Some thoughts (mostly about job interviews)

(Some of the stuff below started out as comments made during a skype conversation with a friend. I added some other unrelated ideas as well. Most of it deals with the job interview setting, but there’s a little bit of other personal stuff at the bottom as well. I don’t really write posts like these anymore and I was strongly considering not posting this, so if you think the post contains some valuable insights you’d probably be well-advised to save it somewhere else; I can’t guarantee that I won’t change my mind about the post later on and delete it when I realize it’s the sort of crap I shouldn’t blog.)

I consider job-interviewing to be a skill that I at some point hopefully not too far into the future will have to try to acquire. Like in other areas of life I’ll probably try to acquire that skill through reading stuff about it – it’s what I do. But it’s probably worth writing down a few observations I’ve already made along the way. It’s my belief that the things that decide whether or not a given person lands a job often are at least somewhat unrelated to the qualifications of said individual, and it probably makes sense to try to optimize along such variables as well. This is hard to do if you’ve not given it some thought. Saying someone got the job because there was a good chemistry between the interviewer and the interviewee may be correct but it is not a very informative statement, and usually some variables go into that equation which can at least be tweaked a little in the right direction.

I’ve occasionally talked to my brother about classic Fermi problems and how to go about answering such questions, which is one angle (some employers do pose such questions during an interview). However a probably much more important angle is the open ended question. Any semi-competent interviewer will probably make use of these during an interview, because they have the potential to give you a lot of information. This is because the potential variation in response strategies is much higher here than in other contexts; people may vary a lot in how many words they use (‘Not enough information (to anwer)’ vs ‘a 10 minute lecture on how you saved the lives of four kittens on November 13, 1999, and because of this – well, also partly due to Marjorie’s accident of course – decided to help out at the local homeless shelter…’), which words they use, how many variables they include in their response, which aspects they emphasize and which factors they exclude/overlook (e.g. intellectual vs social/emotional aspects), and so on and so forth. Interviewers ask such questions at least in part in order to get people to tell stuff about themselves which they might not otherwise have told them. When answering a question like that, one should probably try to keep in mind both why they ask (the answer to the question as such is not that important – which things they may be interested in learning about you is what’s important) and how you’d prefer to present yourself to them (how honest are you going to be in terms of signalling to them which type of person you are, and which types of variables would it be optimal for you to signal that you’d include in a random decision making process?). As always in these contexts, the response strategy will to some extent imply a tradeoff between increasing the likelihood of getting the job and getting a job you don’t want.

I think a common theme in the approach I at this point assume makes sense in the interview context is that you do not in general want to memorize answers to specific questions. This is certainly not the way to handle Fermi problems, and I don’t think it’s a good approach to many other types of questions either. I don’t think the ‘memory strategy’ makes much sense except in so far as it relates to very specific questions which you know will come up during the conversation, and which you know you’ll need to have a good answer for in order to land the job. However in general it probably makes more sense to have some idea which personality traits and behavioural dispositions you’re going to emphasize when talking about yourself (and the sort of work you can do for the employer), and which traits and dispositions it on the other hand would be optimal for you to neglect to tell them about. You probably want to along the way give some thought as to how perceived social signals from them about what they’re looking for should change your response strategies, if at all. Having given such topics some thought beforehand should make the social interaction more natural and make e.g. various ‘evasive maneuvers’ less obvious. A potentially important note is that response relevance (are you answering exactly the question they’re asking you, or are you perhaps answering a slightly different question which you would prefer to answer?) is not necessarily a variable you should always aim to maximize; the importance of this variable will depend upon the question and upon the preferences of the interviewer, and it is likely that you’ll quickly learn how much leeway you’re given in this respect.

All interviews will from a certain point of view contain a lot of elements which are included at least in part in order to make people slip and indicate that they’re not the right person for the job – if 7 people are interviewed and one person gets hired, the interviewer needs to justify why s/he didn’t hire any of the 6 others. Employing strategies such as trying to make people relax and feel comfortable are often effective in terms of squeezing relevant information out of the interviewees, because they tend to increase potential behavioural variation among interviewees; people behave more alike in environmentally-induced high-stress situations than they do in relaxed social environments (see e.g. Funder), and if anything an interviewer wants to maximize behavioural variation (the less important the environmental confound is the more behavioural variation is displayed during each encounter, and the fewer rounds of interviews will be needed to decide upon an optimal candidate). Feeling comfortable during an interview probably should not be considered a state to be avoided as such, as awkward encounters are unlikely to lead anywhere, but it should be kept in mind that there are potential negative behavioural effects associated with feeling ‘too’ comfortable. Extensive knowledge about which sort of social strategies interviewers apply during the interview should not (if you decide to try to obtain such knowledge in order to increase the likelihood of getting hired) make you more overtly cautious or mistrustful, as these are not traits you will want to display too openly (unless you’re applying for a job where such traits may be considered a plus). A better idea may be to signal that you’re comfortable and relaxed, whether or not you actually are comfortable and relaxed – this seems in general to be a much smarter move than would be signalling that ‘you know what they’re trying to do’; the former will, if you do it successfully, both signal confidence and perhaps also make the interviewer believe your behavioural input is more ‘valuable’ (to them) than it may actually be in reality, whereas the latter may put you into a very different box. I have in the past perhaps had a tendency to think of displays of meta-level thinking as a positive factor in these contexts; one example of engaging in this type of behaviour could be to signal that you know some stuff about which traits and behavioural dispositions the employer is likely to consider desirable in an applicant. I’m no longer at all sure such displays are a good idea; there are certainly ways to do these things which are better than others (‘making such comments jokingly and in a light-hearted manner may serve to display both confidence as well as intelligence’). In general displaying and drawing attention to the fact that you’re familiar with mechanisms applied by interviewers and that you’re trying to take them explicitly into account when answering questions may be a bad idea, as it may make your responses less trustworthy. Divulging explicit aspects of your response strategy may not be a good idea.

One thing to remember in the context of the information setting is that the interviewers know next to nothing about you (aside from what they may have learned from your job application and a quick google) and that any variable you have not told them about is a variable they will not take into account when deciding whether or not you should get the job. They’ll ask questions designed to figure out all the relevant information, but sometimes identifying the relevant information is not an easy task, and that helping them along in that respect may be required is something which may be worth keeping in mind. Asking the interviewer questions along the way may be a good idea (if that is ‘permitted’ in the setting in question), in that it may help you get the interviewer to tell you something about herself. Information like that is power because it may help you identify things which you have in common with said individual; the more aspects you have in common, and the more significant these aspects are to the self-perception of the person with whom you’re interacting, the more likely you are to be liked by the interviewer (and the more likely you may be to get the job). Information provided by answers to such questions may also enable you to better gauge which answers they’re looking for, enabling you to potentially switch self-presentation strategies as needed. Even if the setting discourages asking questions, the subtextual information provided by e.g. the type of questions asked by the interviewer may give valuable information that may be applied in a similar manner.

Optimized non-verbal behavioural interaction patterns (eye contact, open body language, etc.), as well as formulation of specific behavioural heuristics derived from the above observations to be applied in the interview setting, are things I’ll have to have a look at later. I should probably also try to at least get some idea about just how ‘normal’ I’ll want to appear to a future employer. Self-presentation strategies, reframing techniques, and perhaps even social inputs from others which might be relevant in the interview setting are potential things to look into later as well. Just like in the dating context, the goal of holding and projecting accurate self-perceptions can be problematic in this context, which is something to have in mind; in this particular context it’s taken as a given that you’ll try to mostly say nice things about yourself and present yourself in the best possible light, and if you don’t do that it may well make you look bad.

I have talked about the Mensa trip I went to this weekend before, so I guess I should add a few remarks about that here – I wrote an account of how it went and how I felt shortly after I’d returned home because I felt a need to do that, but I see no reason to share that stuff here. Intead I’ll keep it brief: It was not very much fun in general, but it wasn’t all bad -> Conclusion: I’m glad I decided to go because of the ‘get outside your comfort zone, try new stuff, learn stuff about yourself’-aspects, but at this point I don’t think I’ll repeat the experience anytime soon. Despite not being all that great it was not a particularly disappointing experience as I had rather low expectations from the outset. Interestingly I only recently realized that I may have initially ‘underestimated’ the value of some social feedback I got during the event; a couple of people there expressed a desire to interact with me at a later point in time (a later specific point in time – it was not ‘a general notion’ but a specific activity they had in mind). That activity is also incidentally placed well outside my comfort zone, but most social activities are anyway and the social angle on offer there is certainly very different from the ones to which I currently have access. I am actually seriously considering participating in that activity as well, if for no other reason then because it’s been a very long time since someone has approached me socially in this specific way. I sometimes forget that it’s actually nice to feel that other people have a desire to interact with you socially.


April 17, 2014 - Posted by | Personal, rambling nonsense


  1. You have already given this a lot of thought. I’ll add a few point and observations of my own, both from the perspective of interviewee and interviewer, with the stipulation that this is from a US point of view – things may work differently in Europe:

    – “It’s my belief that the things that decide whether or not a given person lands a job often are at least somewhat unrelated to the qualifications of said individual…” – You can safely replace the “often” with “‘always”.

    – “I think a common theme in the approach I at this point assume makes sense in the interview context is that you do not in general want to memorize answers to specific questions.” – Well, memorize is probably too strong a word, but my advice is to have a short list of… stories, for lack of a better word, that answer the broad category of questions “Describe and occasion where you demonstrated [fill in the blank]”. It’s impractical to have a story for each possible blank – creativity, team spirit, effective communication, dedication/perseverance, time management, analytical thinking, leadership, ability to learn/adapt, etc. You do not want to get the above question, and be scrambling and sweating as the seconds tick, thinking “Damn, when the hell did I exhibit conflict resolution skills? The bully in 6th grade? The teaching assistant who had it for me?” It helps to have a few (3-4) stories that hit multiple of the blanks. And while you may not want to memorize them, it’s a good idea to practice telling those stories to make sure you are telling them in a coherent manner, without omitting key points or straying into unnecessary detail.

    – “‘All interviews will from a certain point of view contain a lot of elements which are included at least in part in order to make people slip and indicate that they’re not the right person for the job – if 7 people are interviewed and one person gets hired, the interviewer needs to justify why s/he didn’t hire any of the 6 others.” – The first part is true; the second part – mostly, but not always. A very, very important thing to note here is the need to be aware who the interviewer is. An HR person will think exactly along the lines you outline. A professional interviewing someone who will be working on their team (here I do talk from experience) will not generally try to trip you so they can check the box “Does not have skill X”. They will try to get a feeling for what it would be like to work with you. They want you to get the job done, save them time, not be a pain in the @$$. The difference, as they say, is subtle, but it’s there. I have gotten a girl hired who did not seem like a team player at all, because I did not need a team player – I needed someone who, when you give them a task, would do it on their own most of the time, and if they could not, would try to learn on their own, and then if they still could not, would come back and ask for help, and finally, when you taught them how to go about it, would grasp it quickly and run with it. My priority was efficiency, not some HR BS about team dynamics. Also, most professionals, unlike HR people, understand that most of the practical skills for the job are learned on the job. To a professional, replying “I do not know to run a frequent itemset algorithm, but give me one hour and I’ll know” is very attractive; to an HR person, it’s “Lacks technical skills required for the position”. Also remember: you can much more easily bull-shit in front of an HR person. The HR lady at Goldman Sachs does not know how to run a hyper-heuristic – you can overwhelm her with jargon, and make her check the “technically proficient” box. In front of the professional, emphasize humility – show that you know some stuff, but demonstrate definitely that you can learn and apply stuff quickly, smoothly, and efficiently.

    – In the context of the previous paragraph: think like the interviewer. Be aware of what they are trying to find out, and what limitations they are facing (you make this point too – I am only trying to emphasize it and state it differently). For example, here in the US, an interviewer is not allowed to ask you if you have children, so they can infer if you’ll be available to work late. They can only ask job-related questions – say, if you’d be available and/or willing to work late several times a month, for example. They may not ask you if you have any medical conditions, but they may ask if you can lift 75lbs above your head multiple times. You, the interviewee, however, are free to disclose that you are single and have no children, and have worked late on Project X for months on end, or that you have been lifting weights 3x a week for years, or can run a marathon. Volunteer your strong points that would make you an asset, if you’re talking to the person who would be benefiting from them. Do not give the HR person reasons to check boxes against you.

    – Practical, but not necessarily ethical point: lie and omit if you positively cannot be caught. Example: here in the US, litigiousness is a big concern for employers. If you left your previous position because you were fired, and sued them for discrimination, that’s a huge red flag “This person is gonna be trouble – if someone on a company night out makes a sexist joke, we can have a lawsuit”. Omit the lawsuit part. You have a 1-year gap on your resume. Make up a non-confirmable story – you took time to off to care for a sick relative, or focused on preparation for exams to an elite school you had set your mind on, etc. Remember, the goal is not to exchange accurate information and let the chips fall where they may – the goal is to get your foot in the door and get hired.

    – “Optimized non-verbal behavioural interaction patterns (eye contact, open body language, etc.), as well as formulation of specific behavioural heuristics derived from the above observations to be applied in the interview setting, are things I’ll have to have a look at later.” – I am not sure you’ll find much reading on this, but… yes, do think about this. I’ll just add an example from my experience: at an interview at JPMorgan, I was told “You don’t need the tie here” by a managing director in khakis and a golf shirt. I thought I had 3 options: could have ripped my tie off (“Oh, cool!”) and stuffed it in my pocket, taken it off somewhat carefully and put it away, or said “I’d rather keep it on”. I went for #2, as I thought it would show I am willing to conform to the culture, but I am not a “I’ll forget I am at an interview, tap the beer keg”-type of guy. I did not get the position (which I was under-qualified for anyway), but I did get a second interview.

    I hope these are helpful 🙂

    Comment by Plamus | April 30, 2014 | Reply

    • They are indeed very helpful. Thank you for taking the time to write. I have bookmarked this comment.

      Comment by Manfred Bühler | April 30, 2014 | Reply

      • You are welcome – glad I could help.

        Comment by Plamus | May 1, 2014

    • Thank you for taking the time to add those observations. My brothers have brought up some, but not all, of those points before during our conversations on the topic – especially the difference between talking to HR people and talking to a potential future colleague, and how they are likely to approach matters differently – but as I didn’t include that stuff in the post you had no way to know that (and it’s nice to have it here as well).

      “my advice is to have a short list of… stories, for lack of a better word, that answer the broad category of questions “Describe and occasion where you demonstrated [fill in the blank]“ […] It helps to have a few (3-4) stories that hit multiple of the blanks”

      I had completely forgotten about these types of questions, and that is a very helpful piece of advice in that context – thank you. I’d feel very uncomfortable if I got a question like that and I hadn’t at least mentally prepared for it beforehand in some way or another.

      Your ‘practical, but not necessarily ethical point’ is a small component of a potentially much larger strategy complex which deals with ‘other ways to improve your chances’ – do note that the post was mainly focused at the ‘how to promote good chemistry between interviewer and interviewee’-question, and that’s far from the only question that needs to be addressed if one wishes to optimize one’s chances of getting a job. I’m saying this because I’m of course aware that a lot of other aspects need to be addressed as well, and that this post only deals with a very narrow and limited part of the strategy complex. I should perhaps note that my focus on this kind of stuff is at least partly motivated by the fact that I’m not very optimistic about my chances later on; many formal decision-criteria employers apply to people applying for a job are in my case screaming ‘don’t hire this guy!’ and I’m certainly much, much worse off than the guy with a one-year-gap on his resume – if I were optimistic I probably wouldn’t feel any great need to focus on these sorts of aspects, important though they may be, but as it stands I figure I probably cannot afford to ignore any sort of aspect which is potentially relevant in this context.

      Incidentally I realized after writing the original post that I have posted a few thoughts on job interviews before here – the post above is incidentally not a duplicate of that one as the first post deals with different aspects of the problem.

      Comment by US | April 30, 2014 | Reply

  2. You are most welcome. A brief comment on your earlier post, which I thought I’d slip here rather than bump an old thread:

    “The obvious answer to many people would be ‘I’d feel great about working with X, I’d be very excited to have that opportunity’ or something along those lines….But why is that again? Let’s think a little bit about the signalling aspects here… So if you signal that you’re eager to work with this stuff, you signal that you have a lower reservation wage.” – I think there is also a deeper, less job-specific aspect at play. By giving an answer that is less than fully truthful, but is nonetheless the expected, standard answer, you are signaling a certain level of conformity and social tact. I am not sure I can explain this well, but I see a parallel to how in the USA, when you ask someone “How are you doing?”, 98% of the time the reply is “Great” or “Good”. It’s not an actual exchange of information, but a social protocol – see this. You are showing that you know (enough of) the steps in a social kabuki dance that is totally predictable and stylized, and that you are not going to be a disruption to the corporate culture.

    Comment by Plamus | May 1, 2014 | Reply

    • “By giving an answer that is less than fully truthful, but is nonetheless the expected, standard answer, you are signaling a certain level of conformity and social tact.”

      Right, that may well be true. And while there may be some variation as to how important such a social signal might be in terms of whether you’ll get the job or not from position to position and from situation to situation, with some employers being more okay with implicit norm-breaking transgressions than others, in general such stuff is probably best not ignored.

      I know about the existence of such social rules and I’m familiar with a lot of them, but I suspect I may not always be all that great at identifying specific ones like these when they’re at work – I have some reason to believe I’m rather bad at it, though it’s at least to some extent conjecture as it’s in many contexts almost impossible to come across honest social feedback pertaining to such dimensions of social interaction. Thinking about an implicit social rule like ‘express that you’re excited about this potential new job’ as a ‘totally predictable and stylized’ social rule of conduct is presumably standard for neurotypicals, but to me such social rules are not always predictable and easy to identify; I could easily overlook a rule like that, as indicated in the post.

      Regarding your example I tend to get annoyed when people I don’t know ask questions such as the ‘how are you doing’-question because I often don’t really know how to answer honestly, and I don’t particularly like lying; which is what people often will be asking me to do if they’re asking me a question like that and expecting me to answer ‘okay’, ‘fine’, or something along those lines. I think I’ve actually discussed precisely this question, and/or questions along the same lines, and how to optimally react to them, earlier on here on the blog, but I’m not sure I can be bothered to find a link to that discussion and it’s not important anyway.

      In general it’s probably very much recommended to try to take the broader ‘organizational culture’ into account when formulating response strategies and while engaging socially with the interviewer. You want to signal that you fit into the organization, and that certainly requires to some extent correctly gauging social expectations and modifying behaviour according to the signals you pick up; a task that will probably be much easier if one has done a bit of homework and one has familiarized oneself a bit with the organizational structure of the potential employer beforehand. That point I arguably neglected to cover in the post to some extent, and you did well to remind me of the importance of such aspects.

      Comment by US | May 1, 2014 | Reply

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