Sabotaging an interview: Good personality test or pointless prank?

March 15 at 1:02 PM

While browsing Twitter recently, I came across a post that suggested an innovative interview technique: Take a job candidate out for a lunch interview, then secretly ask the server to intentionally mess up the candidate’s order. The purported goal: to see the candidate’s true nature. “It’s easy to say how you would handle when things go wrong, [but] hard to fake your reaction as it happens,” the post concluded.

Other Twitter users were quick to point out that job candidates with allergies or other hidden food sensitivities might indeed find it hard to “fake” their reaction to a sabotaged meal. Anaphylactic shock, anyone? And even if the “mistake” is a harmless one, such as forgotten condiments, there’s something power-trippy about enlisting a server and a job-seeker in a mind game they didn’t sign up for.

In response to those critics — and perhaps to deflect their outrage — the Twitter user who originally posted the dubious interview tip credited it to a 2016 interview with Charles Schwab chief executive Walt Bettinger. When meeting interviewees over breakfast, Bettinger said, he would privately set up the “mistake” in advance with the restaurant manager as a way to test “how [candidates] deal with adversity. Are they upset, are they frustrated or are they understanding?”

Note that in that interview, Bettinger was emphasizing the importance of being authentic, transparent and vulnerable. In that context, assessing a prospective manager’s temperament makes sense. But is rigging a fake error the “authentic” and “transparent” way to go about it?

And what would the candidate’s reaction actually reveal? Having a meltdown is obviously a disqualifier — but outside of a teen rom-com, is someone on best interview behavior likely to be that easily provoked? If the candidate simply accepts the meal as served, is that a sign of passivity or inattention to detail, or does it signify a focus on true priorities? “How I react to a very low-stakes mistake that affects only me says nothing about how I’d handle something going wrong on a work project,” notes Kathryne Alfred Del Sesto, a reader living in Dublin.

So what does this contrived character CAPTCHA accomplish? Note that Bettinger has since clarified that he actually used his technique only twice in 35 years — so it seems he was offering it more as anecdote than advice.

And what is a job candidate to make of a prospective boss who resorts to “gotcha” games? Does the testing and gaslighting end with the interview? As Jennifer Peepas, creator of advice blog Captain Awkward, puts it, “imagine what a random Tuesday is like working with this chuckle[head].”

If you’re truly curious about character, asking for references who have worked for, with and above the candidate is a good place to start. During the interview, introduce the candidate to a variety of your colleagues. Afterward, debrief everyone the candidate encountered, starting with the parking lot attendant and the receptionist. The more diverse the group, the greater the odds they’ll catch something you didn’t.

Finally, if you insist on real-life stress tests during the interview process, here’s my character-revealing suggestion that puts interviewer and interviewee on equal footing: a lunch meeting, on a rainy Saturday, at a children’s themed restaurant.

Reader query: What mind games have you seen an interviewer play on a candidate? Let me know at Anonymous on request.

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