I keep seeing articles talking about “the only three interview questions you need” or “the one thing you need to ask” or “the questions that they ask in Ivy League interviews.”

Let me tell you, those articles have cute headlines, but they are not a way to conduct an interview. It makes me realize how very few people know how to interview anyone.

Outside of math or some technical problems, an interview doesn’t come down to any certain questions or particular ways to answer them. Any intelligent person will know that any question in any conversation can be perceived in many fashions and so there can often be different responses that are valid. Notice I said “responses,” not answers. An interview is not a test. Open the dialog.

An interview is not an opportunity for the interviewer to make an exam disguised as behavioral questions. An interview is also not a place for the interviewer to see if they can drop hints and see if the candidate can read their minds on expected answers. It’s not the particular questions that are important in an interview; it’s how the person thinks and if they know what they are doing. There is more than one way to skin a cat (which I just realized is a disgusting saying).

An interview is a conversation, not a test.

This fact scares most people who conduct interviews. The idea of removing their protective interview wall is scary. “You mean I’m going to have to have a real conversation with people? That could take a lot of time. How can I have a real conversation with someone I’ve never met?” So their immediate fall back is to have a list of standard questions with expected answers and not veer from it. Those standard questions lend to their downfall as an interviewer and avoid the real conversation. That fear lends to making a test. The result isn’t an interview, it’s avoidance of an interview.

It is the interviewer’s problem if they can’t have a discussion which will actually let them figure out if the person knows what they are doing. It is the interviewer’s job, not to have a test planned, but to be able to listen and react intellectually. If the interviewer didn’t get the response they wanted, does that mean the candidate failed? No! This isn’t’ a test.It’s a conversation run by the interviewer. There is a difference. If the interviewer makes it a test, then the interviewer failed.

I can’t tell you how many people didn’t give me an answer I was looking for, so I dug a little and found out they were great. I’ve also seen that peoples’ minds could be thinking the interviewer’s question meant something else. So if the interviewer just accepts the response as “wrong,” then both the candidate and the company lose. The interviewer should be able to create a follow up question on the spot to dig and see if the person knows their craft.

It’s the same with how one reads a resume: Some people just don’t make good resumes. So who loses if the recruiter or hiring manager looks for reasons to reject them instead of a reason to think, keep digging and see if the person knows their stuff? Maybe it just takes the slightest effort to clarify a few things between the lines. As a recruiter, I come across a lot of recruiters and hiring managers who instead of being concerned with skills, really just look at titles, company names and school names to determine if a candidate suits a job.

Let’s look at a few examples to see if that works:

  • Sheryl Sandberg came out of a government job with no high tech experience to be a VP at Facebook.
  • Bill Gates never graduated college.
  • Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s new head of retail, came from a clothing store chain.
  • Matt Lauer never graduated college before getting a killer job at NBC (okay, that one fits the dysfunctional model).
  • Steve Jobs dropped out of college after six months, took some calligraphy classes, survived by getting free meals at a temple and returning/recycling soda bottles like a homeless person, plus many people at his previous jobs didn’t like him.

There is more to any person than their most recent job title, where they went to school, or any famous companies they worked at. People are not there to read your mind and jump through your interview hoops. If you don’t get the exact response you are looking for, then don’t think, “They failed the test.” It is your job to find out if they know their job. If you treat the interview like a test, then you just failed. You failed your job and you failed your company, as well.

Jon Marcus is an engineer-focused talent acquisition pro and “recruiting detective.” He is based in San Francisco. Clients include Shutterfly, Oracle, eBay, IBM, and scores of others.

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