Monday, January 26, 2015

What do you do when your interviewer is wrong?

From this week's letters to the editors, a great #chemjobs question:
I read “Interviewing Insights” with interest, even though I don’t foresee having to go through that process again (C&EN, Nov. 3, 2014, page 20). As with most articles I’ve read on that subject over the years, it seems to cover most of the bases (and traps and pitfalls) except one. 
I haven’t yet seen an article on this subject that includes any mention of the following scenario, which I ran into more than once while being interviewed. It’s almost similar to the scenario Tatyana Sheps describes, where they asked her to solve a difficult (and somewhat nebulous) problem. 
In my case, however, there was not an explicit question being asked. Rather, while discussing some topic, the interviewer would say something that was clearly and obviously (and even blatantly) false. For example, the interviewer might say something that violated one of the laws of thermodynamics. In retrospect, it is clear that interviewers were not testing the knowledge of thermodynamics (or whatever the subject of the false statement was about). More likely they wanted to see how the interviewee handled suddenly being placed in a potentially awkward situation. 
Yet I’ve never seen that type of interview tactic described or discussed, or any recommendations given about how to handle it, in any of my readings on interviews, including this one in C&EN. 
Howard Mark
Suffern, N.Y.
If indeed it is a test of the interviewee's willingness to tell important people that they're wrong, it's a fiendishly clever way of going about it.

I don't really think there is much to be gained from this, but I am open to the possibility that there might be something to it?  

21 comments:

  1. Interview tactics like these were typical of the Nuclear Engineering Officer selection interviews of the early-1980s (and presumably before and at least some time afterwards). The selection process was to test not only your knowledge but also your character under stress. Because I was a physics and chemistry major, mine came when the interviewer made a statement that violated conservation of angular momentum on a problem that he gave me and which I had probably solved two dozen times in all kinds of variations while preparing for the interview. We went around (no pun intended) for a few minutes and he started to ratchet up the pressure when I said something to the effect of, "You can believe your solution is correct all you want, sir, but you are wrong. While you've correctly set boundary conditions on energy and linear momentum, you've completely missed the point on angular momentum which must also be conserved in this scenario." He cracked a grin and said, "Well then, please proceed with your solution."

    My lord, what things I remember. Jeeze CJ thanks for dredging up stuff from 30+ years ago.

    I think there is good reason for it, both in civilian and the military. As a (prospective) employer, I want my employees to have enough spine to tell me I'm wrong on the science or its application. (Feel-good stuff is "opinion.") In my line of work, mistakes in science or its application can result in injury and that just cannot be accepted. There are too many marshmallow employees in the world willing to tolerate scientific mistakes in order to keep a paycheck coming in. A pox on them, and their employers for fostering that kind of working environment.

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    1. "There are too many marshmallow employees in the world willing to tolerate scientific mistakes in order to keep a paycheck coming in."

      So, this trial--in which nothing is at stake except perhaps a mere shot at a job--is supposed to test someone for a situation in which their career hangs in the balance...or people's lives are potentially in danger. Call me skeptical.

      I think your interviewer was far less clever than he thought he was.

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  2. If you really have to reply, say it as your personal opinion that is differently informed, be polite and brief.

    "Hmm... that's one way of looking at it. I think it works differently in this case, based on my experience with so and so..."

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    1. milkshake? ... more like milquetoast

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    2. Oh hardly.

      Imagine if this discussion were to have occurred in front of the interviewer's manager? Would you really tell them that they were stupidly wrong? Or would you be a little more diplomatic? The first option will lead to fallout, but it would be subtle and backhanded which is the worst kind.

      Diplomacy: the art of letting the other person have your way

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    3. I'm guessing you speak from recent experience.

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  3. From replies to these questions a skilled interviewer can draw a composite of three characteristics:
    - depth of knowledge and the candidate's confidence in it;
    - communication skills;
    - resolving conflicts under pressure.
    In other words, is the candidate a team player in the positive meaning of this term?

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    1. That supposes one can know whether the interviewer is skilled. It could also reveal terrible case of ignorance. In which case pointing it out dooms your chances. Is there a way to know for sure which it is?

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    2. If the interviewer is that full of himself you are doomed whether you get that job or not. This is not a situation where you can show your superiority and "win" that argument. If you "win" you lose. If you fold and get an offer consider it very carefully.

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  4. Wow, what a clever interview tactic, although pulling it off could be difficult. You would have to find the right erroneous statement, and say it in such a manner that it is something that should be corrected. I'm not sure I'm up to that.

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    1. I don't like interviewers playing with the job applicants or trying to trip them. I think it is a bad form even to give the applicant few chemistry test questions that are outside the research projects in which the job applicant was actually involved. (It is perfectly reasonable to judge the candidate on the research he presented, and on the ability to give detailed answer to related questions about his work.

      I think this kind of screwy interviewing tactics is employed by pompous fools who like to stroke their ego on the defenseless job candidate. But really, these ideas about "taking the job applicant out of their comfort zone" to really test them come from the HR theorists, who feel tremendously pleased about their psychology degree and they try hard to find their relevance within a large organization - something that is more fun than writing company policies and collecting the performance reviews...

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  5. Lord Humungus, HR DirectorJanuary 27, 2015 at 12:53 PM

    Your interviewer is as a god, and if they are wrong it is only to test you. You must prostrate yourself before the altar of the interviewer and beg for their mercy. If they are feeling generous, they may advance you to the next round of a dozen more rounds of interviews and psychological screenings. Ultimately, you will be dismissed for not having your resume in the desired format and you deserve to starve to death in the streets. So sayeth the all-mighty interviewer.

    This is what a STEM shortage looks like.

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    1. Funny. I was thinking about Descartes: God is not a deceiver because deception is a flaw and God is (by Descartes' decree) perfect. Applying this logic, the interviewer is demonstrating one of his flaws through his deception.

      The interviewers who pull this stunt are a-holes. No one except the truly desperate would ever agree to work for these nut-jobs.

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  6. From the original article... “There are a ton of great candidates out there, so in this market one can afford to be picky,”
    STEM shortage, uh? ;)

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  7. I think part of the goal here is to figure out whether you can tell someone they are wrong politely but firmly. It's a test of your people skills which doesn't seem all that bad, especially if you are interviewing for a senior positron.

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    1. Sure its a test of "people skills" as based on several Senior People I have worked under this could be a way to check out if one can accept and not stand up to obvious liars (i.e. seek Yes-Men clones). I agree with Anon Jan 27 3:11PM regarding such tactics showing a picture of the true nature and motivation of the interviewer (and even organization) more than angle on a candidate.

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  8. Had this happen to me during my interview talk, from the VP of the chemistry department. I realized his question was wrong, but I kind of hemmed and hawed for about 20-30 seconds (which seemed like an eternity) before I said something like, "It doesn't really apply in this situation," to which he immediately exclaimed, "Exactly! Doesn't apply! Go on!" I ended up getting that job and was quite impressed with the way he ran the department (trusting the employees to make good decisions, letting the directors run their projects without meddling, not micromanaging but offering constructive suggestions during meetings).

    As opposed to another boss I had, who barely let me get a word in edgewise during my one-on-one interview, then turned out to be the complete opposite kind of boss (respected none of his underlings' intelligence, lambasted anyone with a different opinion than his in project meetings, thought he was right about everything even in areas in which he had no expertise).

    Point is, sometimes they're not throwing out the trick question to be a jerk, but because they want to know if they can trust you to speak up when they (or someone else) is off-base. Which, of course, is the proper way to do science.

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    1. A jerk doesn't abuse people for no reason at all. They want something, and they fail or refuse to recognize they're stepping over a line to get it. Put more concretely: The jerk who cut you off on the highway could be trying to get home to his wife and kids.

      Trick questions during an interview run counter to the principles of honesty and openness that are fundamental to science. Just because you approve of your boss's management style does not mean he did not act improperly during your interview.

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    2. Anon 1:34 here. I disagree, for the reason that every part of the interview (from the phone call to the dinner to grabbing coffee to every interaction in between) is a test to some degree. The question was testing not only my knowledge of chemistry and not only how I would react to being put on the spot, but also how much deference I would give to authority. The fact that the boss actually wanted to be shown that he should be told when he was wrong spoke volumes, especially given the (far more common) alternative.

      I see the other side of this argument and were it not for personal experience, I'd likely agree with it. But after ~10 years in the industry, I've realized that there are far too many yes-men who get promoted. Trying to determine during an interview which candidates are likely to be the ones who promote the principles of good science and not the ones who put their heads down and do as they're told is a difficult task. If asked carefully, a trick question can be a means to test someone's character as well as their knowledge.

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    3. There is no such thing as a trick question in an interview. The hiring manager and the interviewers she has assigned to talk to a candidate have one goal in mind: hiring the absolute best talent that they can get. The reality is that people can be wrong. If your organization fails ungracefully in those circumstances ... well, then you have a dysfunctional organization.

      Checking to see if a candidate has the intellectual honesty to correct a simple mistake (calling a nucleophile an electophile, suggesting a completely insoluble salt as a good buffer, etc.) is absolutely the prerogative of an organization looking to hire the best. By the same token, being willing to gently and politely correct someone about the science is a skill that every mature scientist of quality should possess.

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    4. An interviewer's goal is an important one, and I never said otherwise. However, the ends do not justify the means here.

      Rationalize it all you want. I still maintain that this is not how scientists should be treating each other.

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