Unicorn Hunting: How I Spot the Right Candidate in a Sea of Donkeys

I have seen a lot of disasters when it comes to interviews. I have had candidates cry; I have had them tell me about strange medical oddities; I have even had a candidate so stoned that he started nodding off during a question.
These moments are kind of what you live for in HR. You are not personally invested in the person like you would be with an employee… and the incident will likely be fodder for many blog posts for years to come.
But as fascinating as the disasters stories are, the real joy of recruiting is, and always will be, finding that perfect unicorn the candidate that is just the right blend of culture fit, knowledge, skill, excitement, and generally a delight to speak to.
I have been lucky enough to find that special candidate many times. Unfortunately, many times those that are good on paper or on the phone turn out to be complete flops in person.
But why do some interview candidates turn out to be unicorns as you expect and others just donkeys with a paper towel tube stuck to their head?
Usually the reason is not that they had a terrible handshake and even worse answers to questions. More often than not, what separates the donkeys and the unicorns is that which cannot be easily gleaned from an answer to a question. It’s what your interviewer is really watching for.
Below are three things that hiring managers listen for when asking interview questions:
How You Answer the Question
The answer to the question is not always as important to me as your thoughtfulness in answering it. Did you just give me a rapid-fire answer, or did you take the time to think about my question and give an honest and reasonable answer? If you have a polished answer to a complex question in two seconds… all that tells me is you’re great at memorization. It’s okay to say, “Hmm… let me think about that,” or “That is a challenging question, just one moment.”
How You Treat “Non-decision Makers”
One of the very first things I do after an interview is ask the receptionist, “What did you think?” His answer can tip the scales in or out of your favor. If his response is “Yeah, she seemed cool, very polite,” it's a bonus. However, an answer of “Wow, she didn’t even say hello and then barked at me to get her a cup of water,” will likely lead you straight to the bottom of my list. Employers want collaborators that value employees at all levels. If you can’t do that on your best day, you won’t be able to do it on your worst.
How You Portray the Absent
When I ask about a project that didn’t go well, is your instinct to tell me a story about how you saved the day when a bunch of ne’er do well co-workers tried to mess everything up? Or do you take ownership over mistakes, and are you loyal to the absent? How you portray those not in the room is a good lens into how you will interact with your new coworkers. It also tells me how you see yourself and how willing you are to take personal responsibility when mishaps happen.
Even though they last just a short period of time, interviews can cause stress for days and months leading up to it. But as you fret over what to say (and unfortunately what to wear), keep in mind that how you say things and how you treat and speak about others likely matters more.