THE TOP 13 INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Interview questions by Susan Martin - Features by Julia Paulus Ogilvie
Early on in the life of a business, the entrepreneur in charge is often an expert at what that business does but not at what goes into running the business. One challenge for new business owners, along with the most seasoned, is finding and hiring top talent.
1. Why did you get into this line of work?
Over the past few years, human resource expert and St. Louis Small Business Monthly columnist Susan Martin has shared her best advice on how to conduct the interview process and find the right new employee. Below is a compilation of the top 13 interview questions Martin suggests that business owners ask and what each will tell you about a candidate.
Note: The wording of Martin’s questions may reveal information that wouldn’t otherwise come out. Make sure to follow her open-ended format.
Why ask: Probing an applicant’s career interests and ambitions will give insight into the individual’s motivation and conviction regarding her field of work as well as the position in question.
Follow-up questions: Start with broad questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask increasingly specific questions that reveal detail and get at the truth behind the initial answer. “Why did you major in _____ rather than _____?” “What aspect of your work life do you feel passionate about?” “What aspects of your career have not lived up to your expectations?”
What to listen for: Focus on the candidate’s reasons for choosing his field of work. Are the reasons compatible with his successive work experiences and with the requirements of the position? Does he show enthusiasm when describing previous jobs? Do the applicant’s questions about the open position reflect a sincere interest in the job, or do the questions simply indicate a desire to get a foot in the door? Answers to these questions may be clues about how long the candidate will be happy to stick around as an employee.
2. Describe a situation in your job when a co-worker’s behavior resulted in bad teamwork?
Why ask: What you’re looking for is the candidate’s conflict resolution skills. Much can be learned about a person’s own behavior by the way he or she describes others.
Follow-up questions: “How did you deal with the situation?” “If you were the manager and needed to solve the problem, how would you have handled it?” “Tell me about a time when you’ve pulled the team together.” “How have you built morale?” By asking increasingly specific questions, you can reveal details behind the candidate’s initial answer.
What to listen for: Frequently the problem behaviors that candidates mention in their answers do not apply to the candidate. How specific and objective is the candidate’s description of the problem behavior? The more precise the interviewee’s response, the greater his or her chances of resolving conflict.
Use silence effectively: It may seem uncomfortable, but silence provides time for the applicant to think. Wait out the silence while looking expectantly at the interviewee. Sensing that more information is desired, a candidate often will provide more pertinent information than anticipated.
3. Tell me about a time you took a risk in your job and failed?
Why ask: Past performance is usually the best indicator of how a candidate would likely handle a similar situation in your organization. How an individual rebounds from a failed experience can be evidence of his or her character and fortitude.
Follow-up questions: “In what ways has the failed experience affected how you approach new opportunities? Describe lessons learned.” Weaker job candidates are more likely to generalize when answering. It’s hard to tell exactly what they learned and why. Stronger candidates usually are specific about what they learned.
What to listen for: The candidate should be able to cite a specific example. (If the candidate says he or she has never failed, this may be a red flag.) Listen for ways the candidate takes (or doesn’t take) responsibility for the outcome. Does the candidate portray a victim attitude rather than a survivor temperament? In addition to listening to answers to your specific questions, listen for ways the candidate conveys the qualities and attributes that you are looking for in all your team members.
4. In previous jobs, what typically has been on your to-do list on your first day of work?
Why ask: If the abilities to plan, to anticipate priorities and to have a “take-charge” attitude are important skills for the open position (derived from the job description), asking the candidate to verbalize first-day priorities may be revealing. Determining the right fit is more than a gut feel. Use of behavior-based interview questions is built from the concept that the best predictor of future performance is past behavior. Ask questions that pull upon past examples of when competencies were in play so that the interviewee will respond with examples of how the situation was handled.
Follow-up questions: “Tell me how you determined the most important tasks.” “How did you find the resources you needed?”
A frequent mistake: Be careful to phrase behavior-based questions in the past tense rather than the future tense. Asking “What would you do in this situation?” is not as effective as asking “What did you do?” because it’s easier for the candidate to make up the answer. Usually you will receive a more accurate response if you use past tense because it’s harder for most people to create details of a past event.
5. Have you ever had several projects with the same deadline? How did you handle that?
Why ask: Open-ended questions that do not suggest a particular answer will tell you what the person considers important. How the job candidate tackles the challenges of multiple deadlines can give an understanding of organizational and communication skills, coping strategies, and adaptability and flexibility when handling simultaneous projects.
Follow-up questions: “What resources or tools did you use and why?” “Can you walk me through the steps you took when dealing with multiple deadlines?” “What did you learn from the situation?”
What to listen for: The applicant should be able to cite specific examples. Listen to the reasons why a choice was made – the explanations can help you understand how the individual reasons and arrives at solutions. How does the candidate reveal openness to new approaches for accomplishing multiple tasks? Listen for ways the individual takes ownership for his or her actions and results.
Nonverbal cues: Encourage the candidate to be frank about previous experiences, and observe body language while he or she talks about emotional or stressful situations, e.g., rolling of the eyes, exasperated facial expressions.
6. Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer.
Why ask: Handling an irate customer is one of the truest tests of an individual’s customer service skills (and grit). Probing for examples of how the applicant reacts to negative customers gives insight into the individual’s abilities to defuse heated situations.
Follow-up questions: Pose the following situations that often result in a disgruntled customer: “If you had to turn down a request from a valued client, what would you do?” “How do you handle multiple customers at the same time?” “How do you respond to a customer when a popular item is repeatedly out of stock?” “Give me three examples of customers who made you angry.” “When you are frustrated with customers, how do you respond to them?”
What to listen for: The applicant should be able to manage customer complaints without becoming overwhelmed by a disapproving customer. Is there a desire to do something extra for the benefit of the customer? How does the individual show the ability to keep a balance between company policy and the interest of the customer? Listen for ways the candidate takes ownership of the solution to the problem.
7. Tell me about a time when you created an agreement from a situation in which all parties originally differed?
Why ask: One of the basic qualities of a great leader is the ability to bring out the best in people. During the interview, listen for ways the candidate is able to influence and inspire people to accomplish the common goals of the organization. Effective leadership is about recognizing and taking advantage of skills and talents from different people to form a cohesive unit.
Follow-up questions: “How do you communicate your vision for the company and create teamwork” (ask for specific examples)? “Describe a time when you led the efforts to reorganize a department or work unit. How did people respond to your leadership?” “What are the three most important values you demonstrate as a leader? Tell me a story that shows how you practice each value in your workplace.”
What to listen for: You are questioning to determine whether the candidate has leadership skills or warnings of a do-it-all-yourself hero. Listen to the applicant’s stories and examples to help you identify the person’s leadership style. Is it congruent with your company’s culture?
8. What have you done when you’ve found yourself behind schedule on your part of a project?
Why ask: If project schedules are an important component of the job in question, being able to rely on someone to meet project deadlines is critical. The candidate’s responses may give clues about his/her self-management, level of emotional maturity, reliability and work ethic.
Follow-up questions: “Describe how you organized and began your part of a group project. What tools and resources did you use to manage the project? When your schedule started to derail, what did you do? How did this make you feel? What did you do next? Did you ever consider giving up? What did you learn from the situation?”
What to listen for: How does the candidate take responsibility for his or her actions? Does the candidate blame others? Is there a willingness to ask for help to get back on track to meet the deadline? Does the candidate design and use a backup plan? To encourage the individual to share more information, try using a neutral response to prevent biasing the answer, e.g., “Uh-huh” (followed by a few moments of silence) or “Could you explain what you mean?”
9. Tell me about a split-second decision you made on the job. How did you approach it?
Why ask: Quick problem solving allows no time for analysis and is not the preferred approach to strategic decisions. However, most jobs have at least a few situations that require an employee to make split-second decisions. It’s the ability to “think on your feet” and make the right decision to save the situation. Split-second decisions are based on a limited number of key factors as well as the individual’s past experience, intuition and knowledge.
Follow-up questions: “Why did you select one course of action over another in making your decision?” “What past experiences and knowledge did you rely upon to make the quick decision?” “If you had the chance for a ‘do-over,’ what would you change about your decision?” “What skills do you possess that help you make quick decisions?” “What decision-making skills would you like to improve and why?” “Describe how you might improve your skills.”
What to listen for: What level of reasoning does the candidate use in his/her example? Does the applicant use logical thinking? When describing his/her decision-making skills, does the candidate mention critical thinking, logic, reasoning, informed opinions and/or problem-solving techniques? How easily is the applicant able to self-assess and verbalize strengths and areas for improvement?
10. Describe a time when you initiated action to solve a problem?
Why ask: A qualification frequently included in job descriptions is the ability to be a “self-starter.” What does that really mean, and why is it an important competency? Being a self-starter requires initiative – recognizing what needs to be done and accomplishing it proactively and with minimal supervision. For certain positions this may be essential in order to successfully perform the job.
Follow-up questions: “Give me a specific example of when none of your supervisors were available to direct you on a project or problem. How did you approach the situation so you could continue your work?” “Describe a time when you took charge and started the ball rolling to get a job done. What were the ramifications if the job didn’t get done? How did it turn out?” “Share a situation in which you identified a problem and took action to correct it rather than wait for someone else to do so.”
What to listen for: Listen for the thought process the interviewee uses when taking on a task. Is it logical? Is there a sense of confidence? Are available resources used creatively? How does the candidate gain support for his or her initiatives? Is there a pattern of barriers that are frequently blamed for the failure to take initiative?
11. How do you hold yourself and others accountable for delivering high-quality results?
Why ask? Results-driven behaviors are often found on the A-lists of desired skills and core competencies for managers and team leaders. A results-oriented individual creates a work environment that fosters achievement.
Follow-up questions: “Tell about a time when your department wasn’t meeting goals. What actions did you take? Describe ways you developed a sense of urgency in others to complete tasks. How did you overcome setbacks and not become distracted by lower-priority activities?” “Explain how you challenge yourself – and others – to raise the bar on performance.” “What are some examples of ways you model high work standards and demand the same from others?” “How do you criticize mediocre or poor performance?”
What to listen for: Does the candidate know how to prioritize issues and set goals? Are opportunities for success recognized and acted upon? How does the candidate demonstrate perseverance in the face of adversity? Does the interviewee avoid confrontation or seize the opportunity in order to move projects forward? What changes did the individual effect in her/his current company?
12. Tell me what you have done on a consistent basis to ensure that your direct reports feel valued for their contributions?
Why ask: The quality of the supervisor-employee relationship constitutes the fabric of any department. If relationships fall apart, the entire operation is weakened. The ability to build a good relationship with an employee is the best way to close the employee’s productivity gap.
Follow-up questions: “Give an example of how you celebrated an individual’s success.” “Tell me about a time when you missed an opportunity to recognize a direct report’s accomplishment. What did you do?” “Describe how you handled a time when you realized one of your direct reports was overburdened with work. How did your actions affect the situation?” “How have you integrated new members into your team?”
What to listen for: No matter how many responsibilities a supervisor may have, one must take priority over all others: the responsibility for the condition of any given employee relationship. What behaviors indicate how the candidate values and places importance on the supervisor-employee relationship? What initiatives does the job candidate take to build and maintain productive relationships with employees? Does the interviewee tend to blame the direct report in situations that fail – or does he/she assume responsibility?
13. Tell me why you’re leaving your job?
Why ask? This type of open-ended question gives insight about the candidate’s general attitude and company loyalty and what he/she values most about work.
What to listen for: Given the fact that the No. 1 reason people look for a new job is to escape from a “bad” boss or poor leadership, listen for clues about the interviewee’s relationship with his or her supervisor or manager. Does the candidate use the interview to whine and play the “blame game”? If the reasons for leaving the current job include “poorly run organization” or “disagreed with company policies,” you might want to probe with further questioning. The responses may be warning signs of an employee relations problem.
Does the interviewee’s résumé show several jobs that lasted only a short time or gaps in employment history? Inability to provide a reasonable explanation could serve as a red flag with respect to a job applicant’s reliability. If the answer is because he/she needs a change, the search might be for something on a short-term basis.
What to do next: There may be good explanations for the applicant’s responses, but questioning that includes “tell me more” or “please clarify” is warranted. A thorough background and reference check also should be part of the selection process.
Get to Know the Candidate • John Marcus
John Marcus is now retired, but between 1970 and the time he left Matthews Medical Books, he grew the company from a $750,000 business to a $180 million company. How did he do it? Marcus believes much of his success and that of his company came down to hiring. “We had to hire good human beings,” says Marcus. “We didn’t hire for skill sets. Those can be learned. Character and quality can’t be learned.”
During interviews, the focus was on determining quality of character and cultural fit. “We worried less about what someone did before or where they ranked,” says Marcus. “We aimed to find out what the person liked to do and what culture they wanted to work in. We asked questions like, ‘What job would you write for yourself to do and why?’”
Marcus built on getting to know the candidate by skipping unnecessary formalities. “Don’t be cold and impersonal,” he says. “Some interviewers don’t even smile because they think that’s what they have to do. The interviewer has to be competent in their interviewing skills and act like they do in their organization.”
The bottom line for Marcus: Ask open-ended questions to get to know the person. “If a person is wrong for the business, it doesn’t make a difference if they are a wizard because they have to fit the culture,” he says. “We need to know if we have the kind of culture they like to see in a company.”
Start with Referrals • Kent Skornia
Krilogy, a wealth management firm that has grown to 25 employees over four years, is a small organization with a focus on two things when hiring: Can the candidate do the job, and can he or she fit the company culture? “For the second piece, we look at how each candidate will impact our culture every day,” says Kent Skornia, the firm’s founder. “We have a theory that you get to pick your friends. With that in mind, most of our hiring starts with referrals. We believe it’s the best way to find new staff members. We currently have amazing employees. Because they choose their friends, when they have a referral, we believe they will most likely be amazing too.”
With the value placed on employee opinion, potential new hires will meet with eight to 10 employees during the interview process. “Then we ask each employee what their gut feeling was and listen to that,” says Skornia.
In addition, at Krilogy, A-players must possess the capability to accomplish. “We look for that whether it’s athletic, personal, academic or professional accomplishments,” says Skornia. “We want people who can tell us what they have already accomplished, not just what they would like to because we hire to what we offer clients – getting things done.”
Overall, Skornia believes hiring mistakes happen when the company strays from its hiring theory. “Our employees must fit both criteria of getting the job done and fitting the culture,” he says. “For example, someone might be amazing for our culture, but if they can’t do the job, we can’t hire them. We have to stick to that mantra and we will be in good shape.”
Structure For Success • David Weller
For 15 years Leadership Alliance Inc. has had the goal of helping clients increase the return on investment for its human capital by acting as a guide through the selection, development and engagement of talented employees. Owned by the husband-and-wife team of David and Karen Weller, who both have doctorates in psychology, Leadership Alliance provides services including pre-employment testing, leadership development, succession planning, mentoring, competency development and team development.
While helping companies find A-players, Leadership Alliance takes the following steps:
•Takes the time to understand the job and the competencies needed to do the job at a high level
•Structures an assessment battery designed to measure those competencies
•Has the interview finalists complete the assessments
•Reports back strengths, areas for development and fit for the job to the hiring manager or HR
“Having assessed thousands of employees across a range of industries, we have benchmarks or success profiles we use to determine who the A-players are,” says Weller. “Sometimes we also work with our clients to create their own internal benchmarks using their top performers.”
Clearly, cultural differences between companies can affect who is deemed an A-player, but there are common traits all A-players have, according to David Weller. “The reality is being smart and able to think and learn on your feet is important,” he says. “Drive and motivation as well as the ability to get along with others is important. What really differentiates potential employees is the ability to handle conflict constructively. Many people either go over the top or avoid it altogether. Our assessments pick up all of this.”
Culture Is King • Gary Jaffe
Since Sandy Jaffe took over the Booksource, now GL Group, in 1974, culture has been king. GL Group now boasts four divisions, five facilities and 189 full-time employees, but as much as it has diversified, both its business and its focus have stayed niche.
When it comes to hiring, maintaining company culture still tops the list. The company’s hiring process includes two immediate culture checks.
“The first is a phone screen,” says Gary Jaffe, now president. “Through this we look for if the employee speaks well to their résumé and skills and if they are culturally a fit. If they make it past the phone screen, we then have a culture interview. We make sure that they are a good culture fit before we discuss their skills. Our third step is a profile assessment online, which measures the candidate against our current employee. After that we have a second interview, which is a skills interview. We do the culture-fit interview first because many people may have the right skills, so we can narrow down who fits our culture. To do this, we include many managers and employees in the process.”
Jaffe follows an old standby: Hire slow; fire fast. “Don’t let the need for a position dictate the speed in which you hire,” he says. “If you are on your sixth interview for a position and feeling pressure to hire, a candidate you may have originally passed on might start to look better. Make sure not to let that happen.”
Gain Employee Perspective • Ryan Mortland
Since starting MB Consulting, a managed IT service provider, 15 years ago, Ryan Mortland has taken his company’s HR and hiring processes from day to night. When his firm grew from 10 employees to more than 20, it became a necessity for Mortland. “We changed the process over the last four years with that growth,” he says. “We enrolled an HR consultant, which has helped take me out of the equation. Our consultant does the initial screening, and then the manager of a department and/or a team member does the first-round interview, looking at skill set, attitude and culture.”
While Mortland looks at skills set, he believes it can be trained but certain characteristics cannot. “You can’t train attitude or work ethic,” says Mortland. “The hire must have that and must be able to work as a part of the team. That’s the character we need to see.”
To measure each potential hire in an interview, each person who performs an interview has a scorecard on which he or she ranks five characteristics: attitude, work ethic, skill set, culture and role. “After everyone has filled out the scorecard, it makes the team more accountable for making the new hire successful,” says Mortland. “Having staff members perform interviews not only gives them a stake in the company and the hire once they are on board but it also gives an additional perspective in the interview process.”
Holding Tryouts • Brian Cross
At Elasticity, a public relations, social media and search marketing boutique agency, the product is the company’s people and its creativity. For that reason, Brian Cross, owner, follows a different hiring model. During the interview process, it’s not about the candidate’s résumé or portfolio; instead, the creativity and thought process the Elasticity team sees from the candidate are what stand out.
During the hiring process, Cross uses three best practices.
No. 1: “Don’t get caught up in what they’ve done in the past,” says Cross. “You don’t know exactly what their role was on the team or how much is exaggerated in the case study.”
No. 2: “Don’t hire people that haven’t gotten a viewpoint outside of the industry,” Cross recommends. “Agency people tend to float between agencies and get ‘inbred’ a bit. We’ve hired neuroscientists for interns, children’s book writers, MBAs, fashion bloggers, stand-up comics and more for various reasons in getting a mix of viewpoints and different types of creativity into the solutions we provide for our clients.”
No. 3: “Take a chance on the rookies,” he says.
Overall, Cross emphasizes that if your people are your product, like at Elasticity, finding the best client for each position is non-negotiable. “A lot of businesses look for the best person within a given salary and experience range and try to get the best ‘deal’ they can,” says Cross. “And in companies that have product/inventory or other methods of income, that is a fantastic managerial strategy. But we put people in front of clients every day with nothing but their brain and a pair of tap shoes. We live and die by how well they use those tools, on the fly, right in front of the client. Multiple times a day. So we have to hire the best of the best. For every position. So we do what any dance troupe would do: hold tryouts. Once we see the talent, then we put them in those pressure situations where they are creative on the fly. The A-players rise to the occasion. The others don’t.”
A Strategic Approach to Hiring • Derek Weber
When goBrandgo!, a strategic branding and marketing firm for entrepreneurs, is looking to hire, it is as strategic in its process as it is in the work it does for clients each day. It should take two weeks from the day the decision is made to begin hiring, according to Derek Weber, president and founder of the firm.
“Our potential candidates come from three sources,” says Weber. “Recommendations from friends/family, eBlast and social media post responses, and people in the pipeline from the past.”
After calls are vetted, résumés are reviewed and interviews are scheduled over week 1, week 2 of interviews begins.
Day 1: Skillz Interviews. “Skillz interviews are held with the potential team lead and a team peer and are focused on the candidate’s ability to execute the specified role,” says Weber. “They complete the Skillz interview form after the interview. Then the team lead and I discuss who should be cut from the list.”
Day 2: Culture Interviews. “The culture interview is with a go!-mate and me to judge cultural fit,” says Weber. “They then complete the culture interview form, and the team lead and I discuss who should be cut from the list.”
Day 3: Reference calls are made and documented by goBrandgo!’s people person, the company’s version of a human resources director. “Our people person reaches out to get references from managers, co-workers, customers, professors (if younger) and asks each these questions: 1) Tell me about the time you worked together. 2) What was his/her greatest strength back then? 3) Looking back, what was an area for improvement? 4) If he/she called you up today and you had a position available, would you hire him/her back?,” says Weber. “All forms and reference responses are to be saved and uploaded into Mavenlink and Google Docs.”
As goBrandgo!’s process continues, it is crucial that its people person is reaching out to candidates that were not a good fit for the position.
Day 4: Make decisions.
Day 5: If still in stalemate over picking the final candidate, the team invites the candidate to lunch Friday. Once a decision is made, an offer letter is sent.
Meet Susan Martin
If you haven’t been reading Susan Martin’s columns over the past few years, here’s a little about her and what she does to help the development of small businesses in our area.
Please tell me about your background:
I have a BS degree in secondary education from University of Missouri-Columbia. I am a certified Professional in Human Resources (PHR) and have worked at AAIM Employers’ Association for over 20 years.
What do you do in your current role at AAIM?
As AAIM Member Answer Center coordinator, my primary responsibility is researching and answering HR and employment law questions that come from our member companies (over 6,000 questions annually). I also design weekly surveys that measure the “pulse” of hot HR topics among area businesses. Additionally, I facilitate two HR roundtable discussion groups each month.
What do you do to help clients with recruiting and hiring top talent?
In addition to guiding our member companies through the maze of employment laws that impact the recruitment and hiring process, I refer businesses to our AAIM talent acquisition team. They conduct specialized recruitment services, pre-hire assessments and background checks to assure the right fit for an engaged workforce.
What do you enjoy most about working at AAIM?
It makes my day when an HR person at one of our member companies tells me I’ve made them a “hero” by helping them solve an HR issue!
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