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The Best Question to Ask a Job Applicant

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What is the best question to ask in a job interview? While the exact answer depends on context, I have settled on a single question suitable for many situations:

“What are the open tabs in your browser right now?”

I owe this suggestion to venture capitalist Daniel Gross, with whom I have written a new book, “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World.” Daniel and I both use that question regularly when we interview applicants for venture capital (in his case) and fellowships (in mine).

First, the question measures what a person does with his or her spare time as well as work time. If you leave a browser tab open, it probably has some importance to you and you expect to return to the page. It is one metric of what you are interested in and what your work flow looks like.

It’s not just cheap talk. Some job candidates might say they are interested in C++ as a programming language, but if you actually have an open page to the Reddit and Subreddits on that topic, that is a demonstrated preference.

I am fond of the saying, “Personality is revealed on weekends.” The open-browser-tabs question allows me to ask about this without being too nosy, because if an applicant views some of the tabs as too personal, they can simply decline to talk about them.

It is also difficult to fake an answer to this question. Hardly any applicants are prepared to talk about their open browser tabs. So you are testing for spontaneous and largely truthful responses, not just how well someone has prepared for the interview. If you don’t know much about C++, you won’t pretend it is an open tab in your browser because the interviewer might pursue the topic. The best strategy is indeed to confess to whatever your current open browser tabs are.

The most likely lie is for a person to say they can’t remember all their current open tabs and cite some open tabs from a few days ago to make the answer sound complete. Yet even that answer is revealing.

As an interviewer, don’t necessarily look for the most intellectual answers. When I asked media personality Megyn Kelly about her open browser tabs during a recent radio program, a bunch of them had to do with solving problems with the family dog. A problem-solving mentality is a good sign.

The open-browser-tabs question also tells you how much of an internet native the person might be. I have known people who have dozens or hundreds of open browser tabs at a given time. That is a sign of curiosity and internet fluency — but perhaps also insufficient prioritization and poor organization. Depending on the job in question, it could be either a positive or negative.

The question might also elicit an answer and subsequent discussion about a person’s habits for working and organizing information. I’ve heard plenty of answers telling me how a person learned how to keep some open tabs and abandon others, thereby giving you a sense of how they make decisions. By focusing on some concretes — the open tabs — you will usually get more useful information than by simply asking, “What are your work habits like?”

The question also tests for enthusiasm. If the person doesn’t seem excited about any of those open browser tabs, that may be a sign that they are blasé about other things as well. But if you get a heated pitch about why a particular website is the best guide to “Lord of the Rings” lore, you may have found a true nerd with a love of detail. That will be a plus for many jobs and avocations, though not all.

Are you wondering what tabs I have open as I write this? They are blogging software; Twitter; my calendar; a YouTube talk on market-making and crypto; two email accounts; two art auctions on Invaluable (should I bid?); my RSS feed; dozens of WhatsApp dialogues; Amazon; and a Nature paper on Covid in China.

Serving up those answers gives you a pretty good idea of my interests and projects, and of my ability to quickly process a lot of information. Most of all, I am a writer who is in constant contact with a large number of other people, and my browser tabs reflect that.

So next time you go to open or close a tab, just remember — it is your very identity you are tinkering with.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Keep Job Interviews Virtual After Covid: Virginia Postrel

• If You Already Hate Your New Job, It’s Fine to Quit: Kathryn Minshew

• Your First Job Won’t Be Your Dream Job, and That’s OK: Theresa Ghilarducci

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of economics at George Mason University, he hosts the Marginal Revolution blog and is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives and Winners Around the World.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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