Why Do Smart People Ask Dumb Questions?
I would like to say that nothing in the sometimes strange world of career advice can surprise me, but then I would have to deny how often I am surprised. The most recent surprise was a pair of articles appearing just days apart. The first prompted a very strong “What the heck?" response. However, then it was elevated even beyond that by a second article. Combined, they should provoke some serious thinking on the part of interviewers and force organizations to take a serious look making sure recruiters and hiring managers are properly trained. The first article proposed that asking a candidate “Did you make your bed this morning?" is a good way of identifying people who “want to change the world." The article suggested that making your bed shows: 1) It helps you start the day off right; 2) Happy people make their beds; 3) You'll sleep better; 4) It helps establish good habits; 5) It can reduce stress; and 6) It just feels good. The article references studies that claim people who make their beds are happier (71%) than those who don't (38%) and that making your bed is correlated to greater productivity. Unfortunately just a few days later, several articles highlighted that making your bed is not only unnecessary, but it is also healthier. A web search reveals several articles published over the last few years that point out that an unmade bed cuts down on the moisture and that the dryer condition helps prevent dust mites and bed bugs. For several days this “making the bed" as an interview question bothered me. Happier and more productive versus healthier? Moreover, then it got even more confusing. A very popular country music star tweeted: “Good Morning! The last one out of bed makes it – that's me today!" So I realized that a person may not make their bed because someone else does: a spouse, a partner, or a housekeeper! I have written before about bad interview questions. It appears there will be a never ending supply of additional examples for some continued stories. Interviewers ask some of these questions because they think they are clever, or they somehow think that the answers provide deep insights into the quality of a candidate. They claim a “magic bullet" that works perfectly for them. The problem is that the relevancy of these questions is doubtful at best – and fairness and legality might even be questioned. My concern over these types of questions elevated to still another level when a friend reported to me about a video screening interview she'd just completed. The 8-minute recorded interview featured three questions, the second and third of which were relevant and appropriate. The first question however, was not in the same category as “did you make your bed?" but it seems to raise some of the same questions. The opening question was “What's your favorite hobby?"
Relevance?The first concern I have about these questions is relevance – in official terms validity? Are they really related to performance? Even if there's some correlation between making your bed and productivity, it appears to be based more on surveys than validated correlations to performance. One thing is, or should be, clear. The best predictor of future performance is past performance. Any other factor is going to have a much higher error rate. In simple terms, there are individuals who have perhaps never made their beds once in their entire life who are outstanding performers, super productive, and happy. They may be extremely neat and particular in other areas of their behaviors, yet believe that making their beds in unhealthy – or just a waste of time. Whether or not a person makes his or her bed, or what your favorite hobby is, has nothing to do with your coding skills, or customer service skills, or…
Dangerous – Or Illegal?The illegality of question is not always a black or white issue. Some questions are clearly illegal and should never be asked. However, what about questions that might be dangerous in that they could lead to discovering information that could then be used to discriminate. It is this context that seriously concerns me about these questions.
- What if the “making the bed" question reveals (or is even intended to reveal) if the candidate is married or what the candidate's sexual preferences might be?
- What if the “favorite hobby" question reveals a controversial personal, political, or religious belief that the HR recruiter or hiring manager disagrees with. It is not hard to think of a dozen or so examples of that in today's world.