What To Look For When Interviewing A New Employee

May 19, 2017
Clock Icon 5 min read

It’s really hard to know what to look for when interviewing a new employee. There’s no secret sauce recipe for getting recruitment right, and you can’t trust your gut.

Which sucks, because bad hires are a drain on money and morale – but there are good methods and bad ones.

This article looks at how research into language use in recruitment can help you avoid costly hiring decisions. 

interviewing process


Cost of Bad Hiring Decisions

Apparently, as much as 80% of employee turnover is due to bad hiring decisions. And your bad hiring choices could cost the company financially in wasted salary and time of others who have to correct work. Plus when you eventually manage to get rid of the bad hire, you have to go through the entire recruitment process again.

While hiring costs are hard to quantify, other factors can be easier to spot such as:

  • Customer dissatisfaction.
  • Loss of reputation.
  • Lost sales.
  • Employee turnover.
  • Morale drop.
  • Productivity drop.
  • Quality drop.

Evidently, bad hiring is a huge problem for business. This realisation is what led Mark Murphy to discover whether language could help recruiters improve their success rates. He conducted research through Leadership IQ and analysed the language of over 20,000 interviews to identify if good and bad candidates shared common traits.

They discovered that if employers were aware of subtle linguistic differences they could make better hiring choices.


Hiring Red Flags

Low performers have a tendency to talk about absolutely anything but themselves. They’ll chat for ages about their colleagues, their boss, their customers or clients, but try getting them to talk directly about themselves and you’ll struggle. This is because low performers generally don’t have anything impressive to divulge.

If you manage to negotiate the conversation away from others and they still can’t seem to tell you anything concrete, chances are you have a bad candidate on your hands. Here’s how language can help you confirm that.

Bad employees tend to use the future or present tense. In the future or present tense, they may use the first person, for example, “I’m a really excellent problem solver”. Using the future or present tense makes it’s easier for bad candidates to lie or embellish, this is because it is easier to make big claims when the situation is hypothetical.

Even though it’s harder to lie when you speak about yourself in the past tense, be warned, low performers will use it.

warning signs in interview language

And that’s where you need to keep an ear open for present tense verbs, such as ‘call’ rather than ‘called’ because it’s hypothetical still: “When customers were angry I would always solve their problem as quickly and calmly as possible”. All that this actually tells you is that they know what they should have been doing. When you hear an answer like this, probe why they are not getting specific and ask them to give you a real example.

If they do manage to use the past tense, but all they talk about is other people. That’s another big red flag.

Bad employees also use 90% more third-person pronouns like “they”, “them”, and “themselves”. Language like this suggests that they refuse to take ownership or problem solve and that they’ll shift blame for their shortcomings. In their eyes, their laziness, bad attitude or struggles are someone else’s fault.

In summary, your bad candidates will use language to compensate for their lack of ability. They will use:

  • Language that disassociates their actions from themselves such as “you”, “you’ll” and “they”.
  • Decorative adverbs and absolutes: “I was always the fastest” and “I quickly and effectively handled customer enquiries”.
  • The past and future tense.
  • Negative language.

Signs of a Good Interview

They found that suitable candidates do three things, they:

  1. Talk about past experiences using first-person pronouns, such as “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”, “we”, “us” and “our”.
  2. Are more positive.
  3. Have longer answers than bad candidates.

If the candidate sat in front of you is using the past tense and first-person pronouns to respond your questions, it’s unlikely they are lying. This is because it is much harder to lie when you use the first-person; other pronouns allow us to distance ourselves psychologically from the lie.

positive signs - successful interview

In fact, high performers use 21% more “I” type language and 65% more “we” type language than bad ones.

Equally, when you ask high performers a ‘tell me about a time when’ question, they will often give you very specific examples of how they worked in the past, what their successes were, and how they overcame problems.

Leadership IQ also found that high performers are generally more positive when they answer questions. They use language that describes positive emotions 28% more of the time.

They also found that high performers felt they had no need to embellish their answers with descriptive language. Candidates who tend to perform badly use 40% more adverbs than good ones (adverbs are descriptive terms that modify a verb such as “quickly” and “effectively”). Whereas, better candidates give answers with solid, concrete details rather than vague adverbs that are used to try bulk out and enhance an answer.

To recap, your good candidates will use positive language centred on themselves, their team, and their past experiences. They will tend to use:

  • Sentences that are simple and focused (less decorated with unnecessary embellishments and adverbs).
  • More positive language.
  • Longer answers.
  • Answers that orientate on what they did, using “I” and “we” a lot.

How to Interview Potential Employees

With all of this talk of language, it’d be criminal not to examine your own. Indeed, your questions might be giving bad candidates the answers they need.

People are smart – low performers especially, so that’s how they get away with it. So, don’t put clues into your questions that help candidates give you the response they know you want. This is key if you’re going to uncover what kind of candidate they really are.

If you ask an interview question like “tell me about a time you didn’t know what a customer or boss was asking you to do and how you solved it” this latter half (“and how you solved it”) tells your candidate that you want to know how they solved it.

When you drop that hint from the question, you can divide candidates easily. And if you’ve created a comfortable environment with your candidate, you’ll find that those bad candidates will often relish the chance to moan and tell you about scenarios where “others” prevented them from solving something.

When you ask a question without an answer prompt to a good candidate, they’ll tell you what they did to fix that scenario. Your bad candidates, on the other hand, will complain and place blame and find all sorts of reasons for why they struggled or were blocked from achieving their aims. It’s a subtle change in how you ask questions, but it’s one that gets results.


Further Resources:

Like This Article?
Share it on social.