“What’s Your Biggest Weakness?” Reimagining the Traditional Interview

Audio Version - What's Your Biggest Weakness: Reimagining the Traditional Interview

by Lydia Phillip, read by the author | Listen Instead

Think about the makeup of the labour market in the mid 1900s: Would you have been part of the workforce? Would workplaces have been safe for you? Would you have been hired, and would your work have been considered valuable? The infrastructure for capitalism has been built around white supremacy, privileging white able-bodied, neurotypical men and those who can more readily assimilate to Eurocentric ways of working and being. The power has long been held by the same people who have then controlled the job market, the valuation of work, and entrance to “earning a living” (which is a completely dystopian phrase that has become normalized). And, yet in 2023, we’re still using archaic practices and ideas about how we recruit, hire, and work. What opportunities are there to shift how power and people interact in the workplace? We need to reimagine and restructure capitalist hiring practices in order to be organizations that value people. 

We Need Flexible, Inclusive Practices

For the first time there are five different generations interacting together as Gen Z enters the workforce. We’ve seen articles pop up with buzz-phrases like “The Great Resignation”, and more recently “Quiet Quitting” as employers scramble to adapt to this new era. But let’s just call it what it is: People are saying no to exploitative work and wages. They’re unwilling to put up with toxic work environments that are counter to their values and barely (or doesn’t) cover the cost of living. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted how we work, increasing the focus on accessibility, organizational culture, and work-life balance as employees now have more autonomy in choosing where they spend their time and energy. 

Workforce challenges in the Community Impact Sector existed well before COVID-19. It’s no surprise that a sector comprised mostly of the women and people who were historically barred entry from work is on the periphery of what capitalism values. We see these realities in lower wages, inconsistent health benefits, and lack of job security. With the evolving labour force, the health of our sector will require new ways of working and inclusive leadership throughout the organization. The hopeful news is that attraction and retention are not only about financial incentives. Efforts need to go beyond a pay cheque to include equitable recruitment practices, as organizational priorities are often demonstrated through the hiring process. 

How IONS is Restructuring the Capitalist Process

For jobseekers, there’s often an unnecessary number of hoops to jump through; strenuous interviews, requests for the creation of new work or presentations, or skills-based testing. All likely, on the candidates own dime, and sometimes without advance warning. 

As an organization that is committed to JEDDI (justice, equity, decolonization, diversity, and inclusion) and prioritizing people, IONS is unlearning and resisting capitalist ideologies of work. We view the hiring process as relational work, which has meant unpacking our own expectations of how it has looked traditionally and experimenting with different practices. Though we’re iterating with each round of hiring, what we have committed to is: providing the salary range, keeping candidates informed, valuing applicants’ time and energy by not requesting unpaid work, and team collaboration throughout the process. 

Power dynamics exist between employers and candidates as well as within organizations as the hiring process is often conducted by senior managers. IONS’ approach aims to include the team more holistically. Each round is different depending on the role, but prior to the recruitment launch there’s a team conversation and consent on a process. Between new role development, communications, reviewing applications, process design, hosting the interview – our team is involved at varying levels and capacities.  

The shift has affected our interview practice, who hosts the conversation, and who makes decisions. There are considerations around whose working relationship will be directly affected whether through shared roles or task overlap, peer support, as a supervisor, or as a mentee. Letting go of some of these traditional ways of working has required trust from leaders and shared decision-making within the team.

Unpacking the Interview Process

Job interviews can often feel like those tests – you know the ones that no matter how hard you studied for, pouring over PowerPoints and memorizing cue cards – there’s an unexpected question that’s nowhere to be found in the syllabus. As someone who processes the world differently and who doesn’t often look like the panel of interviewers, the interview and lead-up is typically jarring and stressful. Knowing I’m trying to combat stereotypes while also presenting a succinct, eloquent delivery of my knowledge and experiences requires an incredible amount of emotional labour and energy.  

Popularized in the 1920s, the traditional interview is one of the most common aspects of the hiring process. The power dynamic within the traditional process weighs heavily in favour of the employer, while candidates are expected to research the organization, values, and mandates to effortlessly weave it into their application and interview. By their nature, interviews are inherently exclusionary. Employers often approach the interview as an opportunity to “weed people out” – the last line of defense to detect trickery and identify the gaps. Our capitalist work culture has us primed to detect “red flags”, but this is greatly influenced by our biases and judgement around what we’re told is professional (and I could write a whole blog about how “professionalism” is often just a clever pseudonym for white supremacy).  

So, what do we really get from the standard interview – the one-sided interrogation that rewards those with certain traits, abilities, and processes? There is so much more to gain when we approach this practice from a place of inclusion and reciprocity.

Practicing Our Values in the Interview

What are we actually trying to determine with an interview? When I sat down with my colleague, Alexandra Theroux, to design our most recent hiring process – it boiled down to simply getting to know the person. We had already gone through the process of selecting a talented group of individuals to meet with; we needed to trust that the candidates had the competencies and use the interview to learn more about their work and lived experiences. For us, a human-centered approach meant supporting candidates in showing up as their best selves. As interviewers, we would learn what we needed to learn, while the candidates would also have a sense of IONS’ values and what working with our team would be like.  

Though we haven’t always gotten it right and we’re learning and making changes as we go, we wanted to share some of the interview practices we have implemented: 

1. Communicated with Candidates

We’ve all spent time curating our experiences into a tailored application only to hit submit and hear nothing, right? While we can’t interview everyone, we want to honour the candidates’ time and effort. Our team makes a point to connect with every person who applied to confirm receipt of their submission, notify them about pauses and breaks in the process (the timing of our last hiring process carried into our winter break); and finally, to communicate when a final candidate has been selected.

We didn’t anticipate the volume of applications we would receive for our last job posting, and though it took time – it was key to ensure everyone knew we appreciated their application and were informed throughout the process.  

2. Provided Interview Questions in Advance

If there is one process you can start tomorrow, it’s this one! Gone should be the days of using interviews to fluster people with tricky, unrelated questions (which also makes it unnecessarily difficult for anxious, neurodiverse, and disabled people). Are we testing people’s ability to “think quickly”? Do we need to? Especially in a digital age where access to information and resources is at our fingertips, the emphasis should be on providing time for thoughtfulness and reflection. Wouldn’t you receive a more accurate picture of someone’s experiences if they had the space to carefully develop a response? Doesn’t that just make our role as interviewers and assessors easier? As a simple step toward combatting barriers and valuing people’s diversity, we provided candidates with a pre-interview package which included the questions and information about the process, space, accommodations, and interviewers.  

And when providing the questions in advance, it was important for us to create a space where candidates felt comfortable referring to or even reading from their notes. Again, this isn’t a memory test – so it’s unfair to penalize people for using the resources provided.

3. Paid Interviwees for their time

In the spirit of abundance and reciprocity, IONS offers a $50 honorarium to those who participate in the interview process. Putting together a job application and preparing for an interview requires many hours of unpaid labour and invisible work that is expected but not often recognized. Not only is it many hours of people’s time between the preparation, research, travel time, and the actual interview(s) – there’s also unseen expenses like gas, parking, or metro transit. Especially in a sector full of women, guardians, and those providing care – people may need to make arrangements for children or loved ones. Additionally, people may have to take a vacation day or unpaid leave to attend interviews. These are only a few of the equity considerations, but providing compensation for an interview can increase access to the opportunity.

4. Created a Welcoming, Sensory-friendly Space

Recognizing that everyone has different comfort levels and abilities (and we’re still in a global pandemic), candidates were given the option to participate in person or virtually depending on their location, availability, and accessibility needs. We put thought into creating a physical space that was welcomingsetting up the room with chairs equally placed around a round table, printing all the documents, and opting for lamps and natural light when able. With no need for over-formality, we invited the interviewees to wear what they were comfortable in, bring the items that grounded them, and encouraged people to bring their interview notes. While our goal was an inviting, comfortable environment for the conversation, we received also “thank yous” for also creating a sensory-friendly environment, which will be part of our considerations moving forward.

5. Implemented a Bias Check

We wanted to ensure that there was an intentional part of the process that invited us to surface and reflect on our conscious and unconscious biases throughout. We designed a pre- and post-interview bias check sheet that asks simple questions to help the interviewer assess how they’re feeling walking into the conversation and following the interview. Whether these biases lead to positive or negative perceptions of the candidate, they still impact our impressions and how we’re showing up in the space. The bias check was intended to help us recognize, assess, and challenge our assumptions which is helpful when evaluating and discussing next steps with the team. 

To reduce bias in comparing interviews and help with equitable evaluation of candidates, we’re also trialing an inclusive screening and interview rubric process in our upcoming recruitment round. 

6. Invited an Interview of IONS and Feedback

I’ve always appreciated the concept of candidates “interviewing the company” as it helps shift the power imbalance and the mindset. During the interview, there was dedicated time for candidates to share. We invited interviewees to ask us questions that helped them assess the organization for values alignment and guide a decision on whether they want to choose IONS as an employer.  

We also asked for and openly accepted feedback from all interview candidates about the process. To remove another layer of the power dynamic, next time we’ll ideally provide an anonymous form so people can feel safe sharing candidly. 

Human-centered Practices as the Norm

Interviews take time and energy, requiring many team hours and assumed time commitments from applicants. Honouring everyone’s time and participation goes a long way. There are more conversations to be had and practices to explore, but the feedback we’ve received has been incredibly encouraging and heartwarming. I am proud to have contributed to a positive experience for others and to be part of a team that’s actively seeking change.  

As we continue crafting approaches that prioritize people, how can we resist capitalist, colonial practices and engrained ideas to ensure we’re providing equitable opportunities and a space for everyone to show up authentically? The best way to show that your workplace values people is by valuing people in everything that you do. 

Written by:

Lydia Phillip

Communications Manager

Lydia oversees IONS’ external communications, branding, social media, and website development. She creates content and contributes to IONS’ work through championing the sector through her power in writing and storytelling. 


  1. Dear Lydia,
    You wrote a great post on traditional interviews. I would like to add a thought to the hiring process, which may also help inform the conversation (previously known as the interview).
    If we treat the conversations as a chance to test values – and I believe we should – I think we get one piece backwards: the reference check. I want to hire someone that is honest and reliable. Why not check references on the finalists, and ask about honesty and reliability? Insights from the references may be topics of conversation with the candidates.
    If you were to ask me a traditional question, “what is your greatest strength?” I could honestly say “my references.” But unless I’m the number 1 preferred candidate, the traditional hiring process is not going to speak with them about my honest, reliability or integrity.
    What do you and your readers think?

    • Hi, Andre! That’s certainly a fair point. The reference checks are usually done as a “final check” before moving forward with a candidate, but perhaps there’s a way to weave more relational aspects like these into the process as well. – Lydia