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Why The Airport Test Stinks

Congratulations! You’re a new manager and one of the great powers now bestowed upon you is the ability to hire team members. Hiring well is not only one of the most important things you’ll do as a manager, but also one of the most time consuming and most challenging. And, not hiring well will come back to bite you: we all remember the mistake hire (or hires!) we’ve made and the time, energy, blood, sweat and tears that went into managing that person.

There are tons of materials out there about how to put together a great interviewing process* and I promise, there will be another blog that goes into those details....

But today, I want to focus on the biggest trap that new managers fall into with interviewing: we hire people because we like them. And the scary thing about hiring people because of how much we like them is that many organizations actually encourage it, calling it “testing for cultural fit” or the gosh awful “airport test.”

Let’s step through how this works.

What we say is: let’s hire someone that I wouldn’t mind being trapped in the Detroit airport with for 8 hours during a mid-February snowstorm.

What we mean is: let’s hire someone who reminds me of my friends and who I could have a beer with.

What we say is: let’s hire people who are great cultural fits and embody the culture of the organization.

What we mean is: let’s hire people who remind us of ourselves, because we are completely aligned with our culture, therefore people who are like us will also be aligned with our culture.

It’s really hard for us to objectively hire people. Why? Because we like people who are JUST. LIKE. US. We think we like them because they’re easy to talk to, competent, and would be fun to be around in the office. Nope. We like them because they remind us of ourselves and we are inherently egocentric. We think we’re great at our jobs (and it’s hard for us to see our own flaws), so we end up gravitating towards people who remind us of ourselves.

There’s a risk to hiring people based on our gut feel, intuition and liking. We end up not seeing significant flaws in their abilities because we’re having so much fun talking to the interviewee about our shared love of podcasts and Trader Joe’s. We don’t end up hiring for what we actually need on our teams and in our organizations. We end up letting subconscious biases come into play. We end up creating an organization and culture that lacks diversity of thought, experience and ideas (which can result in group think, limited innovation, and a lack inclusivity).

But what do we do if we can’t use our gut? How do we know if the person we are interviewing is a good person, shows humility, cares about others, and is great at managing a team? We know we can test for functional areas and management capabilities, but how do we test for whether we truly want this person on our team?

As a new manager, I highly recommend using a structured and consistent behavioral interview guide to assess whether someone is going to be a great team player, great manager, and aligned with the characteristics you deem important in your organization.

Why structured? Because it forces you to ask all of the questions meant to test a holistic picture of the person. It prevents you from going down a rabbit hole for twenty minutes about the mutual friend you guys both know and how great that person is.

Why consistent? Because you ask the same question to every candidate, allowing for true comparison across candidates. And, it helps to reduce your subconscious biases that may cause you to “go easier” or show favoritism to a candidate (here’s some good training on becoming more aware of this).

Why behavioral? Behavioral interview questions follow the structure of “tell me about a time when….”. These questions get at what people actually did in a situation, as opposed to what people think they would do in a future situation.

Example below:

Behavioral Question: “Tell me about a time when you had to disagree with your manager. What was the disagreement, how did you handle it and what was the outcome?”

Typical Question: “Do you disagree often with your manager? How do you approach disagreement?”

Savvy interviewees are really good at making stuff up and talking in platitudes. It’s easy to say, “Yes, I disagree with my manager all the time. I approach disagreement with equanimity and from a place of data.”

It’s much harder to finesse a recent example. People end up self-censoring less and telling you exactly what they did. And, lots of folks will be proud about how they behaved, despite the fact that you are actually looking for a different type of behavior. Someone I recently interviewed talked proudly about how incompetent her past boss was and how she successfully got him fired, which she thought was great because she single-handedly did all the work of the boss and her team anyway. In the interviewee’s mind she shared about how competent she is, in my mind, I’m assessing humility, team-orientation, and ability to work in difficult contexts.

Hence, what you end up learning from a series of behavioral interview questions is how someone operates in the work environment.

  • You listen to how they behaved in past situations which will likely arise in their future work environment.

  • You can assess if their work style (e.g., conflict averse or conflict seeking) is in line with what you need in the role and on your team.

  • Additionally, you can assess how team or self-oriented an individual is. When you ask about past successes, you can listen for how much they talk about their team versus themselves in driving outcomes.

  • You can listen for if the person is constantly blaming others for difficult situations in their past or if they take ownership and are proactive about challenges that they faced.

And, the more you conduct these types of interviews, the better you will get at picking up distinct cues and clues that let you know what this person would be like to work with.

Because I love behavioral interviewing so much and think everyone should make it one part of a holistic interview process, here are some of my favorite behavioral interviewing questions, and what I use those questions to test.

So happy interviewing. And, obviously the right answer to the airport test is: I would never be stuck in an airport with someone for 8 hours. At the first blush of a delay, I would obviously head to the airport Sheraton, order room service and watch “Love it or List It” until my plane took off.


  • One of the most important activities we do as managers is recruiting and hiring a team.

  • It’s hard to hire well because we let our biases come into play. In particular, we fall for the affinity bias, which means we are drawn to people we like because they remind us of ourselves.

  • Hiring people based on if we like the person creates two significant issues: first, we reduce diversity of thought, experience, and background into our organizations and second, we fail to bring in the skills or the competencies we actually need.

  • To reduce this bias and test if someone has the characteristics that you need in your organization, a structured, consistent, behavioral interview is helpful.

  • Here’s a sample behavioral interview guide for you to use!

*Here's a good research article that talks about the different ways to interview and how good they actually are at predicting success on the job.

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1 Comment

Alex Yaroslavsky
Alex Yaroslavsky
Nov 08, 2018

Thanks for another thought-provoking post and the repository of interview questions, Rachel!

One thought came to me as I was browsing your GoogleSheet: what if you were to turn that sheet into a GoogleForm, send the link to every candidate in the running and ask each person to fill out these questions pre-interview?  Then, you (or the hiring manager) would only have to read the answers and compare them (instead of capturing them first), screen out those who provide sub-par responses and use the interview to follow-up on the most interesting questions?

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