I first learned about the “airport test” from a hiring manager during an informational interview.
What’s the airport test, you ask? Well, in addition to candidates having the qualifications and technical skills to do the job, the manager asked herself after each interview: “Would I want to be stuck in an airport with this person?”
Although this seems irrelevant to your credentials and the talent you could bring to the team, let’s face it: There is only so much that behavioral questions like, “Tell me your greatest weakness,” will reveal to your future employer. And admittedly, the predicted future success of a candidate isn’t always directly correlated to the answers given to standard interviewing questions.
In fact, most employers actually want to gain a better understanding of who you are outside of these cookie-cutter answers. They want to know how you’ll fit in with the team culture, the “soft” skills you bring to the table, and whether or not they could see themselves getting along with you, especially if you will be spending a lot of time together. (In this hiring manager’s case, it paid off—while traveling for work, she was once stuck for hours in a New York airport with a staff member.)
Believe it or not, the airport test is probably on your future supervisor’s mind, too. So, how do you pass it? Here are three rules to follow.
Don’t Skip the Small Talk
I’ve found myself having conversations ranging from hobbies to the latest Netflix series with my future supervisor (and her supervisor) during an interview. Very rarely during the luncheon was the conversation pointed toward the office or the position for which I was interviewing, and it was intentional.
What did they want to know? I later asked my supervisor just that. Through these added conversations, she wanted to see if I would connect with the team. Was I interesting? Personable? Could she see herself grabbing a cup of joe with me on the way into work? At meetings, would I embarrass her in front of a client, or would I serve as a friendly, likeable representation of the company?
Whether it’s over a meal or interspersed in a regular interview, you may be surprised to hear a question or two that has zero relevance to the necessary credentials for the position. (What does your interest in fly-fishing have to do with your ability to manage a million dollar marketing campaign? Um, nothing.)
But remember, your interviewers might feel they can get a better glimpse of your character and personality through some of these questions as opposed to the standard ones. So, don’t skip the small talk or necessarily try to move as quickly as possible back to the job at hand. A more casual conversation is a chance to get to know the person beyond practiced answers.
But Keep it Professional
That said, you can absolutely flunk the airport test by being boring or inappropriate. So, it’s crucial to be prepared to answer things like, “What do you do for fun outside of work?" or “Do you have personal interests or passions?" in addition to the more relevant questions.
As you would review and prepare examples of work experiences for an interview, take stock of what you do in your free time. Do you play intramural sports? Volunteer? Read? What would you feel comfortable sharing, and what might be things you want to keep personal? For instance, if you spend part of your weekend supporting a political campaign and are unsure if your personal view will spark debate, it may be best to avoid that topic. On the other hand, if you’re are an avid bird watcher and just spent a week in the Amazon, that might be a good source of conversation with just about anyone in the room, regardless of whether they share that interest.
Here’s a personal example: An interview question I received once was, “What was the last book you read for pleasure?” Unknown to my interviewer, this was unfortunate timing (and, er, phrasing). The last book my book club had selected was Fifty Shades of Grey. Certainly not the type of response I wanted to stand as witness to my outside-of-the-workplace character review. Instead, I responded with my second most recent read, which was much more polished, professional, and interesting. (For the record, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.)
Keep this in mind: Although you should always be authentic in an interview, there is some room to filter your answers and remain selectively professional. Choose those answers that represent the best of you in the interview.
Don’t Forget to Network
Finally, remember that the airport test goes beyond your future manager. Often, companies include an outing or group meeting as part of the interview, ranging from a team breakfast to a casual event at the bar. This is basically a chance for everyone else to get to know you and see how you’d fit in on the team, but it’s also a great way to make a good impression outside of the suit.
So, make sure that you're not just trying to impress the other employees, but that you’re engaging with them. Get to know them, and ask questions about what they love about the company. See what you have in common, and share what makes you interesting both inside and outside of the workplace. (Also, remember that your actions and conversations will still carry weight in the deciding factor of who gets hired—and people will definitely take note if you’re having one too many Chardonnays at the open bar.) But letting your guard down a bit and really talking to people? You never know—it just may set you apart from other candidates.
Yes, you always want to put your best foot forward with your credentials and ability to do the job. But remember, everyone wants to like who they work with. So, you’ll likely have an additional layer of evaluation which seeks to answer whether you’re someone the team wants to hang out with at happy hour—or could survive being stuck at an airport with. Be prepared to talk about both your personal and professional experiences, no matter where you are in the interview, and hopefully you will pass with flying colors.