Good Questions to Ask in an Interview
In the post- or almost post-pandemic world of work, managers are focusing on talent . . . again.
One reason for this is that it’s easier to do that than it is to find people who have the right attitude. Another reason is that they’re probably more familiar with that approach.
A third reason could be that it seems easier to compare like with like. Ask everyone the same interview questions, and then compare the answers. The person with the most “right” ones wins.
That being the case, you have to wonder why some of the most popular questions are asked at all. Pre-pandemic, the workplace was very different, and so the “tried and tested” questions asked then may be no longer relevant.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the questions that you’ve probably asked in the past, and consider some good alternatives.
Why is this important?
You may be wondering why it’s so important to think about revamping your interview questions. And the answer is that it’s because getting the right people in your organization is the most important thing that you can do. If you ask the wrong questions, then you’ll have no chance of doing that, no matter how talented they are.
Of course, if you hire simply on the basis of the first 30 seconds that the candidate is in the room, as many managers do - which means that you’ve made an emotional, rather than a rational choice - then you might as well put all the names in a hat and draw one out while blindfolded.
Why interview at all?
Before considering the old questions, however, it’s worth remembering why you interview anyone at all.
The primary purpose must be two-fold: First, it’s to see if the person would be a good fit; that is, that there’s a chemistry between them and you, and the people they’ll be working with and for. The second reason is to learn more about someone than what is on their CV.
This second reason means that the interview should expand your knowledge of the candidate. Of course, this presupposes that you’ve actually become familiar with their CV beforehand.
Some irrelevant questions
Tell me about yourself
The purpose of this “question” is intended to be a bit of an ice-breaker. It’s supposed to give interviewees the opportunity to talk about something they’re familiar with and to put them at ease. It can, however, have the opposite affect because it’s so open-ended that they don’t know where to start. Unless they’re very good storytellers, which probably has nothing to do with the job, you probably won’t learn anything of value.
Before you ask this one, ask yourself a different one: What will you learn about this person that is relevant for the job which they’ve applied for?
How did you hear about this position?
Unless you’re in the HR department and are trying to identify the next place to market your vacancies, then it doesn’t matter.
You need to ask yourself the same question as you did for the first one: How will the answer the interviewee gives help you to hire the right person?
Why do you want to work for us?
Almost without exception, the possible answers are self-evident: They want to work where they can get experience to further develop their careers; or they need the money, though it’s unlikely that they’ll say so; or they like the hours or the perks; or they want the prestige that comes with the job or the company; or they’ve heard good things about you. But rarely will someone give you an answer that makes them stand out from everyone else as being the best candidate.
And so again, the question you should ask yourself is, why does this matter? What answer could they possibly give that would make any difference at all?
Why should we hire you?
It’s amazing that more candidates don’t simply walk out of interviews when this question is asked.
Because it suggests that you’re not acting in good faith.
Do you or don’t you have a vacancy? And are you or are you not seriously considering this candidate. If the answer is “yes” to both of them, then why do you insult people by asking them to justify their application?
What do expect people to say?
They can’t tell you that they’re better qualified in most cases or have more experience than anyone else because unless the field is very small indeed, they’ll have no idea who has applied.
So you have to ask yourself this: Why shouldn’t you hire this person? If they’re qualified enough to get to the interview, then you must think that they at least have the potential to be selected.
What is your greatest strength/weakness?
The CV will point out the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses, and all but the most naive interviewees won’t claim to be either perfect for you or utter catastrophes. So what does this teach you about them?
Why is there a gap in your employment?
This question reveals the ignorance of interviewers.
Managers seem to have developed selective amnesia on this one, forgetting, or trying not to remember, that they’re the ones who told everyone in the 1980s that no one had a job for life. And that being the case, there will be gaps in most people’s CVs.
Sometimes gaps occur because they’re in-between jobs or contracts, or they’ve decided to take some extended time off, or to try something new. But it’s unreasonable to expect that people in general will have a track record of continuous employment.
Those days are over.
What is your current salary?
The correct answer is that it’s none of your business.
You as a hiring manager already know what the current job is worth, so offer it. It’s up to the interviewee to decide whether to accept it or not.
How much of a team player are you?
Given that teams have been all the rage for the past 30+ years, nearly everyone is going to answer that they are to one degree or another. That means that that question, and others like it, are irrelevant.
Now that we’ve identified some of unhelpful questions, let’s look at a few that will actually enhance your understanding of the person you’re going to interview.
Why do you want to leave your current position?
It could be that the person is looking to make a career move, and the opportunities aren’t available where they work now. That’s a legitimate answer. It reveals that person’s ambitions and goals. It tells you that this person is thinking ahead, which is just the sort of candidate you should be looking for.
Or they’re dissatisfied with their supervisor. Now before you blow this off, recognize that the vast majority of people change their jobs for this reason. Research has shown this to be true for decades.
You could ask a followup question, such as, “What in your opinion do good supervisors do?” The answer will reveal to some extent how aware they are of leadership and management skills. And wouldn’t you like to know how well they understand that?
If the person admits they were sacked, then don’t ask them point blank why, or what happened. Instead, ask them what they learned from it. Those who learned the most are also likely to be the most humble about it, rather than defensive. This, too, can be very revealing. Humble people are more willing to learn than those who think they already have all the answers.
Remember that you want employees who are teachable. No one’s perfect, so don’t expect them to be.
“Tell me about the best and worst bosses you’ve had.”
The way the interviewee answers this question will reveal to you what they expect in a good boss. It’s your annual report viewed in advance. It’s the standard to which they’ll hold you. You can learn a lot about them and yourself with this one.
How will this job help you to reach your goals?
This could be a follow-up question to the first one about why they want to leave their current position. It gives them the opportunity to expand on the future they see for themselves.
And there will be people who haven’t really thought about this, which is revealing for a different reason.
This question is the flip-side of “why should we hire you” which tells you nothing about the person. The “why should we hire you” puts people on the defensive; but asking them how the position will help them to reach their goals should put a positive spin on why they applied to work for you.
There are other ways that you could ask it, too. For example, you could say, “How will this job help you to develop your career?” Or, “How does this job fit into your life plan?”
Because almost no one has a job for life, all employees will be with you for some period of time, probably no more than three to five years, and then they’ll move on. Questions like this will help you to understand how you fit in to their career.
Tell me about your last job
The purpose of this question is to gain an understanding of what they learned during the time that they worked in their previous position. It’s not important to know when that was. If they can articulate how they benefited from the experience, then it’s recent enough to be important because they’ve remembered the lessons.
So you could say, “Tell me about your last job. What did you learn from working there?” Or, “In what ways did you grow?”
“Tell me about a time when you were working on a project and something went wrong. What did you do?”
You have to be careful with this one. On the one hand, it can tell you a lot about how this person deals with unexpected problems. On the other hand, it’s possible that they haven’t worked on enough projects for something really critical to occur. Equally, the team of which they were a part may have simply worked around everything such that whatever occurred was of no consequence.
This is probably a good follow-up question to ask at such a time as when the interviewee reveals something about a previous assignment that leads you to believe that a serious problem had occurred.
“Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a decision that was made. What did you do?”
A good answer is that they expressed their reasons for why they disagreed, but complied anyway. Another good answer, however, is that they didn’t comply because it violated their principles or values. They may have even resigned over the issue. This teaches you about their “red lines.”
“What did you like about a past job? What did you dislike about a past job?”
No job is perfect. Even if you’re the business owner or an employee who is “living the dream,” there will be parts of your job that you dislike or prefer not to do. In fact, if you have the resources, you may have already outsourced those tasks.
And so when you ask what someone liked or disliked about their last job, the answer can give you insight into the contributions they can make or the problems that may result.
“How many unexcused absences do you feel are acceptable for a policy to be fair?”
In a way, this is something of a loaded question. Ideally, you probably want them to say, “none.” But even with smartphones, it’s not always possible to notify someone in advance, never mind in a timely manner, to say that you won’t be at work, or you’ll be late.
A good answer is that it depends on the circumstances, and that as a candidate, you’d prefer there not to be any, though emergencies do occur.
The answer that an interviewee gives will reflect their own attitudes towards personal responsibility and flexibility.
“What hobbies do you have? How do you pursue them in the lockdowns or times when activity is restricted?”
The answer given could show the candidate’s creative side. Some hobbies can’t be pursued because they’re outside of the house or contrary to the Government’s rules. In these cases, it’s worth finding out how people spend their spare time. Those who read improving books, for instance, are likely to have more initiative than those who watch TV all day.
There are many other questions that you can ask people that will teach you a great deal about the suitability of a candidate for the vacancies that you have, though a large number - many of which are popular - can leave you just as much in the dark as you were before the interview.
And that means that before you interview anyone, you need to make a list of the questions you’re going to ask, and then underneath each one make some notes about what you expect to learn from the answer. This should help you to ask good questions. You can even make some notes about what you’re looking for.
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