Conducting Interviews Like Detective Columbo
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Conducting Interviews Like Detective Columbo

Conducting Interviews Like Detective Columbo

The following article is an excerpt from John DiJulius' new book, The Employee Experience Revolution: Increase Morale, Retain Your Workforce, and Drive Business Growth

Hiring new employees should not be your top priority. Instead, focus on creating an amazing internal culture with high morale and low turnover. High employee attention will produce high employee retention, which is much easier and less expensive than recruiting new employees. What happens when you hire amazing people is that they are disappointed when they must work with mediocre people. Every time you select someone, your culture gets better or worse.

Hire for the heart, train for the part

When great brands look for great employees, they value their will more than their skill. If they have the will, they can teach them the skill. If you want happy employees, only hire happy people. Be picky; hold out for people who ooze enthusiasm and positivity. Negative people are like a virus that spreads quickly.

It is too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few ‘B’ players, and they then attract a few more ‘B’ players, and soon you will even have some ‘C’ players.  ‘A’ players like to work only with other ‘A’ players; you can’t indulge ‘B’ players.
– Steve Jobs

Interviewing can be extremely intimidating for the potential candidate. When we interview someone, we consider it an anti-interview. We love to help get the candidates’ guard down, get them relaxed and in conversation mode, forgetting all the prepared canned answers they have rehearsed.

We will start the interview with something like, “Lisa before we get started, I see you graduated from Aurora High School. I know a lot of people from there. I hear great things about that school. Did you enjoy it? Did you know Mrs. Francis, who teaches Spanish?” This gets the candidate talking about her school, teachers, and the activities she was involved in. It allows the interviewer to take the conversation down many rabbit holes.

Interview like Detective Columbo

Gold is in the rabbit holes. You can find out so much from jumping conversations and seeing patterns: Is this person genuinely happy? Are they positive or negative? Were they a victim? Did they not play because the coach had favorites who weren’t as good? While this entire conversation is happening, the potential employee subconsciously thinks the interview hasn’t started yet. From the moment they walk into the building, they are on stage; the interview has started. We call it the Detective Columbo interview style.

Lieutenant Columbo, portrayed by Peter Falk in the 1970s TV show “Columbo,” employs a unique method of interrogation that has proven effective beyond law enforcement. His technique involves two steps: first, encouraging the subject to open up and speak freely, and second, seamlessly introducing the critical question into the conversation.

Get them talking

Columbo initiates his interactions with relaxed and broad questions, creating a comfortable atmosphere that encourages open communication. His unkempt appearance and meandering walk convey a sense of harmlessness, while his seemingly perplexed mannerisms when he speaks reinforce the perception of his incompetence, solidifying the initial impression that he poses no threat. Compared to other more intimidating police officers, his demeanor is amiable, offering a pleasant break. His trivial banter puts people further at ease, leading them to willingly participate in conversations that divert their attention, all while he subtly steers the discussion.

Slip In the real question

Once the individual is at ease and a strong rapport has been established, Columbo skillfully introduces a question pertaining to his actual area of interest. Another tactic he employs, particularly when the individual’s guard is lowered, is to pose a final inquiry right as he is making his exit. At this point, the person being interrogated has mentally concluded the interaction and is anticipating the relief of solitude. Consequently, Columbo’s unexpected question surprises them, prompting an unguarded response as they aim to conclude the interaction swiftly.

An article on motivational interviewing (MI) via the Australian Mental Health Academy describes the “Columbo approach” this way: “Proponents of motivational interviewing owe a debt of gratitude to the 1970s television series ‘Columbo’…[Columbo] was a master of the skill of ‘deploying discrepancies,’ and MI therapists/practitioners can use the same skill to get clients to help them make sense of their (the clients’) discrepancies.”

In an interview with the Times newspaper, British forensic psychologist and professor Ray Bull mentioned how British police use an “investigative interviewing technique.” These interviews sound much more like a chat in a bar. It’s a lot like the old “Columbo” show, where he pretends to be an idiot but gathers a lot of evidence.

John R. DiJulius III, author of The Customer Service Revolution, is president of The DiJulius Group, a customer service consulting firm that works with companies including Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Ritz-Carlton, Nestle, PwC, Lexus, and many more. Contact him at 216-839-1430 or

Published: July 9th, 2024

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