If you’ve ever felt that interview questions deliberately fail to ask what the interviewer really wants to know…you are correct.
Both autistic and NT job-seekers get frustrated by the fact that interview questions so often seem to be “hiding the ball” (“the ball” being what the interviewer actually wants to know). But autistic interviewees face two particular hurdles:
- First, while we’re quasi-used-to not-understanding subtext, an interview seems aggressively intended to hide the subtext. This is both intimidating and infuriating, especially when there seems to be no good reason behind it.
- Second, very few of us have practiced “scripts” for interviewing. Even if we have, the stakes are high. Understanding the question that was asked taxes all of our processing, decoding, organizing, and contextualizing powers; understanding the question that wasn’t asked is, well, out of the question.
As a result, an interview custom that is merely annoying to most NT people is a monstrous hurdle for most autistic people. We’re dealing with obstacles the average NT candidate isn’t, and we’re doing it in a context that demands – often, more than ever – that we hide the fact that those obstacles exist.
This post attempts to (a) put interview questions in context and (b) provide ways to decrease the obstacles in order to give autistic people the chance to perform as well as their NT counterparts.
Is “Hiding the Ball” Necessary?
One of the most infuriating parts of vague, “ask one thing but mean another” interview questions is that they’re usually not necessary. Put another way, most hiring managers are not actually interested in whether you can decode subtext. They’re not interested because it’s (usually) not a job requirement. On the contrary, most jobs – especially at the entry and early levels – are plotted out explicitly. Once you’re hired, you’ll have a mountain of job descriptions, evaluation forms, and employee handbooks at your disposal to tell you exactly what you should do and how you should do it.
(This, by the way, is a good question to ask the employer: What resources will be available to me when I start the job, in order to help me learn the job as quickly as possible? If they can’t give you a list of specifics, don’t take the job – if they don’t care enough about helping you succeed in your first days to offer you training or materials to do it, they don’t care about you or your work, period.)
If the ability to decode subtext isn’t an essential function required of most jobs, why do most interviews demand it? Any or all of these reasons could be involved:
- Subtext-based questions are the way hiring has traditionally been done, and no one has bothered to change them,
- The hiring managers don’t know how to change the questions even if they wanted to (because they’ve only ever learned the subtext-based model, or because the company requires them to ask a prescribed list of questions),
- The hiring manager thinks you’ll give more honest answers if the questions are vague, and/or
- The hiring manager is trying to ask a question that, if asked directly, would be illegal or offensive.
I’ll cover “spotting illegal questions and how to respond to them” in a later post. Right now, I want to focus on the third reason in this list: the hiring manager thinks an interviewee’s answers are more honest if the questions are vague.
What’s Really Being Asked?
Many hiring managers will tell you that the purpose of a job interview, from the perspective of the hiring manager, is to weigh whether or not you’ll “fit in” well with the company. Which isn’t news that makes a lot of autistic adults feel better. After all, we’ve often spent a lifetime not “fitting in” anywhere.
In fact, the purpose of a job interview is simpler than this. In the interview, you only have to answer one question:
“Will you do things the way we wish our employees would do them?”
This, too, is a question that covers a lot of ground. But unlike “how to fit in,” which is an utterly subjective question based as much on the hiring manager’s mood as anything, “how do employees here do their jobs, and how does the company want those jobs done?” is a question you can research before you even arrive for the interview. I’ll explain how to research this question in another post.
When you understand that every interview question, no matter how vague or irrelevant-sounding, is the question “will you do things the way we wish our employees would do them?” in disguise, “interpreting” questions during the interview gets a lot easier. Here are some classic interview questions, interpreted:
- “Tell us about yourself.” –> “Tell us about one thing you’ve done recently that we wish our employees would do.”
- “Why do you want to work for this company?” –> “We wish our employees loved us and never wanted to leave. Why do you love us and never want to leave?”
- “What is your greatest weakness?” –> “Tell us how you used practice and feedback to get better at a thing, because we wish our other employees would do that.”
- “When have you had to convince others your idea was the right one? What did you do?” –> “Creating consensus is one thing we wish our employees would do. Please tell us a story about a time you succeeded at doing it.”
- “Why are manhole covers round?” –> “Thinking quickly in the face of the unexpected is something we wish our employees would do. Please show us you can do it.”
Although I haven’t interviewed hiring managers extensively on this particular point, I strongly suspect that the reason interview questions vary in format, rather than all asking “We wish our employees did [thing], please tell us about a time you did [thing],” is that NTs find this format boring. And when most hiring managers and most interviewees are NT, boredom is a key concern.
Many autistic people, too, will get bored and annoyed when asked the same basic question over and over. But for many autistic people, the benefit of understanding interview questions in this way is that it categorizes and systematizes our answers. With an answer-system in place, we can focus our energies on navigating the parts of the interview that are truly difficult for us, like being physically present in an all-new space and generating coherent, meaningful verbal responses to a stranger’s questions in a high-stakes environment.
To sum up:
- Interview questions are aggravatingly vague. Often, there is no good reason for this.
- Pretty much every interview question can be interpreted as “please tell us you’ll do [thing] the way we wish all our employees would do [thing].”
- You can build scripts for answering this question no matter how it’s actually phrased by the hiring manager.
- I will cover a whole bunch of stuff in later posts.