When interviewing candidates you need to understand “projection.”


 You don’t have to have to have a Ph.D. in psychology to effectively interview candidates for hire, but it helps to understand some key psychological principles.

But first — an elaboration on the point about the Ph.D. in Psychology. There is an industry of psychologists who interview candidates for hire for companies who don’t trust their own abilities to “read people.”  I’m one of those psychologists.  Clients (CEOs) have hired me, figuring that because I have that Ph.D. I must have deep insights into the inner workings of the mind; a front-page Wall Street Journal article about me said just that.  Also, having conducted 6,500+ in-depth interviews of C-suite candidates, companies figure that, as a popular insurance company ad says, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

But I’ve proven that sharp managers (like YOU?) can achieve professional level (85%+) hiring success without having an advanced psych degree.  Back in the 1990’s General Electric CEO, Jack Welch hired me as a consultant to build the hiring machine that would increase percentage of A Players hired.  I did, using the same chronological, in-depth, (10 questions about every job) interview guide that I used professionally. Zillions of GE hiring managers and HR professionals were trained and Topgrading was embraced to hire managers.  GE’s success shot up from 25% to 50%.  Jack asked me how to improve the results, I said use two interviewers (Tandem Topgrading Interview) and GE’s success shot up higher to 90%.  Needless to say, 99% of the managers trained in Topgrading at GE did not have a graduate degree in psych.  But I’m quite certain psych concepts are important to know.  Here is one …

When candidates emotionally criticize a weaker point in many others have this hunch:  That THEY have that weaker point.  

Shakespeare:  “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”  The psych term is projection and here’s what it looks like:

  • “Joe is always jumping to conclusions.”  “Pat is shallow in her analyses.”  “Plan X was a flop because (boss) is a hip shooter.”  

Of course, any one of these comments could be true and in fact all might be true, but here’s the point: when your interview gets emotional in not just criticizing one person but 3 or more, it’s a red flag.  Comments like these should induce you to go on a fishing expedition – ask questions like, “What were your most important 2 or 3 decisions in that job and how did you go about making them?” or “What would your boss list as your strengths and weaker points in that job?”  And, “What was a circumstance in that job in which you might have performed more extensive analysis?” 

Many times, when this has occurred it becomes clear that the candidate is guilty of the weaker point, and has usually been criticized or maybe even fired because of it.  They “project” their weaker point(s) onto others.

The One Most Important Question to Ask Candidates

As an author of 5 books on hiring, all with the emphasis on the most revealing interview, the long, chronological Topgrading Interview, I’m hesitant to suggest one question being most important.


Most Important and Most Revealing: If the candidate has had 8 bosses, that’s sort of 8 questions, not one, but you get the point.  This is by far the most important, most revealing question you can ask candidates.   It’s important because about 25% of candidates, who hyped their resume to cover mediocre performance, will drop out.  They know they can’t get bosses to talk with you and they wouldn’t want them to talk with you and give “so-so” references.  Good!  At least 25% of resumes have deliberate falsehoods, and you don’t want to waste time with those candidates!

And the question is the most revealing.  At Topgrading, Inc. we’ve interviewed over 20,000 candidates for executive positions, and so we know what questions are revealing.   Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Candidates who are willing to arrange reference calls with managers are sharp and honest.  They might not be the best fit for your job but that’s what interviews can reveal. By asking the big question, 25% have dropped out, leaving you with the best candidates to evaluate.
  • The negatives (failures, mistakes, what bosses would say are your weaker points, not just strengths) reveal what you are MOST interested in knowing.  Every book on hiring tells job hunters to lie on their resume and in interviews, because reference checks are generally worthless.  So, a question that ACCURATELY reveals the negatives, not just positives, is extremely important to you.
  • Realizing THEY will have to arrange reference calls, candidates that did not drop out tell the truth – the whole truth.  High performers naturally share their accomplishments but they are happy to reveal their failures and mistakes because they’ve learned from them and because … they know that bosses will list them.  Literally millions of reference checks, organized by candidates, have been done and Topgrading companies always say that candidates did NOT hype their responses to the question.  Of course not, because the reference call would show that hype!

When to ask that question: Let candidates know in your first communications with them that their arranging reference calls with bosses is a final step in hiring.  The Topgrading Snapshot is a screening tool that informs candidates of this requirement and produces valuable information like full salary history and those boss ratings.  An online screening tool can ask the question for you … and give you answers even before speaking with them.  The 25% or so will drop out (good).  Then invite candidates with the best-looking Snapshots in for interviews.  The most important interview is the Topgrading Interview, and the Topgrading Interview Guide has questions for you to ask including appraisal by the candidate of bosses, what bosses would list as strengths and weaker points, and how each boss would rate their overall performance (a deliberate repeat of what is shown in the Snapshot).

Summary: Getting the “negatives” and not just positives for candidates avoids costly mis-hires.  Let candidates know THEY have to arrange reference calls with bosses assures HONEST answers to that most important, most revealing question.

Click (here) for more information about the Topgrading Snapshot.


The testing industry is huge

The testing industry is huge – thousands of companies pay a lot of money to administer tests to candidates for hire.

  • Why? Simple – many studies show that more than 50% of resumes contain hype, fiction, and lies.
  • Why? (I sound like one of my grandkids) Simple – because reference checks are almost worthless.
  • Why? Because companies don’t allow their managers to take reference calls.
  • Why? Because if a manager says negative things about a candidate you have, and that candidate finds out, that candidate might sue you, go to EEOC (“discrimination” on the basis of age, gender, race, pizza favorites, whatever).

Because candidates easily write A Player resumes, how can you tell the true As from the fakes?  You can’t (unless you use Topgrading), so you’re desperate and hope that screening candidates out who do not achieve scores on tests is a good idea.

Tests can be useful, to test actual knowledge or abilities (knowledge of SAP or whatever).  And personality tests can be useful AFTER someone is hired … so they are honest when taking the test and the use is for seminars on communications or team building (“Amiable, how can you best work with the Analytics over there?”)

Do you “believe in” personality tests.  It’s understandable.

  • Why?  Because you go on line, take a test for free, show the results to a friend, and that friend says, “Wow – that profile is accurate.”

But personality tests with cutoff scores (candidates achieve a score or they don’t get an offer) are, in my experience, scams and shams. They eliminate as many A Players as C Players and because of that personality tests do not improve your hiring, are NOT just neutral, but are actively harmful. The “case studies” are very much in doubt to me because when I read the “validation” manuals, the results are too poor to produce the positive results.

  • Why? Here we go again. Despite the assurance that the test has a built in lie detector, I’ve never seen one that works.
  • Why? Simple:  You’re a job candidate.  Just think of someone who would clearly be an A Player and pretend you’re that person when entering answers.
  • Are there other ways to cheat? Sure, go to jobtestprep.com and for a few bucks you can take just about any test and then get coached on how to score better. On the home page, they quote someone who brags about achieving the best score the administrator had ever seen, after being coached. But that’s dishonest.
  • Why? Enough of the “whys!”

MY OFFER TO YOU:  Send me the validation manual for your personality test and (no charge) I’ll send back to you why it’s likely to be deceptive … and I’ll explain how you can honestly “test” your test at no expense.  (Email me at brad@topgrading.com )




Interview Questions That Are Risky to Ask

Avoid spending time in a minimum-security prison!  Just kidding, but you know that questions like,  “Are you pregnant” are illegal.

Having personally conducted over 6,500 hiring interviews of candidates for executive positions, and having written 5 books on interviewing (the latest:  Topgrading: 3rd edition), I frequently am asked what interview questions NOT to ask.  That happens to be a good question to ask…! The “wrong” questions could get you a law suit, drive away A Player candidates, or simply NOT reveal anything important.

Here’s my advice:
Do not ask questions that are illegal (at national, state, and local levels). You already know not to ask questions that reveal age, religion, race, etc. The Topgrading Interview has been vetted by a leading employment law firm, Seyfarth Shaw.  In Topgrading books, they continue to say they cannot find any law suits connected to Topgrading or specifically, the Topgrading Interview.   Topgrading Interview questions are all relevant to the job.

Ask questions about hobbies, interests, etc. outside of formal interviews.  Sure, have meals, team get together, play golf, or whatever to test candidate social skills. But be careful with “get to know you” questions that might trigger responses that reveal forbidden areas (volunteering at the church, protest marches, etc.)
Use structured interviews, in which all candidates are asked the same basic questions (EEOC insists on this). Follow up questions are fine, but stick to the topic.  There are four interview guides used in Topgrading (phone screen, competency, in-depth chronological – the Topgrading Interview, and reference check: all are structured).
Don’t expect competency (behavioral) interviews to reveal much. They are super easy for interviewees to make things up: “Pat, please describe a time you were well organized.” We’re okay with including competency interviews as long as they are followed by the much more revealing Topgrading Interview. A Ph.D. dissertation vetting Topgrading case studies found that 2/3 of Topgrading companies abandoned competency interviews because they did not add value.
Skip the trick questions.  Zappos is (in)famous for asking candidates, “How weird are you on a scale of 1 to 10?”  People have told me the “right” answer is between 5 and 7 because the company wants employees who are kind of weird but not too weird. People can learn through contacting people in a company what is asked and expected for responses.  So candidates can trick the employer when the employer uses trick questions. Topgrading questions are not secret – candidates are asked about every job:  successes, failures, key decisions, key relationships, and what bosses would list as the interviewee’s strengths and weaker points. While you’re trying to trick candidates, candidates will trick you right back!
Ask very few hypothetical questions.  “How would you handle it if your manager asked you to do something illegal?”  The candidate can make up anything.  More revealing is if the standard questions produce a real-life example. For example, if you suspect that the candidate is too willing to please bosses and worked in a company that did illegal stuff, a follow-up question could be, “At Acme, were you ever asked to do something illegal, and if so, please explain.”
When in doubt, change the subject.  In an interview suppose the candidate volunteer’s information that reveals a “forbidden” area: “I joined a different church at that time and …” You might interrupt and say, “No need to discuss religion – let’s get back to the job – what did you like most about that job?”
Use interview approaches associated with proven improvement in hiring success.  By “proven,” case studies should be of named companies and include quotes from the CEO and/or head of Human Resources.  “Anonymous” case studies are, of course suspect.
Use two interviewers. General Electric improved from 25% to 50% high performers hired using the Topgrading Interview. CEO Jack Welch asked me how they could improve on that number and I responded, “Jack, in all of the interviewing workshops at GE we use 2 interviewers, and I’m sure a tandem Topgrading Interview approach will produce better results.” That was a short discussion; Jack implemented it, GE shot up to 90% high performers hired, and GE became the most valuable company in the world (in market cap).

Conclusion: Interviewing need not be difficult or risky. Follow the above advice and you will conduct the most revealing interviews of your career…and stay out of trouble!