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It’s not always easy to tell a low performer from a high performer in the job interview. After all, if the low performer has made it as far as the interview they’ve obviously done a reasonably good job of selling themselves enough to get in the door.

But hire that person and you know you’re going to regret it. Here’s how to weed out the low performer who has made it as far as the interview.

• Watch tense. High performers speak in the present tense. Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude, and CEO of Leadership IQ, conducted a study tracking 20,000 new hires that revealed high performing employees speak in the past tense 40 per cent more often than low performers.

Murphy told the American Management Association (AMA), “When you ask high performers to tell you about a past experience, they’re 40% more likely than low performers to answer using past tense verbs. That’s because high performers actually have the experience to recount and they’re not afraid to reveal their attitude to you.”

Low performers, meanwhile, use the present tense 120 times more often, and are 70% more likely to use the future tense.

So, a high performer will tell you what they “did” rather than what they are “doing” or “will do.”

• Watch pronouns. According to Murphy, “high performers are 60% more likely to speak in first person during the interview, while low performers are 400% more likely to refer to second person (you, your).”

Murphy told AMA, “You’ll hear high performers using a lot of first person pronouns (‘I did…’). On the other hand, a person who has nothing to share or who wants to hide something (like a bad attitude) will use absolutes and speak in a fluffy way using lots of adverbs and lots of future tense verbs and far more second and third person pronouns. You’re going to hear a lot more ‘he/she did’ than you will ‘I did…’ from low performers.”

Honestly, that last seems a bit obvious. If someone is talking about things other people did, they’re probably not a top performer. But we thought we’d share it anyway.

Further, be wary of the first person plural, rather than singular. An overuse of “we did” could indicate someone piggybacking on others’ achievements.

James Pennebaker, who developed a textual analysis computer program in the 1990s, told the HBR, “A person who’s lying tends to use ‘we’ more or use sentences without a first-person pronoun at all. Instead of saying ‘I didn’t take your book,’ a liar might say ‘That’s not the kind of thing that anyone with integrity would do.’”

Ask “performance based” questions. Conventional wisdom says that past behaviour is the best indicator or future performance. There are those who disagree with this but I’m not one of them. People who have spent their lives lying on the sofa eating chicken wings don’t suddenly turn into go-getters and successful people who give life their all don’t suddenly decide to lie on the sofa and eat chicken wings for the rest of their days.

According to Lou Adler of the Adler Group (via Recruit Loop), a performance-based interview consists of two types of questions. The first would ask for a specific example of past performance, like the candidate’s most significant career accomplishment to date. The second would ask for a predictor of future performance, such as how they would solve a particular problem.

Throw down a challenge. According to INC.com, Tejune Kang, founder of IT firm Six Dimensions, has an original way of weeding out the passive candidates.

He conducts the interview, then he says, “It sounds like you have the right degree, the right background, and the right skills, but in our company every employee has those qualities. That’s a given. The problem is, I just don’t see that extra something in you that all of our people have. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think this is the right fit for you.”

Kang then waits to see what the candidate does. He says nine out of ten people fold but the other ten percent rise to the challenge and say, “I think you’re wrong. I’m here for a reason. Here’s what you’re not seeing.” And that’s what he looks for.

“It’s one thing to have a pleasant conversation during interviews,” Tejune says. “And I definitely do that. But at some point, you also need to turn up the heat and see how people respond. Anyone can do well when things go perfectly. Superstars rise to the challenge when things don’t go their way.”

Interesting. I’m not suggesting you do exactly that, necessarily. But figure out your own way to raise the bar and get the superstars to stand out.

It shouldn’t be too hard. Stand out is what superstars do.

  • Sharon Stewart

    One paragraph says “High performers speak in the *present* tense … high performing employees speak in the *past* tense 40 per cent more often than low performers.” Which is it?