The One Interview Question You Need to Weed Out Rotten Apples

Last Updated Apr 5, 2011 12:34 PM EDT

I'll forgive anyone for almost anything if I get a heartfelt mea culpa -- an apology with no strings attached -- but, unfortunately, that's hard to find these days. Our culture is inundated with victims who like to scapegoat:
  • "It wasn't because of the steroids I was injecting -- it must have been my trainer's fault."
  • "We didn't misjudge the severity of the recession -- it was those greedy Wall Street financiers who made it this bad."
  • "It wasn't because we ignored the safety warnings for years -- it was a natural disaster."
  • "It wasn't that I have been stealing my country's natural resources for years and stuffing the money into my Swiss bank account -- it was Twitter that caused my people to revolt."
  • "It wasn't the third line of coke that I snorted -- it was that my parents didn't pay enough attention to me as a child."
We're surrounded by people passing the buck, and as hard as it is to listen to our leaders and heroes grasp for someone to blame, it is even more infuriating when an employee -- someone on your payroll -- plays the victim card.

You know the type. When something goes wrong, he immediately looks for something or somebody else to blame. She whines about how unreasonable the customer was. He blames his tools instead of looking in the mirror. She throws her team under the bus before she owns up to her mistake.

My bet is that you, too, dislike being around victims, in part because you've learned that when you're the boss, it doesn't matter who's to blame; you're left picking up the pieces regardless. Further, victims make it impossible for you to have a conversation about what they might do differently next time -- meaning the same costly mistakes will just keeping happening on a repeat cycle.

In a business, you need people who are going to own up to mistakes, learn from them, and get on with their jobs. The last thing you need is Teflon Terry spending half his time covering up his mistakes and turning your employees against each other.

I'm so severely allergic to victims that I have started to use a simple, one-question test when hiring. If applicants fail the test, I don't hire them, no matter how technically qualified they are for the job. I say: "Tell me about the last time you made a mistake."

There are a number of possible responses to this question. Some are acceptable; others signal "victim." Here's what to watch out for:

The victim: Certifiable victims will be paralyzed by the question. They have been so programmed to deflect blame to others for their screw-ups that their system will overload as they search for a way to answer. They'll fidget in their chair, request that you re-ask the question, and finally "admit" that they can't actually remember the last time they made a mistake.

The victim-in-disguise: Some people will tell you about a mistake they made but then start to justify their actions. For example, they may say something like "Last Tuesday I shipped a customer's order to the wrong address... I mean, I guess it was my mistake, but the guy in sales had scribbled the customer name so illegibly that it was hard to read his writing."

Exercise caution before hiring a person who gives you a half-answer. Once on your payroll, this person will be quietly sizing up the most vulnerable people on your team to blame as easy ways to deflect criticism. If you get a half-answer from a candidate but you're still not sure he or she has a full-blown case of victimitus, you can qualify the question further by stopping the interviewee mid sentence and saying, "I'm not looking for an example that had mitigating circumstances. I want you to tell me about a time when you made a mistake where you were 100 percent in the wrong."

If the person still thrashes around, justifying his or her response, run, don't walk, away from this person.

The safe responder: Some people will offer a safe answer, a benign mistake made in their personal life. For example, you might have someone answer with something like, "Yesterday, I was baking a cake at home, and I added a tablespoon of salt when the recipe called for teaspoon -- the cake came out a disaster."

They are admitting a mistake, taking full ownership and not blaming others, which is good. However, they lose a couple of points in my book for not reaching for a work-related example. Nevertheless, they answered the question honestly and would pass my test.

The leader: I love it when someone comes up with a work-related example and describes the situation, the decision made, and the reason it was a mistake in hindsight. They accept 100 percent accountability and do not reach for excuses or anyone else to blame.

I almost always hire these people. To me, they are exhibiting the essence of leadership.

Any candidate can be taught technical skills, but one who comes with a victim mentality in tow just isn't worth the trouble.

What questions do you ask to weed out the bad apples?

(photo courtesy of Flickr/karmablue)

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John Warrillow is the author of Built To Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You, which will be released by Portfolio/Penguin on April 28, 2011.
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  • John Warrillow

    John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Turn Your Business into One You Can Sell. He has started and exited four companies. Most recently, he transformed Warrillow & Co. from a boutique consultancy into a recurring revenue model subscription business, which was acquired by The Corporate Executive Board. Watch this video to hear John's thoughts on starting and growing a business you can sell.

    John and his book "Built to Sell" have been featured in CNN, MSNBC, Time magazine and ABC News. John was recognized by BtoB Magazine's "Who's Who" list as one of America's most influential business-to-business marketers.

    John now divides his time between homes in Toronto, Canada, and Aix-en-Provence, France. He is a husband and father of two rambunctious boys.