?

Remember that it is perfectly acceptable for you to request a candidate's most recent performance appraisal in the preemployment process. Many companies nowadays insert signature waivers in employment applications granting the company permission to check the candidate's past references. (Such releases are meant to remove, or at least minimize, the hiring company's exposure to claims of invasion of privacy or misuse of confidential information.) Similarly, a short paragraph in such a handout requesting a recent performance evaluation could go a long way in scaring off any mediocre performers. Handed out at the beginning of the interviewing process, that written notice will tie in well to this particular interviewing query because candidates realize that their interview responses will be substantiated when they turn their actual evaluations over to you at a later date.

Of course, no employee is perfect, so don't expect to find a halo around anyone's head. Still, some of the most graceful and polished interviewees may have committed some pretty egregious faux pas that will be reflected on paper. Knowing that they will have to present a recent performance evaluation as a condition of employment will go a long way in encouraging those candidates to speak openly about even the most uncomfortable performance situations.

Analyzing the Response

Performance appraisals historically addressed traits or work characteristics regarding an individual's cooperation, production, supervisory skills, and ability to get along with others. More progressive companies nowadays focus less on traits and features and more on specific performance goals. For example, they may encourage employees to evaluate themselves in terms of areas where they have made the most impact on the company over the past year, areas where they need additional support from management, and quarterly or annual goals that they wish to achieve with their managers' aid over the next evaluation period.

Whatever the appraisal methodology, it is important to evaluate candidates' measurement yardsticks in their responses. When candidates come from companies that use traditional performance appraisals focusing on worker characteristics (like loyalty, dependability, and cooperation), then candidates' areas of disappointment will usually focus on disagreements they have with their bosses' perceptions. For example, you will hear the individual speak about frustration at having received only a ''good'' instead of an ''excellent'' mark in one particular area.

When companies use more self-directed performance appraisal techniques (wherein they invite workers to identify their own performance goals and measurements), then candidates will often discuss their own personal disappointment at not meeting individually set objectives. The difference is worth noting because it will indicate the type of corporate culture the candidate comes from. Those from self-directed environments who were expected to set their own agendas and act autonomously are much more apt to assume responsibility for things gone wrong. They typically work with less supervision and structure because they are accustomed to higher individual and group performance expectations.

Good Answers. Whatever the orientation of the prior company's performance appraisal techniques, look for areas of performance weakness that are really ''over strengths,'' or virtues driven to an extreme. For example, someone censured for not delegating work appropriately or occasionally forging too far ahead of projects requires only mild tempering of his or her ambitions. In essence, those so-called weaknesses hold a lot more future value than they do downside risk. In contrast, beware of the candidate who provides information regarding lackadaisical performance standards, low tolerance for adversity, or reliability problems. These problems typically reveal themselves when candidates blame others for their own shortcomings.

Again, because candidates realize that they will have to provide an actual performance evaluation some time before you make them an offer, they will typically feel much more obliged to come clean regarding past

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