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The Rules are Changing

• volume 3 • number 3

It seems that MBA graduates are getting smarter every year - if not about mergers and derivatives, then at least about the ins and outs of interviewing. In fact, the class of 1998 has more interview know-how than any class in recent memory. Not only are current graduates better coached than their predecessors, they've had more real world interview experience because they interview many firms and even across industries before committing. Many also have a "tell them what they want to hear attitude" that makes them increasingly hard to evaluate as prospective employees.

For instance, a recently-hired MBA told me that since candidates know they're "all supposed to be teamplayers, motivated, hardworking, and so on," they've "developed little stories to spin out about themselves during the interview." In other words, today's MBAs are no longer content to simply formulate impressive answers to individual questions they know they're likely to be asked. Instead, they're creating whole scenarios that allow them to mislead interviewers more expertly and in more ways than ever before.

A new Wall Street hire claimed, "I can misrepresent my motivation to anyone. I want sales and trading, but I can convince someone in investment banking that investments is what I want. I can deliver believable reasons to do both."

Compounding the problem of candidates who will say anything to get ahead is the fact that applicants are frequently as savvy, and as competitive, about using technology as they are about interviewing. They share interview tips via e-mail, and, as McKinsey has discovered, post the best case study questions of leading firms on the Internet as soon as they hear them.

But it's not just candidates who use the Internet to undermine the selection process. High-tech companies, among them Silicon Graphics, use their Web sites to disseminate interview questions used by competitors like Microsoft and Intel. The idea is to make it less clear to the competition whether the people they interview are really sharp or just somehow better prepared for the questions they will be asked.

More ominous, though, is what seems to be a growing national cynicism about ethics in general. Dishonesty has been displayed by individuals involved in recent political scandals and false media reports, and as we are now discovering, by bright young business school grads as well.

This combination of a tidal wave of information available on the Internet, disingenuous candidates, and a public that has grown apathetic about honesty suggests the rules are changing for conducting effective interviews. More probing questions are needed to expose less-than candid candidates.

In our method of interviewing, we ask candidates to describe what they did in the past, as well as how and why they did it. Then we compare the behavioral characteristics that emerge from their responses with the competencies required for a particular position. By not specifying which competencies we're looking for, and by focusing on the "how and why," we make it harder for candidates to give "canned" answers.

In order to further address these concerns and meet the challenges posed by today's candidates, we advise our clients to use more of our problem situation questions. For example, ask "Are you quick with numbers?" If the answer is yes, then follow up with a question involving several mental calculations such as "What is the square root of 3?" Note how the candidate comes up with the answer. This demonstrates an ability which cannot be easily fabricated in the interview if the required agility with numbers and problem solving skills are lacking. We are also developing a new "Master's" level program that will include more of these real-time competency demonstrations and help interviewers stay where they should be - a step ahead of the people they're interviewing.