03 July 2012

Personalities don't conflict - people have communication issues*

Consider the following interview exchange, which any recruiter with more than a few weeks experience will be familiar with:

Recruiter: "Why did you leave your role at XYZ company?"
Candidate: (Stony-faced) "I had a personality conflict with my boss"
Recruiter: (Awkward Pause) "Okay"

What happened next? Did you probe to discover more information or did you move onto another, unrelated, question?

If any recruiter accepts this answer from a candidate, without probing further, they should be counselled and immediately sent on remedial interview training. This answer, left unchallenged, is completely unacceptable because it is meaningless and does not describe any identifiable behaviour.

Personalities cannot conflict - what occurs is that two people have a communication problem or a disagreement. From my experience 'personality conflict' is often a reason used by candidates to cover for one or more of the following occurrences:

  • being performance managed
  • being counselled over inappropriate behaviour (eg calling the MD a weak, sleazy hypocrite after a few too many beverages at the company Christmas party)
  • being given a formal warning
  • being held accountable
  • being discriminated against
  • being sexually harassed
  • being sacked or involuntarily resigning
  • the manager was arrogant, aggressive or incompetent or in some way, difficult to work with

In other words, the candidate is reluctant to volunteer more specific details in case these details do not weigh favourably in your consideration of them for the job on offer.

To maximise your likelihood of obtaining the specific information you need from the candidate, they need to see you as impartial and willing to give them a fair hearing about what actually happened.

Just because a candidate uses the 'personality conflict' response doesn't necessarily mean they are a poor or inappropriate candidate for your client's role.

A large number of people (including myself) have had unhappy experiences with managers. These experiences can be difficult to discuss frankly with recruiters when the candidate suspects the recruiter is unwilling to refer anyone to the client with the sniff of a poor reference (regardless of how unbalanced or biased the reference may be).

Let me be crystal clear here - it is your job to probe further regardless of the candidate's reluctance or discomfort. You are not interviewing to make friends - you are a professional recruiter providing a service for which you receive a fee. By failing to probe in this area, you are being as negligent and cavalier as the driver who fails to put their seatbelt on ('accidents never happen to me').

If you let this answer 'go through to the keeper', you can be almost guaranteed that either your client will find out what really happened during their interview with the candidate or in taking a thorough reference check, the referee will reveal what actually happened to explain the so-called 'personality conflict'.

In either case, it is bad news for you. You have wasted your time, the time of your client and candidate, damaged your credibility and got no closer to filling the job and receiving a fee for the work you've done.

So given that not probing to find the real reason for leaving is clearly a multi-pronged disaster zone, then why do recruiters continually accept 'personality conflict' as a valid reason for leaving?

  1. They haven't been told it is an unacceptable answer
  2. They haven't been trained on how to probe effectively in this area
  3. They feel uncomfortable probing in this area
  4. They don't know how to respond if the candidate becomes defensive or refuses to answer when questioned further about ‘what happened'

Here's a list of questions you might wish to use the next time your candidate says the reason they left was because they had a personality conflict with their boss. Pick which one suits your style of interviewing. 

  • "So tell me what happened"
  • "Give me some details about the conflict. When did it start?"
  • "What was the most recent incident of conflict? How did you respond?"
  • "It's a significant step to leave a job because of that reason. What actions did you take to try and resolve the issue?"
  • "Who else witnessed this conflict? What did they say or do?"
  •  "With the benefit of hindsight, what could you have done differently in the situation?"

There are significant benefits in skillfully, carefully and respectfully probing in the area of reasons for leaving, especially 'personality conflict'.

As the interviewer, your professional role is to remain neutral until you have enough evidence to make an informed decision as to the candidate's suitability.

Any candidate will greatly appreciate you being open to listening to their complete explanation of 'personality conflict' and honestly explaining any concerns you have once you are in possession of the complete circumstances of their departure from an organisation.

The next time a candidate tells you they left a job because of a 'personality conflict' what are you going to say to them?

*This article was originally published in InSight 32 under the title Answers to interview questions you should never accept: Part 1: "I left because of a personality conflict with my boss"

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