In a tight job market, where a day’s delay can mean the difference between hiring a great candidate and missing out, it can be tempting to pursue applicants primarily because they look promising on paper.
In fact, harried recruiters admit that they often cut their part of the interview process short to move potential employees along faster to frustrated hiring managers. Trying to fill positions that may have remained open for many months, managers then whiz through interviews, allowing those with strong resumes who can talk a good game to step into the empty seats. Unfortunately, such haste often leads to costly hiring mistakes when it becomes clear that the new employees lack critical skills or are a poor fit.
There is a better way. “When they are doing their jobs effectively, interviewers know that the best way to coax detailed responses is to ask behavioral questions,” says Paul Falcone, an author and vice president of human resources at the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif. “For example, if you ask ‘What do you like least about your current job?’ and the individual answers ‘Having to fire people,’ then the interviewer can open up that can of worms by discussing the last time that happened, the circumstances and results.”
Conversely, relying solely on a handful of superficial questions without digging deeper does a disservice to all involved, Falcone says.
A proven approach to uncovering how people have performed in the past and what they really think about the available opportunity is to make three assessments during interviews:
- Recognize candidates who are great interviewees but not much more.
- Gauge which person will be the best fit based on experience and temperament.
- Identify which individual really wants the job and can excel in it.
“One of the typical mistakes made by smart job candidates is to think they can just ‘wing it’ because they’re smart, and they’ll get away with it if interviewers let them,” says Wendy Enelow, an executive resume writer and author in Coleman Falls, Va. “The truth is that nothing beats preparation. Truly committed candidates will rehearse answering tricky career-related questions so that they can respond to them confidently, but it usually takes a series of good questions over time to separate people who interview well from those who will fill the position best.”
To that end, here are 10 classic questions that interviewers should be ready to ask each job candidate, regardless of the position they’re trying to fill, as well as tips on how to interpret the answers and follow up effectively.
1. Can you tell me a little about yourself?
Many interviewers start this way not only to gather information but also as a way of assessing each candidate’s poise, delivery style and communication ability.
“If the candidate launches into a mini-speech about his or her childhood, schooling, hobbies, early career, and personal likes and dislikes, it only took you one query to realize you probably don’t have a strong fit,” Falcone says. “A meandering answer that takes him or her down rabbit holes raises a legitimate concern that the individual may have a difficult time compartmentalizing responses.”
To be sure, not staying on script could be fine if the person only digresses for 30 seconds. “But it becomes super problematic if that side story goes on for two or three minutes,” Falcone says. “The recruiter wants to get to know the real person but at the same time keep the conversation relevant and on point as far as the individual’s career experiences and qualifications.”
2. Why did you leave your previous employer (or why do you want to leave your present job)? Look for honesty and transparency in the answer. Many talented employees lose their jobs in layoffs, so suppress any desire to stigmatize those who were part of a downsizing.
However, if the individual offers a vague reference to differing opinions or the arrival of a new boss, dig deeper for possible performance issues that can be verified through reference checking. “As you listen to each answer, look for a situational context within which you can judge the individual’s decision-making abilities, decisiveness and ability to work in concert with others,” Falcone says.
For currently employed candidates, seek sound explanations for why they’re searching for greater opportunities, challenges or responsibilities. If that includes transitioning into a new industry, find out why they’re attempting to make that change. See if the answer is credible and ties into the new job’s short- and long-term responsibilities. Of course, applicants who can refocus the discussion to how their skill set matches the current position are ready for the next question.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Screening and Evaluating Candidates]
3. What are your greatest strengths?
This is an interviewing stalwart (along with the next question) that every applicant should be ready to hit out of the park. “It should tell you a lot if they don’t,” Enelow says.
Look for answers that briefly summarize work experiences and the strongest qualities and achievements that are directly related to the duties of the open job. Make a note of candidates who cite skills such as self-motivation, initiative and the ability to work in a team. Think twice about those who focus on perceived strengths “that might not carry much weight in your work environment,” she says, such as an eagerness to handle assignments not covered in the job description or an interest in returning to school to study a field unrelated to the opportunity.
4. What are your weaknesses?
Of course, few applicants are so honest and self-aware that they’ll share an accurate overview of their deficits. Smart interviewees try to turn the question around and present a personal weakness as a professional strength. For instance, micromanaging workaholics who drive their colleagues crazy may present themselves as meticulous, dedicated workers. Ask for detailed, specific examples of their workplace interactions with colleagues to get a sense of whether they’re hiding a difficult personality.
Savvier candidates will talk about how they’re taking steps to improve themselves. An accountant, for example, might explain how he’s working to bolster his knowledge of payroll procedures by enrolling in courses at a local college, while an IT professional could outline the additional certifications she’s targeting.
5. What can you tell me about our company and industry?
Nothing should eliminate a person from consideration faster than a lack of research into the employer’s business lines, locations, customer base and company culture.
“I don’t take these applicants seriously because they obviously don’t take the interview process seriously,” says Falcone, who suggests that interviewers should dig for more than superficial answers that could have been gleaned from a five-minute review of the company’s website.
“Even at the entry level, while a candidate may not know much about a company, there are multiple opportunities to research the organization in advance of the in-person meeting thanks to Google, Glassdoor and the company’s website,” he says. “I often refer to this as the ‘candidate desire factor,’ which can serve as a significant swing factor in the ultimate selection.”
6. What do/did you like most and least about your present/most recent position?
Look for answers that are specific and relevant to the open position. Job seekers who say “it was an easy commute” or “the benefits were great” will likely be job hunting again soon. Instead, identify people who value the same workplace qualities that your company has, such as those who are seeking opportunities on the cutting edge of technology or those who can create teams with strong camaraderie.
When discussing the least-liked aspects of their present or previous job, applicants who mention areas of responsibility that are far removed from the functions of the available job may do well in the position you’re hiring for. And, Enelow says, those who say they performed an undesirable assignment well or who learned something useful show that they can stick with tasks, even ones that don’t particularly interest them.
7. What isn’t on your resume?
Applicants who prepare well for interviews and are smooth enough not to sound too rehearsed can be thrown by this inquiry since it requires them to talk about something other than work experiences.
“When I ask this question, I’m often told by candidates that they’ve never been asked that before,” says Luong Phu, a senior technical recruiter with Auris Surgical Robotics in San Carlos, Calif. “A few struggle and can’t think of an answer, but I often hear terrific responses from some candidates who really showcase their soft skills,” as well as talk about what’s most important to them in their personal lives, he says.
8. Aren’t you underqualified/overqualified for this position (depending on their past experience)?
Smart interviewees who might technically be underqualified focus on the experiences and skill sets they’ll bring to the position and the value they’ll deliver. However, this is a question that often leads to lengthy explanations that can offer real insights into a person’s true motivations, good and bad, for seeking the job, Enelow says.
Conversely, as highly qualified Baby Boomers age, it’s not uncommon for them to seek a position with lesser responsibilities where they can be a strong team player and a mentor to younger employees. So, depending on the position, don’t automatically count overqualification against a candidate.
9. Do you have any questions? Can you think of anything else you’d like to add?
Beware of candidates who say “no” or that everything has been thoroughly discussed, Enelow says. Now is the time for them to re-emphasize why they’re the most logical choice for the opening by asking key questions they’ve prepared and haven’t had a chance to voice. Those who want to learn more about the company’s professional development opportunities or ask what you personally like best about working there are looking for insights to help them decide whether to accept an offer if it’s extended.
10. Has your perception of this opportunity changed based on our interview?
Too many recruiters have been lured into thinking that a candidate who fared well in an interview is ready to take the job. And even worse, they’ve been burned by people who accepted an offer but later changed their minds or even failed to show up on day one. This question is designed to help weed out those who weren’t serious to begin with or who heard something during the interview that didn’t sit well with them.
“This is usually the last question I ask,” says Bimi Menegatti, human resources manager with Enovity, a building engineering company in San Francisco. “The answer to this tells you whether the person really understands what they will be doing. Have they asked the right questions to learn more about the position, and were there any misunderstandings that need to be cleared up?”
A “yes” response to this question is a promising sign. “The candidate likely has a vague understanding of the job when they walk in, but they should have a good understanding when they leave,” Menegatti adds.
While these 10 questions should separate serious “A” players from the rest, be ready to make additional inquiries tied to the specific duties and requirements of the job. Work closely with hiring managers to develop these questions, and dive into the details needed to distinguish the finalists from the others.
“Working through a detailed list of solid questions will help you identify candidates who have a positive attitude, are competent and confident, and have a calmness under fire, which demonstrates that they can handle whatever emerges on the job,” Enelow says.
Tony Lee is vice president of editorial for SHRM.
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