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What Can You Learn About a Candidate's Personality From an Initial Interview?

Joshua Spears

COO for Traitify | Film, Books & Animals, aspiring Kool-Aid man | Inventor/Visionary in Work

Hiring practices are not what they used to be. Whereas employers once focused primarily - if not exclusively - on a candidate's skill set and how it related to a company's needs, the hiring focus has shifted considerably.

Today, most employers strive to hire job candidates who possess the type of personality that would best suit their company culture. In fact, oftentimes, companies' desire to find a candidate with a "winning" personality fit trumps the pursuit of someone with the right "hard skills", particularly if such skills can be learned on the job. This may sound radical, but it makes sense when you consider that a job candidate can learn new computer or other technical skills, but you can't train someone to attain a different personality.

"Personality has to be as important, if not more so, than skills and experience," said Tricia Sciortino, president of virtual assistant provider eaHELP. "You run a tremendous risk by bringing on a hire that could potentially disrupt what you've built, simply by not being a good personality or culture fit."

So, then, how do you know whether a job candidate's personality will mesh with those on your company's team - before you decide whether or not to hire the person?

Before the initial interview

There are a few key experiences during the interviewing process that allow you to gauge a candidate's personality. First, there's an initial screening, usually done by phone or Skype. Increasingly, the next step often involves a personality assessment screening of some sort, such as Traitify, a psychology-backed assessment comprised of a diverse set of fun visual assessments used to uncover personality types and traits.

In today's competitive business landscape, up to 60 percent of workers are asked to take workplace assessments to gauge whether their personality matches a given company's culture. Of these workplace personality assessments, approximately 20 percent are used to evaluate job candidates, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. While personality assessments are fairly new to the corporate landscape, experts tout their potential usefulness. "A good test, just like a good car, would have withstood strenuous technical tests, just like a dummy crash," says Deniz S. Ones, professor of industrial psychology at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Digging for personality during the initial interview

If you've done your homework, you'll arrive at the interview with some cursory knowledge of the job candidate. Now is an opportunity to dig deeper and determine whether the candidate's personality will mesh with those on your team.

Personality traits to look for

Highly successful companies value specific personality traits among their employees. Consider, for example, Apple, Inc., the world's largest information technology company. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently shared with Charlie Rose on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes primary personality traits Apple seeks in employment candidates. According to Cook, the company aims to hire people who work with a passion and an idealism, who don't take no for an answer or accept the status quo, who are inherently not satisfied with things, and who can't be told that things 'are impossible'.

How to ask questions that provide valuable responses

During an interview, how you pose a question to a candidate can be as important as what you ask. Leaders at MaRS, Toronto's commercialization hub, encourage employers to uncover the important aspects of a job candidate's personality by avoiding close-ended questions that focus on facts and, instead, asking open-ended questions that are either hypothetical in nature - "What if" questions about a situation that has not happened - or behavioral, which ask candidates to describe their behavior when handling a real situation.

In addition, leaders at MaRS encourage interviewers to follow these guidelines when posing questions to job candidates:

  • Possess a thorough understanding of the candidate's background.
  • Stay focused on the candidate.
  • Express curiosity and interest.
  • Avoid taking over the conversation.

Glenn Bernstein, COO of Execu-Search, a recruiting, staffing and executive search firm, suggests posing questions to job candidates that play to their use of modern-day professional practices. This could be a particularly effective strategy when interviewing millennials who, as 'digital natives', are likely to be extremely comfortable with this approach. He offers these examples: "I'll ask, 'What is the last Tweet you sent out?' Or 'Describe yourself by using hashtags. If I looked at your Internet search history, what would I find?' The answers to these questions can offer some great insight into a candidate's personality, interests and priorities," says Bernstein.

Recognize that not all candidates present similarly

Effectively interviewing job candidates takes practice, patience, and expertise. Some job candidates are naturally more forthcoming than others, sharing information that both guides the interview and helps the employer draw conclusions about that candidate's potential. Other candidates are uncomfortable or unpracticed at revealing information about their own strengths, past achievements and personality. It is up to the interviewer, then, to use effective tactics - both asking the right questions and in the most effective manner - to determine whether a candidate's personality provides a good fit for the company.

"Not everyone interviews well, and you may pass up great talent just because their [true] personality didn't come out right away," Brigette McInnis-Day, executive vice president of human resources at software company SAP.

Want to know more about how we use science to understand the influence of personality in the workplace? Sign up for a personalized demo today.


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