July 19, 2018

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Interviewing the Chameleon

Ever hired a highly experienced, smart dressing, charming “Dr. Jekyll" only to have “Mr. Hyde” show up for work on the first day? Ever say to yourself “but he looked so good in the interview, what happened?”

Some job candidates today are excellent interviewers and in many cases, too good. These candidates have an uncanny ability to mirror the behaviors of the interviewer. They are able to understand exactly what the interviewer is looking for and then they mirror this image, making the interviewer feel as though they have found the perfect person. The challenge here is that these “interview chameleons” are usually much better stage actors than they are employees.

One customer’s story in particular tells of a job candidate who was able to exhibit every behavior that each of 4 interviewers wanted to see. Let’s call this candidate “Mr. Image.” The Sales Director saw “Mr. Image” as a powerful persuader with keen interpersonal skills. The Office Manager/HR Manager was delighted to hear “Mr. Image’s” stories of diversity and how he was able to use diversity to compete in the marketplace. And the Engineering Manager was very pleased to see that “Mr. Image” was detail-oriented and would fully document customer orders and requirements, something this manager has rarely seen in a sales person.

As this perfect candidate moved further and further into the selection process, no one seemed to notice the conflicting images he was sending to everyone. In fact, the Sales Director was quite impressed with his Brooks Brothers wardrobe. The Office Manager reflected on how nice he looked in his casual attire, tan suit with a bright sky blue shirt. And his ultimate peers were all talking about how cool the new guy was daring to come to an interview in dress down clothes, Polo shirt with jeans.

How does this candidate do it? How does he change his image in such a way to give each interviewer a sense that they have found nirvana? It is his chameleon nature; pure and simple. And here are some hints to help you determine if you are interviewing Mr. Right or Mr. Image, the Chameleon candidate.

Use open-ended interview questions to get the candidate talking about prior work experiences. Ask questions like: “ I see you were with ABC company for the past 5 years. Explain for me your role within the firm, your primary duties, successes and typical customer base.” This type of question gets the candidate talking, giving the interviewer fuel for probing questions that will follow.

Then use several proven, valid Behavioral Event interview questions to evaluate past experiences. Follow up on the open-ended questions with behavioral questions like: “I see you have had considerable experience selling to large corporate buyers. Tell me about a specific sales event with a large buyer that failed to close. What did you do to position yourself and the firm to make the sale? How did you attempt to resolve the customer’s concerns and challenges? What technique did you use to demonstrate your firm’s superiority to the competition? What did you do when you learned that you did not gain the sale?”

These behavioral questions are based on the theory that a person’s past behavior on the job is the best predictor of their future job behavior. If in the past the candidate was unable to position the firm against the competition, it will be unlikely that he or she will succeed at this in the future. If this candidate showed a poor ability to recover from past rejections it is likely that he/she will struggle to rebound from future rejection.

When using behavioral questions, you need to be diligent when documenting the candidate’s responses. You need to document the Situation the candidate was in; the Objective to be accomplished in that situation; the Action the candidate took; and the Results of the action. In other words, you will want to document S.O.A.R. By documenting these aspects of the candidate’s responses, you will have a complete story of the candidate’s past experience to help you to rate the candidate’s capabilities in key areas for the position for which you are hiring.

Further, collectively develop a focus for the Behavioral Based interview questions that you will be asking the candidate. For example, in a sales manager role it would be recommended to think about probing in the areas of Persuasiveness, Negotiation, Teamwork, Resilience, Detail Ability, and the like. Then, prior to the interview, write the questions down that you would like to ask. This will help to give you focus and keep you on track during the interview.

When conducting the interview, utilize as many sets of ears as possible. Use a team interview to help catch the true response of the candidate. The team interview has an added benefit of keeping the interview focused on the more critical areas, as it is less likely that all members of the interview will be drawn into conversations that are not insightful and could cross into areas that may have legal ramifications.

But this still may not be enough to ensure that “Mr. Right” is being selected. We recommend to all customers, large and small, to incorporate psychological profiling into the selection process. A valid, non-discriminatory profile can help pierce the surface impressions of the candidate to reveal their true inner drives, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. A valid profile can make the difference between a winning selection decision and simply the addition of one more Chameleon to the collection.

But what do you do if your interview findings are in direct conflict with the profile results? First, before using a profile, make sure it is valid, both in terms of its impact on protected classes and its predictive ability. Any firm selling a valid profile will happily provide you with this validation information. Second, use the profile results to arm yourself for your next interview with the candidate and to prepare you for reference checking. Whatever you do, don’t let the profile results make the selection decision for you. Profiles should guide you to the best hiring decision, not usurp your responsibilities to properly evaluate the candidate.

If the profile suggests that the person is a weak sales negotiator, make sure in your follow up interview that you probe for an answer to this issue: “Does the candidate have enough ability to negotiate to perform at a superior level in this position? And in your firm?” Also probe these areas when conducting reference checks. And another point here, get multi- level references, including past managers, subordinates and peers. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because you and the candidate know many of the same people that his/her references will be glowing. Do diligence here.

The last technique many firms use when they just aren’t one hundred percent sure that the candidate is the absolute best person for the job, is offering the position on a contingency basis. Many firms find that hiring on a 3-month contingency basis gives them a better foundation on which to make the final hiring decision. And should the candidate turn out to be “Mr. Image”, contingency hiring places you in a much better legal position to terminate the person.

“You have very little to risk when hiring on a contingency basis,” says Maria Angelini, Employment Manager for Quest Diagnostics, “It gives both you and the candidate a chance to get to know each other and it actually provides each party with many options as you approach the end of the contingency period.”

Interview Chameleons are out there in droves, and as the information economy continues to require things like emotional intelligence and refined problem solving skills to succeed, those with older, outdated skills will be more inclined than ever to act like a Chameleon.

So remember, ask open-ended questions to get the candidate talking and then probe in depth with Behavioral Event questions. If the candidate succeeds to this point, take advantage of today’s technology and use a psychological profile to help you gain insights into the candidate’s real drives and weaknesses. If you are still unsure at this point, but need to quickly employ someone, make the offer contingent on an initial introductory period.

- Michael Santo, Ph.D.

Chairman of RembrandtAdvantage® An Empowerment Concepts’ affiliate Copyright RembrandtAdvantage®

For additional information, please contact RembrandtAdvantage at

Michael Santo, Ph.D., is CEO and President of RembrandtAdvantge®. He has provided consulting services for almost two decades to Sales and Service Businesses wishing to adopt the principles of Total Quality and Best Human Resource Practice. Through a focus on the People Side of the business and methods, which support Customer Service and Leadership Excellence, his company’s client base today includes Fortune 50 companies and independent entrepreneurial business owners.

Having many years of experience in the industry, Dr. Santo focuses on helping large and small companies alike, to maximize the effectiveness of their people. Through the development of several innovative psychological diagnostics tools and other programs, he has enabled company owners to understand their firm’s strengths and weaknesses in order to identify strategies to create profitable growth. His work in the area of strategic and operational business planning has been profiled in dozens of national trade publications.