The critical flaws of asking "why do you want to work for us?" in a job interview

“But — wait a second — wasn’t it you who reached out to me? Why would I have a reason to work for you?”, I thought. But hurting my candidate experience was only one of the problems with this question.

A couple years ago a friend referred me to a job in a tech company. Although I was not looking for a new job back then, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to talk to the recruiter just in case this was the opportunity of my life in disguise. During the phone call, the recruiter shared a bit about the role, asked a few questions about me and finished our conversation with "so why do you want to work for us?". The question seemed out of place. "But — wait a second — wasn’t it you who reached out to me? Why would I have a reason to work for you?", I thought.

Having worked in recruiting for over a decade now, I have also seen this question being asked to candidates by companies. To be honest, I have asked it myself. Although these organizations sometimes have what it seems to be a fair reason to use them, I have learned that this practice is more often than not flawed. Here are my thoughts about it.

Do candidates need to have a reason?

From the company perspective, candidate assessment has one main goal: to let them know in advance if their prospect hire will deliver the job at the expected standard. This usually means that the assessment will be designed taking into account the skills and behaviors necessary for a person to execute well a set of tasks or deliver a group of objectives. This is called a competency-based assessment and there are tons of published research indicating it as a fairly valid predictor of job perfomance.

Some companies take this so seriously that they have entire teams of researchers specialized in people assessment in order to ensure that their hiring process actually predicts future employee performance — Google, Facebook, Amazon and McKinsey, to name a few. While some of these companies ask "why us" questions, most of them do not, so even among the companies who make active effort to find relevant statistical correlation between questions, answers, performance and engagement, there seems to be some level of dissent.

Most companies, though, do not work with researchers in their People teams. Their assessment process is more based on common sense and intuition. Having interviewed so many candidates throughout my career, my personal intuition in such scenarios is that candidates who show excitement about a company's purpose tend to be more… excited when they join. And that's it.

Don't get me wrong, perhaps there is correlation between excitement and performance or engagement and I failed to see it, but I wonder what happens to the false negatives of this model — either 1) the ones who fail to express their excitement/reasoning as expected by interviewers because of personality traits or 2) the ones who do not need to love your purpose or culture in order to do their jobs amazingly well or to show commitment to their work.

I also wonder what happens to the false positives, the ones who answer exactly what the interviewer wants to hear precisely because they know what the interviewer expects, not because they genuinely feel it. Trust me, it is not hard to know what companies expect candidates to say.

So, do candidates need to have a reason? I don't know. But companies have been asking this question as if they knew for sure.

Is it reasonable to expect people to know why they want to work for a company since early on in the assessment stage?

Assuming that the "why us" question is valid as future performance/ engagement predictor, we can also discuss the timing issue. In the beginning of the process, most candidates — even those who applied to a job in the company’s job board — do not know if the experience they believe the company can offer is what they really will, so what is the use of asking them?

Of course, there are career pages and social media (and I recommend anyone considering a new job to do their research about the company for which they are interviewing), but even these resources are limited in content. They are generic even when tailored because they are mass communications, so they may not focus on what matters to the particular talent in front of the screen. There are also downsides to every company, we all know it, but we will not find them in their official communication platforms.

So, seriously, when a recruiter or a first interviewer asks a prospect/candidate why they want to work for them, what are they evaluating? Whether the respondent is genuinely looking for an experience you can deliver OR whether they were clever enough to read your website/hear your pitch and say what you want them to say?

Add to this the indisputable non-sense of approaching passive candidates (people who are not looking for jobs) only to ask them right away why they want to work for you. From where I see it, it looks like the company got things wrong — it thinks it is a position of power. But we all know this is not the reality: qualified, talented people are in high demand and we recruiters are well aware that, in more fields than you imagine, there are more jobs open than people to fill them. Candidates know it too, so companies should stop losing them to their poor candidate experience.

Do interviewers know what to consider to be a good and a bad answer?

The less structured a company’s recruiting practices are, the bigger the chances that interviewers will add more trouble to the "Why us?" question. A structured hiring process will, among other things, define what good and bad answers to each interview question looks like. This practice helps keep consistency by avoiding that different interviewers evaluate the same answer differently.

In my experience with companies who do not have such structured processes, interviewers' personal biases easily find their way into candidate assessment until each of them has their own view of why people should join their organizations — and they not rarely conflict. So, in order to avoid this situation, companies should remember to define what is expected from candidates when they answer the "why us" question.

An alternative

For most companies out there — those who have not established that a candidate's answer to their "why us" question is correlated to their performance or engagement with the organization — I recommend a different approach.

The information imbalance is significant when it comes to candidates not knowing for real what awaits them in their daily life in a new job. In other words, it does not matter how much information you offer to them on your careers page or in your buddy program, some level of the black box is always there. So, instead of using their assessment to test how under or overprepared a candidate is to their vain "why us" question, this precious time should be used to understand what matters to the candidate and whether the company can deliver it to them.

Here are 4 questions I like to use in my interviews for the purpose of verifying motivation, vision of the company and engagement with the hiring process:

These questions also work well if the company wants to get a sense of the odds that a particular candidate will accept or decline their offer in the end.

My point is: companies should not spend time and energy asking a question that will not help them nor candidates engage with the opportunity or perform well in their prospective job. They should rather dedicate their resources to questions that are useful and help close the information gap.

Have a different perspective? Let's chat!

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Paula Fonseca

Proud introvert. Book worm. Human Resources executive and consultant. Mother of 2. Circus performer (but only for family and friends).