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Why I Criticize Candidates During Job Interviews (And You Should, Too)


Successful teams in an “agile” workplace share a common trait: They don’t just fail fast, they fail forward.

This means no one points fingers when an objective isn’t reached, or a new feature doesn’t function as planned. Teams that react to failure by lifting themselves up and moving forward with little hesitation are the most effective.

But how do you know what someone’s response to failure will be before you’ve hired him or her?

During the process of hiring 60 people within the last nine months, my startup has developed a strategy for understanding how candidates accept criticism and learn from experiences: We give feedback throughout the entire interview process. On one occasion, for instance, I told a candidate I didn’t think he fully understood one of our products based on the questions he was asking. In a separate interview, I told a candidate he was providing vague answers to appease multiple teams without actually answering the question we were trying to solve.

After providing feedback, we observe how candidates react. Over several interviews, I have seen candidates:

  • Immediately go on the defensive. If a candidate completely refuses to listen to any feedback, this is a major red flag for recruiters. This candidate is someone who won’t try to learn from his or her mistakes and tends to feed off of positive feedback only.
  • Try to spin a negative into a positive. While this person isn’t rejecting criticism outright, trying to turn a negative into a positive suggests he or she is unwilling to admit to failures. This is problematic for teams looking for risk-takers who aren’t afraid to confront failure in order to achieve a goal.
  • Process the criticism and repeat back what they learned.Ideally, candidates listen to the feedback given and take a moment to process what they have heard. Then they explain what they learned from the mistake and how they could improve upon it next time. These candidates probably have the emotional maturity needed to thrive in an environment where failing fast is the norm.

The first reaction is all too common in many of the interviews I’ve conducted. I remember interviewing one candidate several months ago who used “I” instead of “we” to discuss a team effort, giving himself all the credit for a group effort. When I pointed out his interesting choice of words, he was visibly flustered and struggled with the remaining interview questions. At one point, it looked like he would lose his temper. During the remainder of the interview, the candidate insisted he took credit for the group project because he didn’t trust his colleagues and did the entire assignment himself.

This has not been the only interview where feedback was poorly received. At Arcules, we utilize mixed engineering teams consisting of front-end developers, UI/UX designers and DevOps engineers, so I asked another applicant about working with non-developers. She initially appeared open to the idea, but further probing revealed she wouldn’t hesitate to throw the designers under the bus if they held up an assignment.

Obviously, not every reaction we’ve observed has been negative. In fact, several candidates provided the mature reactions to unexpected feedback for which we were looking. They remained visibly calm when I interjected to ask why they answered a specific way, and took a moment to think before responding with their reasoning.

One individual I interviewed for a UX design position took our criticism in stride, asking our senior designer how he would approach the project and where he drew inspiration for designing the user experience. Even though we ultimately rejected this candidate, she sent us a follow-up email thanking us for our time and reiterated how she could improve for her next interview. If this applicant had passed our technical skills test, I would have hired her immediately. She admitted when she didn’t know the solution and genuinely wanted to learn from her mistakes.

For companies dependent upon rapid innovation, employing the right person from the start can mean the difference between lagging behind a competitor and leading the entire market. While it might be slightly awkward to provide real-time feedback during a job interview, the opportunity to evaluate a recruit’s emotional maturity and intangible qualities is worth it.

Andreas Pettersson is the CEO of Arcules.

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