Holistic Interview Queries: Challenging Candidates to Assess Themselves

HOLISTIC QUESTIONS ASSESS how individuals see themselves fitting into your corporate team. Holistic queries attempt to measure the whole person—the candidate's work patterns, career goals, and ability to see the global impact of his or her actions. They are usually very broad, open-ended queries that candidates find challenging to answer on the spot because of their all-encompassing nature. However, they successfully measure people's broad perceptions of their self-worth, self-esteem, and potential abilities to contribute.

Holistic questions aim to surface candidates' self-admitted shortcomings, their interest in the technical and analytical aspects of their occupational specialties, their capacity for self-critical insight, and their inclination to distribute time and energy in proportion to the payoff potential of a given task. Moreover, beyond engaging candidates in assessing their overall job responsibilities, these questions will also help you more clearly define your needs when attempting to fill a newly created position.

For example, let's say you're creating a new position for a programmer analyst to aid in the transition from your in-house loan-servicing program to an off-the-shelf software application. You know what you want to achieve in creating this new position, but you're not exactly sure what ''pedigree'' or background orientation you'll need in the ideal candidate. You may want someone who understands the pressures and protocol inherent to the data conversion process. Maybe you need someone with a strong background in artificial intelligence, or perhaps an individual with an exceptionally strong understanding of mortgage banking processes (making the position a hybrid of programmer analyst and business analyst).

Whatever your emphasis, it's clear that not all programmer analysts will possess the desired orientation. People out of mortgage banking may lack the requisite artificial intelligence orientation. Candidates who are currently working in your target application may know nothing of the mortgage loan process. And individuals who have successfully mastered conversions from a more strategic vantage point may lack the desired hands-on programming and coding background that will ultimately make this transitional project a success.

More than anything else, therefore, holistic queries help you define how candidates see themselves and their brand of programming and analysis. Armed with the individual's self-evaluation, you'll be better positioned to select the most appropriate orientations, experience histories, and skill sets in the candidate selection process. Following are some of the more popular applications of holistic interviewing techniques. See which ones apply to your immediate needs most.

What are the broad responsibilities of a [job title]?

Why Ask This Question?

Defining broad responsibilities is somewhat cumbersome, but it should challenge a candidate to do some out-loud brainstorming that helps differentiate and order primary and secondary job responsibilities. It will dovetail nicely into amplifying the person's resume highlights, and it will also paint a picture for you of the person's comfort zones. (Those areas will typically surface first in the response.) See whether the candidate's feedback matches the critical elements that encompass your opening, and probe for details regarding areas that the candidate initially overlooks in his or her response.

Analyzing the Response

One very common mistake made by employers today is to list an opening for a secretary with an employment agency and then provide very little critical detail regarding the desired candidate's work habits, primary duties, and track record of achievements. ''A secretary is a secretary is a secretary'' goes this flawed line of thinking, and few examples provide better insight into the usefulness of this interviewing question. Watch how various candidates will paint much different pictures of their jobs in response to your query regarding their broad responsibilities:

Candidate 1: The broad responsibilities of a secretary include lowering the company's operational costs by saving time, representing the company in her boss's absence, and making decisions that further the company's interests. I've achieved these goals, Ms. Employer, by putting together correspondence with pinpoint grammatical and contextual accuracy, by screening phone calls with a true customer service attitude, and by doing everything else necessary in a business office to keep my boss one step ahead of the game. I totally automated her agenda using a personal information manager. I also set up all of my departmental work logs on shareware software so that my boss could spot-check where I was on any specific project without leaving her desk. In short, I see the secretarial role as quasi-administrative, quasi-personal, quasi-technical, and quasi-managerial.

Candidate 2: The broad responsibilities of a secretary center on being one step ahead of all your projects so that your boss can remain proactive in keeping her end of the business plan running smoothly. No management by crisis, no putting out fires are allowed. I feel that being able to look beyond the functional boundaries of your department and envision the whole organizational picture is the key to keeping your input in perspective and maintaining what I call organizational forecasting ability.'' That's why I read my company's annual reports, 10K statements, and 10Q statements, and I follow the stock performance. The administrative assistant is a right-hand function to an executive who's responsible for coordinating one department's actions with the goals of the whole company.

Candidate 3: My current job as a secretary to the vice president of investor relations entails very heavy word processing, and its broad duties consequently focus on meeting deadlines with accuracy. My present boss doesn't rely on me for screening calls, and I have an assistant who handles all the office filing. That leaves only one thing for me: heavy-duty production on my Mac. From the day I was hired, we agreed that my primary responsibility would focus on putting together mutual fund prospectuses, annual reports, and 10K filings. I work on a project-by-project basis and get a lot of satisfaction from developing a library of my work. Of course, I would welcome the opportunity to handle other tasks in addition to heavy word processing. That's why I'm so interested in this position.

Obviously, these secretaries define themselves very differently vis-a-vis their personal business missions, their ways of impacting their companies, and their relationships with their bosses.

Also, beware the candidate who replies to this query with generic lists of duties like this: ''Well, I'm a secretary, so I type, answer phones, and file.

What else would you like to know?'' Such bulleted lists (many poor resumes, by the way, are written like this) reveal absolutely no self-confidence, pride in work, or inclination to see the broader implications of one's actions. Chances are that you'll have to drive home lessons with this person about being a team player and taking a greater interest in her own career as well as your needs.

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