71

As a senior software developer (based in UK), I help my manager arrange and conduct interviews. My boss used to conduct the interviews himself, but realised that he needed someone more tech-savvy along with him, so it is either myself or the other senior dev. assisting. He previously expected all candidates to show up in professional business attire, but I convinced him to think otherwise. On occasions where candidates are arriving straight from work, or during their lunch break (I check with the candidate beforehand), casual dress is now accepted. In previous experience, people in my field showing up to work in a suit, and if you're not in a managerial role, is a dead giveaway that you are sneaking off for an interview!

For one candidate, let's call him 'Jim', he was arriving straight from work and so was dressed in his everyday attire. He was wearing a shirt with a video game character on the front that I recognised, though I had not played their game myself. I at least knew it was one to safely discuss in work. He ticked all the boxes as far as capability, problem solving and technical capabilities were concerned. He was very confident and outgoing with his answers. Towards the end of the interview, we have a more informal chat with the candidates, just to see if we would get along with them as people, not just colleagues. In this case, I mentioned I recognised the character in the hope of chatting about video games (it's usually good to have a common interest with your possible future colleague).

At this point, Jim became a completely different person. He suddenly became extremely hesitant and nervous, as if I had asked him a deeply personal and intrusive question. Even with the concluding questions like notice period or future availability, he quietly stammered his way through them. After he left, my boss did not complain about me asking about the shirt. He suspected that Jim was caught so off-guard by my question that he did not know how to react. From my boss' point of view, this was a mark against Jim though I believe this to be a bit unfair.

As I'm fairly new to being on the employer side of interviews, I would like to know;

  • Is it appropriate to assume the candidate is willing to talk about something they are (for example) wearing, if it strongly implies another interest?
  • Should a strict dress code be encouraged again, in case this happens again?
  • 151
    Jim was probably thinking "Oh, I should not have worn this shirt... now they think I am a total gamer nerd, oh this was a mistake. I am never going to get this job. They expected me to dress different, they just looked for a polite way to convey it to me." I generally think it is not wrong to talk about hobbies that somehow came up in the interview, but starting a conversation based on someone's attire can make them self-conscious very easily. – skymningen May 18 '17 at 14:41
  • 7
    @skymningen That's a good point. I made it clear I was a gamer myself and spoke positively about it, but it might still make people feel self-conscious. – user34587 May 18 '17 at 14:45
  • 20
    I am not sure if this is the case here, but an interview tip I once received is always beware of the "buddy" interviewer, the implication being that an interviewer who is being friendly and casual may be trying to make you more relaxed in the hope you'll admit more than you would want to in an interview. (i.e. the stuff you might say to your friends but you'd never say to an interviewer). – colmde May 18 '17 at 15:36
  • 8
    "we have a more informal chat with the candidates, just to see if we would get along with them as people" - Has this been successful? I suspect that no matter how informal you chat with them, the candidate might always be on their guard, and speak differently than they would in a real informal situation, whether that's being more nervous than usual or more "salesperson" talk than usual. – colmde May 18 '17 at 15:50
  • 7
    Did Jim get the job? – Strawberry May 19 '17 at 9:06

13 Answers 13

127

"Jim" was probably very nervous about the interview, and prepared answers for all the usual questions. It looks like you really got him off guard.

If he's on a par with the other interviewees, I'd get him back in for a second interview and see how he performs then. If he doesn't have to meet clients regularly, I wouldn't call it an issue that he isn't socially perfect.

To answer the questions; Yes, I think it's appropriate to ask about computer games if someone is wearing a character on their shirt. To me, that isn't a trick question - it's a way of breaking the ice and getting to know the person. And no - no reason to insist on strict dress code. As long as they are presentable, the full suit and noose isn't often seen any more in software companies.

  • 44
    +1. As an interviewer, the OP did nothing wrong. The candidate simply got thrown off and reacted... sub-optimally. I also agree that it shouldn't be held against him as the entire subject is unrelated to work, but I suppose you can't help what your boss thinks. (Additional +1 for "suit and noose", but alas, I have only one upvote to give) – Steve-O May 18 '17 at 15:09
  • 4
    Were I interviewing (which I frequently do), I probably would have opened with a question about the video game, and then eased the conversation into interview grounds. That's an opportunity to really get to know a person that shouldn't be overlooked. – SethWhite May 18 '17 at 16:33
  • 25
    There's also the chance that Jim was wearing a shirt for a videogame that he knew nothing about. This phenomenon confounds me, but it happens time and time again. (Did you just call the hero of time "Zelda"?!) – Ethan The Brave May 18 '17 at 19:57
  • 5
    @EthanTheBrave Possibly also the reverse. OP mentions recognizing the character, but not having played the game. Some wrong detail may be part of what threw Jim off. – Izkata May 19 '17 at 14:12
  • 1
    While I'll be wary of the band-shirt analogy mentioned in the answer from IDrinkAndIKnowThings, we do try to promote a relaxed environment in the interviews and in retrospect, Jim did indeed come off as an extreme example of being caught off-guard. – user34587 May 19 '17 at 15:14
31

Is it possible he just liked the design of the shirt and not the video game, so when you asked about the game he didn't have any answers? I have a few shirts like this where I thought the design was clever or something.

Presumably, Jim knew he had an interview that day. As such, his choice of attire like this is questionable at best. If you dress professionally but choose a loud tie to go with it, you should be prepared to answer questions about that tie that stands out. The same would be true for shirts that have branding or design. If you are going to wear it to an interview you should be prepared to answer questions about it. So I agree with your boss that this is a mark against him that he was not prepared.

But, for me it is not a deal breaker if that is my biggest concern. But if there were other answers that made you think that he may be trying to present himself as more qualified than he really is, this could help tip the scales against him. And quite frankly if there are 2 candidates that are basically evenly matched, and one candidate came in dressed professionally and the other came in a branded shirt... I am probably choosing the professionally dressed candidate because they came in better prepared for a job interview.

  • 7
    You answer reminds me of people who wear shirts with band logos, but have never listened to them. "Hey, I like your shirt, what's your favorite song?", with silence as a response. – curt1893 May 18 '17 at 15:12
  • 9
    I was typing an answer but you said everything that I wanted to say. Another possibility about the shirt choice is that I've known people who like wearing t-shirts that they get from thrift shops, a variation on "it looks cool". I tend to wonder why a person thinks it's normal to wear a t-shirt to a job interview. If I were interviewing and I normally wear t-shirts, I'd start wearing polo's to work occasionally so it didn't look odd if I did. – Chris E May 18 '17 at 15:13
  • 1
    Jim did know in advance the day of the interview. He did indeed know who was on his shirt, but I never thought to consider the band-shirt analogy the others in the comments and IDrinkandIKnowThings spoke of! – user34587 May 18 '17 at 15:49
  • 3
    I agree to this. When coming to an interview you should be a bit self-conscious. The way you look is the first impression you make on a company! A well prepared candidate should know and expect this. – Totumus Maximus May 18 '17 at 16:02
  • @TotumusMaximus - I used to think this. But for the past 5 years I've seen otherwise from candidates, frequently. (Seattle, WA) So now ... either I'm an old fogey with outdated standards or the prevailing culture has shifted. Or both. – davidbak May 19 '17 at 18:03
15

Is it appropriate to assume the candidate is willing to talk about something they are (for example) wearing, if it strongly implies another interest?

Yes. If someone chose such clothing just because they liked the design, they could easily brush off the question by saying so.

I am also a programmer and a gamer and while I've never been caught in this situation, I suspect I know what happened here. Whenever I'm asked about my hobbies in interview, I also find it difficult to reply. It's not because I'm unprepared but because I fear my hobby may be held as a black mark against me.

Let's be frank. Gaming has a bad reputation in certain sections of society. Sections that often include people who work in middle and senior management. They view it as infantile, addictive and time-wasting. Worse they identify it with the worst socially averse stereotypes: creepy, unwashed, sexist guys who still live in their parent's basement.

This is a particular issue for programmers because that stereotype applies to them, too, so it's a double-whammy.

So: I don't like talking about my hobby because I'm afraid someone will presume I'm a creep, or perhaps a dangerous addict who'll spend the day surfing the Steam store instead of working. You may be a gamer yourself and you may have done your best to put this guy at ease but he had no idea what your management colleague might think.

Should a strict dress code be encouraged again, in case this happens again?

No. It's not a big issue, as discussed. And I welcome with open arms the fact you're happy to bypass the ridiculous notion that smart dress makes you a good employee in order to help people to easily and comfortably get to interviews. It's great, your candidates will appreciate it and they will think better of your company as a result: keep it up.

  • 5
    As a gamer and young IT professional myself, I was frequently warned throughout the later years of education to avoid mentioning that I play video games in a job interview,one careers advisor even went so far as to suggest I keep it to myself indefinitely due to the negative associations some still have around gaming and nerd culture in general. Years later I'm still reluctant to discuss my hobby with colleagues unless I'm confident that they share such interests. – Lord Jebus VII May 18 '17 at 16:19
  • "He had no idea what your management colleague might think". Given the circumstances, it would have definitely appeared to be a question that was not 'pre-approved' by my manager. My manager did nothing to indicate he objected to the question, but I can see how it may have come off as unusual. The subject in this case, is unfortunately still a stigma in some circles. – user34587 May 19 '17 at 8:06
  • 1
    @LordJebusVII : If someone has an issue with gaming and nerd culture, should that become your issue, or just remain their issue? I agree I might avoid gaming for a job interview, as I might avoid sports or anything related to entertainment/fun rather than professionalism/getting-the-job-done. At least, in how I dress. If they bring it up, I give honest answers; shame on them if they judge me for something legitimate. I certainly find it inappropriate to have that affect your lengthy career, unless your career is in impressing (e.g., sales) or dress code prohibits. Wear your preference. – TOOGAM May 21 '17 at 20:51
  • @TOOGAM If you don't get hired because you mentioned it as part of a broader question about hobbies, that kind of is your problem. – Dukeling May 22 '17 at 1:16
  • @Dukeling : Fair enough. But I was focused on LJVII's comment about "keep it to myself indefinitely". To indefinitely hide an interest, because someone else might seem uncomfortable with it, and to be "still reluctant", shows this has had effect well beyond the critical (and presumably shorter) pre-hiring stage. – TOOGAM May 22 '17 at 5:36
12

In my opinion, the question at the heart of your question is really this:

We have had a policy of checking out candidate's interests and social skills to see if they are a match. I had an otherwise really good candidate who really froze up and behaved differently when we did this. Now I'm questioning whether we should have this policy at all.

You, of course, should not be surprised that your boss marked against him - that is the entire point of asking a question like this in the first place! But you are right to question this policy with an open-mind to both "sides." You saw a good candidate get hammered over an extraneous part of the interview.

I personally would hire someone who was communicative when interviewing over relevant topics. I really do admonish firms who hire people "they can just get a beer with," as if only people who drink beer are qualified for the job. Do you care more about how this candidate behaves over lunch or while doing work? If you feel strongly you should be judiciously arguing your viewpoint.

My own opinion notwithstanding, this question really does divide. This is the proper framing though.

5

This is more of an answer to the question in your title than the ones in your question itself.

is it appropriate to ask about a hobby/interest?

To that I say "don't do it" and here's why:

I immediately get defensive in an interview if someone starts asking person questions about me:

  • What are your hobbies?
  • Are you married/dating?
  • What kind of food/sports do you like?
  • What books do you like to read? I've had all of these.

If I say I like to read, the next question is "oh, what was the last book you read?" There is no good answer to this. You might decide not to hire me because I read a biography about some political figure you dislike. Or I read a sci-fi book and therefore am too geeky, etc.

If I'm not interested in sports, I may not be well rounded enough. Or I may support a team who is the rival of one you like.

If my hobby is scuba diving you may not hire me because I could go out diving one weekend and not come back.

I want to be hired or rejected on the merits of my skill set, not based on some personal part of my life which is not related to the job.

On the other hand, if the person being interviewed brings up something, such as wearing it on his shirt or talks about it in the discussion, I don't think its wrong to express interest. Even if you didn't know what game the character is from, it would probably be ok to ask "What is the character on your shirt from?" at which point it would probably look down to see because he forgot what he was wearing that day. So you probably didn't do anything wrong, I'm just advising to be careful about asking questions outside the scope of the job description.

To dress code. I've never been given a dress code for an interview, but I would also never wear anything less than business casual, which would not include a shirt with a video game character on it.

  • I know to stay away from questions like "What sports do you like?"; as you suggested, it might make the candidate instantly feel like they won't belong. We would normally start by discussing a hobby mentioned on their CV, or in this case, something that seemed heavily implied from their appearance. And most of our candidates do indeed go for business casual to play it safe. – user34587 May 19 '17 at 8:19
  • 1
    Wow. Your world view is so completely different from mine. I would never expect to be hired/not hired based on the personal questions, I just see it as a friendly chat to show that they're a friendly company. I would never have any problem with hobby type questions. The married/dating one is one to avoid, but hobbies are fair game. I even have a few hobbies mentioned on my cv to show that I'm a well-rounded individual with a work-life balance. – AndyT May 19 '17 at 14:01
  • 2
    @AndyT Perhaps so. I didn't used to be so adamant about it, but I have been burned several times over the years so I have come to believe strongly in keeping business and work life separate. I'm also a very private person and do not like people to intrude uninvited. I understand some people are much more open and that's ok, but unfortunately they tend to assume everyone else is the same. I don't discuss my personal life with people at work and try to leave my work at the office. I also don't ask anyone about their personal life, I see it as a matter of respect. – bluegreen May 19 '17 at 14:22
3

If I was Jim I'd react depending on how the informal question about the shirt was made, simple body language can make a huge difference, also the boss' reaction to you asking Jim that informal question.

Situation 1: you and your boss act relaxed because you think Jim is a good candidate, the technical interview is done and you're waiting for your boss to finish taking notes (that's what they usually do), in that period of time you ask the question with a smile, showing some interest and relating to it, like Do you like videogames? I used to play them a lot. In this case I'd be really relaxed and I'd talk about it without problems (it happened to my job interview, we ended up talking about my passion for driving simulators)

Situation 2: the technical part of the interview is done, you ask him for his hobbies, something like Do you like videogames?. In this case I'd be a little embarassed myself and I'd start thinking if I wasn't dressed right for the interview itself, seen the really precise question.

That's a personal answer, but since you said just to see if we would get along with them as people, not just colleagues I think all answers are personal.

Finally, sorry if I made english mistakes or typos, it's not my first language :)

1

The rule is that you only talk about personal stuff if the candidate brings it up first. So, if they list personal interests on their resume, then it is fair game.

In your case, the video game is on the T-shirt, so it is fair game since they are advertising an interest in the game.

If they have a public-facing website with both business and personal information then it is fair game. However, do not bring up any purely personal web site (like Facebook). Stuff on LinkedIn is fair game, Facebook and Twitter is not, unless the candidate is using those sites for business purposes.

  • I don't think it is a rule. Personal interest is a pretty important aspect of an interview. Getting to know the candidate requires some questions about personal life 'stuff'. Interviewers regularly look up the candidate on Facebook or other social media that is public access. You should be aware of the things you put up online. Especially if you are into software development. – Totumus Maximus May 19 '17 at 9:15
  • That's a lot of rules to remember... – AnoE May 19 '17 at 20:02
1

I think you've missed something in the list of things you're worried about.

  • Is it appropriate to ask this at the end of an interview?

For me as an interviewer, the answer is definitely no. However it is very appropriate to ask this at the start of an interview when you're trying to build a bit of common ground between you. It's an extremely basic interviewing technique. I've even been to an interview where the interviewer told me flat out, "Now, tell me about your favourite hobby. I'm not particularly concerned about the hobby, but you'll be more relaxed afterwards." That absolutely is fair game. The fact that they're wearing something which identifies an interest gives you a clear point to start that conversation.

I probably wouldn't be thrown if someone raised this at the end of an interview, but then I've been round the block enough times to not see interviews as a Big Scary. For those that do, this may well be a big change of pace and could be enough to throw them off.

0

Just on your second question:

Should a strict dress code be encouraged again, in case this happens again?

I've never been given a dress-code before an interview, I'd show up in a suit just because that's what's done... But if you are actually telling them beforehand they can wear whatever they like and are that concerned about it happening again...

Why not, instead, say that it can be like "business casual" rather than just anything. This way they'll wear something a bit more neutral like a shirt or jumper or something, but not be giving away in their existing job that they're going for an interview.

But it won't really tackle the overall problem, which is not, "Talking about things on people's shirts makes them seize up". I mean next time you could be asking about the local football team or music or something and are just as likely to get the same result.

Although in this case, I would expect someone wearing a character on their T-Shirt to be a bit more comfortable talking about that character/game (after all you're pretty much advertising, "I am a fan of this thing", it's kind of the whole point of wearing fan-type T-Shirts!) so I think this might be an isolated incident.

  • Saying "business casual" suffers from nearly the same problem as saying nothing (in which case they'd probably want a suit and tie): if you normally wear ripped jeans and t-shirt to work then wearing smart trousers and a shirt will stand out as unusual and attract comments. – AndyT May 19 '17 at 13:55
  • There is a difference between proper "business casual" and swapping a gaming T-Shirt for a plain one-colored shirt or polo. @AndyT – AnoE May 19 '17 at 20:03
0

Sure, you can ask that sort of thing. If you engage them, you'll be working side by side with them - a human being who has a real life - not just with a code producing automaton. You'll be interacting with them as a personality. An interview isn't just to find if they are competent. Its to find out what kind of person they are, what makes them tick, and asking about things sparked by their comments and appearance (provided its done with sensitivity and not offensively) may just give them a chance to talk about things that make them smile, or they care about, or have a genuine chat and relax a bit. You'll see more of them and be better able to assess their "fit", and they may feel more able to be open and comfortable with your company. The only caveat is sensitivity - if it could be related to something sensitive tread carefully and think first - you don't want to be asking questions that might be "triggery" such as related to body/hair shape, race, religion, sexuality, or some other personal areas, so if what you see might lead to those, be careful and think twice. Bit if it's innocuous, sure!

0

There can be quite a bit of debate over a the personal question regarding the shirt and the appropriateness of the question. Indeed, people will argue over whether a personal question is appropriate at all. I believe that personal questions can have value in the interview if done right. I will not make any arguments in that regard. I will leave it to you to decide where the line is drawn. Instead, I will give you an example by doing what I do best. Telling a story.

I have been a consultant for many years and have been interviewed countless times as well as conducted many interviews. I personally believe that work is work and any personal life shall not enter into it. However, for team cohesion, some level of personality analysis should always be considered. Even then, some diversity in thought is appreciated and valuable. It is a fuzzy area. As well, there will be times, regardless of how hard we avoid it, that personality will enter the picture.

We were conducting quite a few interviews and most of the candidates fell somewhat flat, however, with so many interviews, a few showed to be outstanding. One young, small, rather shy girl came to us with outstanding credentials who we hired. A month later, she admitted that she did not think we would hire her and that the interview was extremely difficult. This surprised me. We made the decision that she was the most qualified within the first 5 minutes and the remaining questions were mostly to evaluate how to place her skills within the team. Still, the final decision was not made till the very end.

We did discover something that put making a final decision to rest immediately. We asked what her favorite hobby was. Here is this timid, mousy, little girl describing her addiction to sea diving. As it turned out, she was world class accomplished. Huh? Such a small creature has such nerve and bravery? Diving is not easy. I was a diver in the Navy. I should know. And yet she would outclass me. Her boldness in her hobby told us very quickly that she would fit in with us boys. She would be the only girl within a group of divers, submariners, sky divers, ex Military, hunters, surfers, athletes, etc.

She was an outstanding hire. More to the point, she learned quickly how to stand her own ground amongst such strong personalities. She was quickly received and appreciated. As well, she was promoted several times and given great authority and responsibility. The adage you cannot judge a book by the cover comes to mind. If we had not asked the personal question, we never would have known more than what we could see and she might not have been hired. Who knows for sure? What I do know for sure is that we were all blown away and did not want to miss out on the opportunity to work with her. She did not hit the lobby floor before we began calling to say she was hired. (We were on the second floor.)

So yes a personal question or two if properly couched can have a real benefit and may even be one of the greatest things you have ever done. I remember this hire most fondly. It was my last and greatest interview.

0
  • Is it appropriate to assume the candidate is willing to talk about something they are (for example) wearing, if it strongly implies another interest?

Absolutely. Your task, at an interview, is to learn about the person. There are some restrictions, like laws prohibiting you from delving into a person's religious views. Such laws protect candidates by giving people of different backgrounds a more fair "playing field" which they can use to effectively peform professional tasks (including doing well at a job interview). Determining how serious they will take a job, or how professional they will be at the job, is fair game. So use what tools you can to make your best (most informed) decision given the restrictions (like the common restriction that interviews are typically completed in a rather short amount of time).

So, my general answer is yes, you're absolutely welcome to bring up the subject. Your specific scenario actually provides an excellent example of why. Unfortunately, it seems you may be overlooking how successful you were. So, let's take a look at that.

A lot of the other answers mention that your question as "appropriate". I would take this a step further, and say, your question was "good". It might have been the best question you asked during the whole interview. Here's why: It revealed something about Jim. And what it revealed was not good.

We learned that he may have done something that wasn't sensible: He wore clothes that were distinctive (in this case, by having a particular image) and was not really prepared to talk about them.

Much worse: He didn't handle the interview well.

What I would like to see from an interviewee is an ability to take any topic and make it into a positive talking point. For instance, when I got my first job in my current career, I was asked about a competition in college. (I don't recall how/why... maybe I had it on my resume.) This was a two-day event, but I spoke about the preparation, and what was learned during the experience. By doing so, I took what may have been a professionally frivolous experience, and showed significant professional value. This, like the diver from closetnoc's answer, is the ideal.

Less tremendous would be if a person gives a quick answer, and maybe says 3 sentences about the activity, and then moves the conversation along. Since the candidate is speaking, this will likely be a good time for the candidate to switch topics if the candidate desires. (It seems somewhat unlikely that you'll want to discuss that topic in much more depth.)

Less ideal would be if a person stumbles, but recovers. That would be a black mark; this may or may not be significant depending on the job role. If they don't interview perfectly, but salesmanship isn't a key part of the job role, that might not be a big deal.

Instead, you saw something really bad. A person stumbled, and did not recover. What happens the next time that this person stumbles, for any reason? Will a rift develop, that forever harms a working relationship?

You've learned some valuable information. The fact that you came across this information isn't even spectacular luck that you happened to stumble across this precious gem. No; rather, the interviewee set himself up for this trap that snared him. That was quite unskillful on his part.

Will he be a temporary bookkeeper who works behind the scenes for a couple of weeks? Great. He might be a great hire. But if he is applying for a position where he has to convince potential customers, or improve the company's image, or even work much with other people (who might throw some other social curveballs in this direction), then fully recognize the significance of what you've learned.

(I'm not going to make your hiring decision for you. It is your job, and/or your boss's job, to make that decision. I'm simply saying, recognize the black mark, evaluate how significant that black mark is, compare that black mark (and any others you found) to available white marks, and consider other factors like available competition and what your current needs are.)

  • Should a strict dress code be encouraged again, in case this happens again?

For goodness's sake, no. If you had enforced such a dress code, you would have missed out on the positively revealing experience you just had. Why would you want to throw that away?

Maybe you should impose a dress code for some other reason (like testing compliance). Personally, I would rather not provide dressing advice, and would hope that candidates would dress nicely. But if you do decide to suggest a dress code, definitely don't do so for the purpose of trying to avoid the success that you've achieved.

0

You'd be surprised how many people wear a shirt just because it looks fun, not because they have any affinity with the subject. You may well have recognised a character Jim only knows from his shirt! In other words: Don't assume an interest just because of iconography on clothing. (If you were looking at me right now, you'd think I'd graduated in a year I wasn't even born yet from a college I've never even visited)

As for re-enforcing a dress code - have it match the role. I think your current reasonings for loosening the codes are fair, and should not need review based on this incident alone.