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I'm a fan of providing concrete feedback to candidates after an interview, if for no other reason than because it was something I would want if interviewing myself.

However, I have someone that I'm not sure how to proceed with. I recently had a technical phone interview with this person, and it went poorly. There were some general questions that the candidate answered very well, but a lot of simple topics that the candidate had difficulty answering coherently. In addition, they showed all the signs of using google: a pause before answering questions, followed by a long and detailed answer given very rapidly, and then no ability to answer followup questions. When it came time to look at and write actual code, the candidate did especially poorly, flopping every question I gave them. The position itself is for a senior level developer, and I've run enough candidates through my questions now that I know that they are reasonable questions to expect someone with a few years of experience to be able to answer.

I'm obviously not going to continue the interview process with the candidate, but here is the part I am stuck at: is there any feedback I can give this person that will be professional, courteous, and potentially constructive? I'm pretty sure it isn't reasonable to mention my suspicions about their use of google to answer my questions. I would like the feedback to be constructive if possible, but I'm having a hard time coming up with something other than a polite variant on "You did really badly", especially since nervousness is often a factor in these things.

Reading some other related questions I understand that the first answer for many will probably be "don't give feedback". In this case that might be what I have to do. However, I still have a strong preference for providing some concrete and constructive feedback. I understand that, despite my best efforts, said feedback might not be well received. Given all of this, does anyone have any suggestions on how to provide concrete and constructive feedback to someone who bombed an interview fairly badly?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Dec 20 '17 at 3:00
  • Looking up answers can be OK as long as it triggers the knowledge that has once been established. Sometimes one just need a little reminder to get the flow to the knowledge bank in the brain starting and which of those starters work can be really individual for us. – mathreadler Dec 23 '17 at 16:13

10 Answers 10

191

After considering the other comments and answers, if you are still going to give feedback, and you want to address the googling point specifically, rather than say 'I think they were googling', instead describe what that looks like - describe the effect.

What does it look like when someone googles the answers? It looks like they can easily give a surface answer, but nothing deeper. So:

While they showed a surface knowledge of many topics, they showed a deep understanding of none

There. For the purposes of not taking this candidate forward, it doesn't matter how or why that is the case - it is enough that it is the case.

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    @ConorMancone while the advice is good ("describe what it looks like"), the suggested text doesn't describe how you said it looks; that the candidate appeared to look up answers as the questions were asked. I would really advise you add something along the lines of "...deep understanding of none, giving the appearance of looking up answers from an external source." If the candidate did not do that, then it is valuable feedback for the candidate to improve upon response delivery. If the candidate did do that, then they now know that it is obvious and they will not get a job that way. – Daevin Dec 19 '17 at 17:03
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    @Daevin A more general "takes too long to answer" seems much better if the candidate didn't use external sources, because being falsely accused of something feels terrible (or, even if they did use external sources, they might still get really defensive, which is less likely if it's something subjective). – Dukeling Dec 19 '17 at 21:19
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    @Dukeling: That should be mentioned, but I think the point is also to convey that the candidate (possibly undeservedly!) evokes the impression of looking up answers from an external source. It doesn't matter so much whether they actually do, or just take a long time to prepare an answer in their head before starting to speak - the main issue is that future phone interviewers and possibly customers they might have phone calls with alike may get the impression that the candidate "knows nothing, looks up everything as they go", which is a valuable insight for the candidate to have. – O. R. Mapper Dec 20 '17 at 5:29
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    At any rate, it does not really matter whether the candidate looked up answers, or had memorized them before, or whatever - what matters is that they did not demonstrate the experience that OP was looking for. That's what should probably be communicated. – sleske Dec 20 '17 at 8:24
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    I'm going to give in to peer pressure and accept your answer, as it is the top voted (and not even the first answer). I certainly found this useful, but I also want to say out loud that I found the other answers helpful as well. You all had some excellent advice, and I've learned a lot from this. Thanks! – Conor Mancone Dec 21 '17 at 15:07
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There is rarely an expectation that you provide feedback from an interview, especially at a senior level. Rather than tell the guy he didn't know what he was doing (which he's probably aware of already), simply say nothing at all.

However, if you have to provide feedback, be honest:

The candidate did not demonstrate a solid understanding of programming concepts and theory.
The candidate was not able to solve simple programming exercises in a manner consistent with the requirements of the position.
etc.

If you're not honest about their lack of knowledge, then how is this person ever going to improve? You need to communicate that he simply wasn't up to snuff, and needs to keep practicing. At the same time, however, you should keep any suspicions as to the use of Google to yourself, because you don't have any strong proof (in other words, be factual).

If you want to "soften the blow", you could lead with some fluff about how the candidate had a strong presence, etc.

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    I don't like the idea of fluff. Had a few "Up against a strong field" myself and I loathe those empty phrases. But you are spot on about not accusing someone of using google to answer. It is even irrelevant if the candidate did. The candidate did not have the deeper understanding needed. – Bent Dec 19 '17 at 17:08
  • @Bent - I know where you're coming from, but in this case I would say the "fluff" language describes the situation rather accurately. – Omegacron Dec 21 '17 at 13:57
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    @Bent, that isn't fluff, it is often the truth. If I have one position and four strong candidates, I am going to disappoint three of them. – HLGEM Dec 21 '17 at 18:42
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    @HLGEM Well, "up against a strong field", despite being entirely true, doesn't leave the candidate with any idea whatsoever about what they can do to improve their chances of doing well in similar interviews in the future. I could see how someone would call that "fluff". – David Z Dec 23 '17 at 11:53
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While you may suspect that the candidate was Googling to try and "cheat" on answers, that's really not relevant in this case.

a lot of simple topics that the candidate had difficulty answering coherently.

When it came time to look at and write actual code, the candidate did especially poorly, flopping every question I gave them.

The position itself is for a senior level developer, and I've run enough candidates through my questions now that I know that they are reasonable questions to expect someone with a few years of experience to be able to answer.

Regardless of whether they found some of the information on the fly as you asked, they flopped poorly enough on all but the most basic aspects of the interview, and are not qualified for the senior position. Bringing in your suspicions about whether they were lookup up stuff on the Internet is both unprovable, and serves no purpose, other than giving you a degree of personal satisfaction. And that's not really the point of you offering direct feedback. A simple "you clearly didn't have the experience and technical knowledge for the position" is all you need to say.

Had they answered everything to your satisfaction, but you thought they looked it all up, then that would be a different matter. They failed to meet the standard. Failing to meet the standard while trying to fake it and failing to meet the standard honestly still amounts to failing to meet the standard.

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    Yes, this exactly. It does not matter whether or how they cheated, or whether it even was cheating (were the "rules" clearly communicated?). What matters is that the candidate did not demonstrate the required qualifications and experience. – sleske Dec 20 '17 at 8:26
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I'm a fan of providing concrete feedback to candidates after an interview... In addition, they showed all the signs of using google...

I'm not sure why you feel the need to "provide feedback" to someone you essentially have accused of cheating. Why would you help them at all? I would disqualify them immediately and put them on a do not hire blacklist and move on with my life.

Obviously, you cannot state your suspicions to them (negative, direct feedback), so just remember this old adage:

If you have nothing nice to say, then don't say anything at all.

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    Agreed. No need to act in good faith with a candidate who's acting in bad faith. No feedback is best. – Jay Dec 19 '17 at 19:33
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    That's not an option in many cases. Examples: government hiring, companies which need to show that hiring practices aren't discriminatory, cases where the hire is under a work visa so other candidates must be proven to be unqualified... – user71659 Dec 19 '17 at 19:43
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    @user71659 Those cases require feedback to the candidate? Also, from the OP this seems like his desire, not company policy. If it is company policy, then there should be policy covering this precise situation--a case where feedback is mostly negative. If it's not compelled feedback, then my answer stands. – James Dec 19 '17 at 19:54
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    @TechMedicNYC You always need to assume that the candidate and others will see it. For example, you write that the candidate is unqualified with no justification. Candidate sues claiming discrimination and subpoenas the document. Jury sees no concrete reason you rejected candidate and is inclined to believe the prosecution. The other answer to truthfully document appearances, without making accusations, is far better in all cases. – user71659 Dec 19 '17 at 20:13
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    To put it succinctly, while not saying anything avoids hurting people's feelings, it also allows anybody to think what they want to think. – user71659 Dec 19 '17 at 20:27
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Similar to another answer here. State the facts.

That is, your suspicion is just that, a suspicion and it doesn't appear to the reason why you'd choose not to hire this candidate. I think that the way you've summed it up already in this question provides valuable feedback to the candidate.

Provide the factual feedback that you're not comfortable with the candidate's level of understanding of topics that they should know. Back this up with your observations during the interview. For example...

Facts

When I asked questions X, Y and Z whilst you were able to provide an indepth explanation but where unable to explain follow up questions that are designed to show a candidate's fundamental understanding of the question.

Consequence

Because of this I'm not comfortable that you have a sound understanding of topic A, B and C. Meaning that you have not been selected for the position at this time etc etc

Resolution

If you're looking to apply to a similar job in future. I would recommend you look into X, Y, Z so that you can answer questions more efficiently when probed for a deeper understanding.

Note: Don't confuse your suspicion of this candidate googling answers to things as the reason why you've chosen not to proceed with them. Whilst it might be a byproduct of the candidate not understanding the topic you're asking about. Fundamentally it's the lack of knowledge that is the problem, not what they may or may not have been doing on the other end of the phone.

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Do not assume bad faith

There are many reasons why people do badly on an interview. Maybe the that person is especially bad at interviews. Maybe they got nervous or upset before the interview, but couldn't reschedule it. Or perhaps they decided they were supposed to use Google during the phone screen, so they have spent all their time browsing instead of demonstrating the knowledge they may actually have.

Apparently, two things went wrong which made you believe the candidate doesn't know much:

  • they took too long before starting to answer even the basic questions
  • they couldn't answer [most of] the follow-up questions

So, you could tell them that. If they weren't using Google, they won't feel like being accused of cheating. And if they were, perhaps they will realize that it's pretty much impossible to use it while answering fast enough.

Also, next time you feel a candidate is reading answers to you, start asking open-ended questions instead. E.g. instead of asking "What is dynamic memory allocation? How is it implemented?" you could ask "Why would you allocate a string dynamically? What about a single character?" While I suspect the first pair of questions to be answered by the Wikipedia article on dynamic memory, answering the second one is almost impossible without revealing at least a rudimentary thought process.

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You apparently figured this out, but just for the record: I would most certainly NOT tell the person that you suspect he was googling answers. If in fact he wasn't, that would just be setting him up to protest his being rejected. Or even if he was, he may well reason that you can't prove it or even know for sure, and protest and make trouble. I'm not sure if he'd have grounds for a lawsuit or anything like that, but I can't imagine any good coming of it.

I don't recall ever getting serious feedback on a job interview. If I don't get a job offer, I usually get a bland letter or email saying "you have many fine qualifications but we regret that you do not meet our present needs" or something to that effect. I don't think anyone seriously expects to get constructive feedback. If you're willing to take the time to do this, that's a nice gesture, but if you are struggling with what to say in one particular case, I'd say, just don't. Forget it. Send him the usual trite form letter.

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    I interviewed a candidate over the phone, gave my manager detailed feedback about why I was rejecting him, as well as his positive attributes. A few years later, at another company, he got through someone else's initial screening and came in for a face-to-face interview. I had no memory of him, but was impressed this time. We hired him, and the day he started, he sought me out to offer thanks. Apparently my manager has passed on my feedback (cleaned-up, I'm sure.) He used that to improve his skills, and came to us confident and prepared. I think it can be useful. – Scott Sauyet Dec 22 '17 at 18:03
  • @ScottSauyet Oh, I don't doubt that such feedback could be useful. My intent was just to say that most interviewers don't provide it. Probably because (a) it's too much effort, and (b) most interviewees will ignore it, and (c) it creates the risk that something you say might be interpreted as illegal discrimination or in some other way cause trouble. It's generally safe to just say nothing. – Jay Dec 22 '17 at 18:13
  • I'm sure that's why most don't. I'm usually not in the position to directly offer feedback to the candidate myself. But whenever I'm asked for feedback now I don't hesitate to give an assessment of both strengths and weaknesses. – Scott Sauyet Dec 22 '17 at 19:16
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    @ScottSauyet I always appreciated feedback, but rarely received it, which is why I wanted to provide feedback now that I'm on the other side of the table. That being said, it has already "bitten" me once. After giving some constructive feedback (I make sure not to be "negative") I got an angry email back from a candidate trying to argue that the problem wasn't him but rather my interview methods. I'm not sure why the candidate thought that arguing would help, but my first thought was "This is probably why people don't provide feedback". However, I refused to be dissuaded. – Conor Mancone Jan 2 '18 at 15:27
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It does not matter how the candidate will arrive at knowledge in his job, so the Google angle is irrelevant.

Relevant is that the candidate only demonstrated rote knowledge without any skill in applying it. Whether he learnt that rote knowledge by heart or googled it on the fly does not really matter.

When I did my EE exams, some courses had "suitcase exams": you were allowed to bring anything except communication devices. There was no way you'd have enough time to work around significant gaps in your skill set.

Your job interview was for a developer position, not for a dictionary. He showed no sizeable skill for the former, and whether he used Google to create the impression he was fit for the latter does not in the context of this interview matter.

It's actually a minus point that he wasn't able to apply available information to the problems: for a candidate who is lacking the knowledge/information, at least the jury's still out about whether he'd be able to apply it once he is given the definitions.

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Shortly put, feedback is valuable for candidates that deserve receiving feedback. A candidate might have performed very poorly but at least he/she gave everything and did it honestly. Here you can elaborate where he/she fell short and that feedback will be well received. This situation appears to be different. You have all reasons to believe that the candidate simply looked up the examples and read them. There is little you can provide as feedback. That will be waste of time. In this case, it seems appropriate to say nothing or simply say thanks for applying.

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    IDK why all the downvotes. Cheaters do not deserve OPs time or respect. – NoSenseEtAl Dec 22 '17 at 7:10
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Using Google to assist in answering technical questions is likely to be an expected part of the job you were advertising. Therefore, doing this is not a negative in an interview. It is not cheating.

If they correctly answered all questions, does it matter if they did that by having the knowledge accessible, or having the skills required to find the knowledge in a few seconds?

If they incorrectly answered some questions (the followup questions you mentioned), does it matter if they got to the wrong answer by not knowing, knowing but misremembering, or failing to find the right answer in time using Google?

It sounds like this person failed to correctly answer all questions given to them. Assuming the candidate you eventually hired did answer the questions correctly, then all the feedback you need to provide is: "The candidate chosen showed a greater mastery of the technical subject matter".

More long term, I would ask questions that require people to synthesise information, interpret requirements, apply judgement etc. Do not ask questions that require people to repeat a definition or spout off a formula. These questions are better tests of the person's aptitude for the job, as they show if the person can do the parts of the job that can't be Googled.

Additionally, pausing before answering is not a negative in an interview. In a face to face interview, they would be drinking the glass of water you gave to them, to give themselves time to think.

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    Having to look up the Pythagorean theorem when interviewing for a mathematics research position or not knowing the difference between cubism and pointillism when seeking to be an art curator, during the interview itself, is a very different thing from looking up technical definitions and complicated techniques on the job. The question is clearly about the former type of Google use, not the latter. – user53718 Dec 20 '17 at 8:52
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    Your answer is correct for a very specific set of questions in a very specific set of roles. Your sweeping generalisation that it applies to all questions is misleading at best. And it certainly doesn't apply to the situation described in the OP – Darren H Dec 20 '17 at 11:01

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