The Best Question an Editor Can Ask a Job-Seeking Journalist

You’re 10 minutes into a job interview. You’ve had a bit of small talk and run over the basics of your resume. Then the interviewer leans back and asks a question that begins the dreaded phrase: “Tell me about a time when…” Who knows what will follow? “When you overcame a professional challenge.” “When you managed workplace conflict.” “When you slew a wild unicorn.”

Behavioral questions like these are among hiring managers’ favorite interview tactics. They’re meant to offer unique insight into a potential employee’s personality and how a person might fit into company culture. But according to Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book Originals, these ubiquitous questions are unfair to job applicants—and ineffective to boot.

—From a Quartz story “One of the most popular job interview questions is biased and unfair, says Adam Grant.”

At the Washingtonian I probably interviewed a thousand job applicants and my favorite question to ask a job seeker was, “What do you like to read?”

The most common response was I like to read the Washingtonian—job applicants like to please the interviewer—and then a variety of other publications. We  often talked about reading for 15 or 20 minutes—it seemed the best way to get into the mind of a journalist.

When they talked about magazines, it was a subject I knew well as I read lots of them every month looking for story and design ideas. If they mentioned reading the New Yorker, I’d ask about different New Yorker writers and that sometimes was a trap, showing that while the applicant might occasionally look at the New Yorker, he or she didn’t really read it.

I knew a fair amount about books, each week reading Publishers Weekly to look for possible book excerpts. Talking about books often was the most useful way to get into the head of the applicant. How serious were they? Did they like funny stuff, too? Were they knowledgeable about an area that also would interest our readers?

When looking for a writer or editor, I often was trying to fill a hole in the staff. With editor applicants, you were trying to gauge their range of interests and knowledge: Would they be good on politics or health or service stories or feature stories? Which parts of the magazine could they make better?

With writers, you also were trying to find out what they might be best at, what kind of connections they had. The best stories we published were not dreamed up by editors sitting in office story idea meetings. They came from writers who knew a subject, who had contacts and sources, who could find out what interesting and knowledge people were talking about.

Our criminal justice writer found his best stories by hanging out with lawyers and cops—what were they talking about? The same with our health writer—he went to conferences, he hung out with people in the field.

The turnoff for me was the writer who said I can write about anything. If you say that, you better be one hell of a feature writer.

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