At the time Covid hit I had spent 26 years in the recruitment industry and during 2020 I was at home for nearly 9 months on furlough.
During that time a lot changed and between binge watching Columbo and watering a pretty substantial collection of house plants, I occasionally still thought about the world of work, recruitment and what changes we might see going forward.
Two thoughts stuck with me:
- 2020 was a helluva year for all of us no matter how we spent it.
- We will only ever really know what it was like to have lived that year in the way that we personally experienced it.
Whether we were furloughed, made redundant, worked from home, continued working throughout in essential businesses or been front-line workers, our experiences of being a worker in 2020 were no doubt been pretty challenging to say the least and they likely continue to be for many.
As someone who has interviewed and written more interview guides than I care to count, I know that asking about facing, dealing with or overcoming a challenge is something many employers want to know about. So would 2020 provide the ultimate interview question?
In my opinion, no, or rather it could, but it really, really shouldn’t.
Remember as kids when we returned to school after the summer holidays and we inevitably got those classroom assignments to write about what we did over the summer? Well, the thought of those types of questions being applied to 2020 makes me just urgh.
Honestly, I get it, asking questions like the ones below could seem like a good idea; a great opportunity for people to show their resilience, their organisational skills, their self-reliance, creativity or drive but no, don’t do it, don’t. Don’t fall into the trap and let me tell you why.
What not to ask:
- give me an example of how you stayed productive during your furlough ✘ - Nope!
- tell me about how you managed when handling furloughed colleagues tasks ✘ - Nooo!
- tell me about how you ensured you achieved your goals whilst working from home during lockdown ✘ - Yikes!
2020 presented challenges waaaaayyyy outside the normal scope of work and at the same time it brought our personal and working lives closer than ever. The stresses and strains of our family dynamics, physical and mental health, financial well-being etc have never been so tangled up with our jobs (or lack of jobs) as they have been throughout the pandemic.
There’s been people trying to balance two full-time workers and home-schooled children with one and a half laptops and a dodgy wi-fi, others stuck at home alone experiencing long periods of isolation and many finding themselves suddenly faced with no income or prospects for new employment as well as a thousand other scenarios.
And that’s not even mentioning anyone who actually caught or lost someone to Covid.
We all know that mental health challenges have, for many, been exacerbated by lockdowns, isolation, uncertainty and financial problems and whilst we were perhaps somewhat aware of other common challenges out there we will never know them all.
In fact our own personal experience may have been relatively okay and we may not initially see an issue with asking these questions but this is where we need to pause and recognise that our experiences will all have differed and by asking these sorts of questions we could well be probing in to one of the most upsetting, stressful, heart-breaking, frightening times of someone's life without realising it.
So do I have a recommendation? Yes, of course I do!
Firstly, you can absolutely learn what the individual did during 2020, it’s fine to want to know their work history but I would encourage you to not use this in any kind of judgement or assessment of the individual. It’s simply information gathering, nothing more.
Secondly, think about why you wanted to ask those questions in the first place? What were you hoping to get from your answers? Evidence of resilience, using initiative, adaptability? Then just ask a question about those specific attributes. If the answer lies in their activities and behaviour during 2020, they’ll be sure to share it with you without you specifically asking about that period.
Think about it, if you knew a candidate had, for example had a traumatic divorce or been in a terrible car accident, would you ask specific questions about those instances to find out if they had good communication skills or how well they manage change? No! Of course you wouldn’t, or if you would, please stop. that. immediately!
So here’s some alternatives to the example questions I posted above, obviously specific wording would depend on the role in question but it should give you an idea:
✘ DON’T ask - give me an example of how you stayed productive during your furlough
✔ DO ask: - tell me about a project or activity you initiated and what prompted you to start it - give me an example of when you have used your initiative
✘ DON’T ask - tell me about how you managed when handling furloughed colleagues’ tasks
✔ DO ask - tell me about a time when you had to take on new responsibilities or duties - give me an example of when you had to adapt to a significant change in your role - tell me about when you had to learn something new
✘ DON’T ask - tell me about how you ensured you achieved your goals whilst working from home during lockdown
✔ DO ask - what have you found most motivating in your current or previous roles? - tell me about how you structure your day-to-day tasks alongside your longer term goals or projects
If 2020 has taught us nothing else, it’s that our personal lives are just that, personal. They are complex, unique and ever changing. And whilst our jobs and careers pay our bills, provide services and products to others and for many, genuinely bring great personal satisfaction and enjoyment, ultimately our personal lives are more important to us and how we have coped with the challenges life has thrown at us throughout the pandemic should not form the basis of questions recruiters or hirers use as a way to measure our ability to work, or our worthiness to be selected for a job.
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