“Perfect person,” you think. This candidate looks and sounds like just the person you want in that vacant job position.”But…how can I be sure?” you wonder. Obviously, the probation period helps you get out of a bad hire, but who likes to go through that process?
We’ve all been there. You ask the standard questions about experience, ability to get along with other employees, desire for advancement, and you get the standard answers. At first glance, the person looks good, gives the right answers and, based on those answers, seems perfect for the job. But, on reflection, the answers are “vanilla” answers. They could be said by anyone. You know, “Yes, Mr. Interviewer. I’ve been looking for just this kind of position to maximize my talents.” (Big smile, energetic voice, proper posture and just the right amount of dazzling personality stirred in). What a performance!
Good interview questions are the key to making you discover the most important characteristics about the candidate – and in the most accurate way. The following questions it will give you a clue as to how the person will think, do the job and interact with others after you hire him or her.
The candidate’s general perspective on life and work
Question: Tell me a story about you and your past – experience, successes, regrets, obstacles, strengths or abilities you’ve learned, weaknesses you have not been able to overcome…
What you are looking for: Get the person talking about self, telling you a life story. Listen for themes, aspects that keep coming up – i.e. importance of relationships, the desire or necessity for material goods, the need for status or approval, etc. This will begin telling you what is important to this person. You could potentially hear themes of the person always being a victim, or how the person loves to tackle the next challenge. Listen for attitudes and characteristics that would be helpful (or a red flag) if the person were hired.
Reminder – don’t ask all of this all at once. Ask a general question such as, “Tell me about you and your past?” Then conversationally follow up with additional questions like:
- What kinds of experiences have you had?
- What successes have you had?
- Have you had any regrets about life?
- What have been your major obstacles in life?
- How about telling me about your greatest strengths or abilities you’ve learned over time?
- What weaknesses do you have that you haven’t been able to overcome?
- All the while you are engaging in conversational interaction while observing the candidates interaction and the content of their story.
The candidate’s general direction in life
Question: Tell me about your future – goals while here, strengths you want to develop, weaknesses you want to overcome, personal dreams/goals/direction this position will help you obtain?
What you are looking for: This question and the story associated with it is designed to tell whether the person lives in the moment (i.e. paycheck to paycheck) or has plans or direction. There also may be clues as to whether or not the person sees this job as a stepping stone to a future dream. This can lead you to a time-line question so you can manage expectations.
If you are interviewing for an entry level job that has expected short term tenure, this question can give you an idea of how long this person may stay. You can also talk about a win/win situation and begin a conversation about the necessity of staying a certain length of time to facilitate the person’s experience or learning that can take them to the fulfillment of their future dream or goal. Red flag content would be anything incongruent with the potential job position and/or your company’s direction and corporate culture.
The ability to work in a team
Question: There are five people available to you. There is a task at hand that needs to be done quickly. It is possible for you to do the task within the time allotted although it could be done more quickly if you involve the five available people. The task is important to the company and will be a high profile achievement. What do you do?
What you are looking for: Notice, the question does not illuminate whether the task is assigned to the person. If the person automatically assumes the task is an assignment, that assumption could suggest initiative or independence. One way to handle this scenario is to either clarify the assignment with the appropriate manager or inform an appropriate manager that the person will be taking on the task at hand and will be using the five available people so as to get this important task done more quickly for the good of the company. This gives the candidate credit for accomplishing the task by leading a team of people.
In any case, one core concept that will come out of this question is the person’s willingness to work with others or work alone. Listen for themes: Is there a true desire to work with a team; does the person see the other five people as equal team members or are they people to be exploited or “used” to get the job done (not exactly teamwork); what are the candidate’s thoughts on leading a team.
Ability to cope with conflict
Question: Near Chicago there is a neighborhood with no fences between the back yards. There is a large tree between your home and another. This tree is rotting, in danger of falling, constantly losing branches and infested with insect pests. You know it would cost about $1,500.00 to remove the tree. It is unclear whose property it is on but your son has recently been bitten by those nasty insects, had a severe allergic reaction and had to spend a couple of days in the hospital. What do you do?
What you are looking for: Clearly, there is a lot at stake for the candidate as he or she puts self in the story. Does the person take care of the situation alone? Does the person look for more property data then negotiate with the neighbor? Does the sense of urgency dictate immediate action without due cause? (Cut down the tree even if it is on the neighbor’s property). Is there an attempt to manipulate or overpower? – all of which indicate how the candidate would approach conflict in the work place.
Question: You have one brother (or sister). This sibling has had very little contact with you or your parents for the past 9 years; only calling a couple of times a year and never visiting face to face. Your parents have had severe health problems over the past 6 years and you have been the one faced with the energy, expense and responsibility to take care of them. They have recently passed on, leaving a small estate. Seeming like a large estate to your brother (sister), he (she) arrives to claim half of the estate. You are the executor of the will. What do you do?
What you are looking for: This unfortunate scenario should provide enough emotional elements to get the candidate to reveal his or her true beliefs surrounding this conflict. Some core issues that can come out of the person’s dealing with this question include: relationship issues (which are more important, relationships or facts), “victim” issues (life owes me something), the ability to calmly deal with facts and make decisions objectively, etc.
Attitude toward ownership and accountability
Note: We believe a person with “employee mentality” only wants to do the job and get a paycheck for doing it. A person with “ownership mentality” does the job as if it was his or hers. This “ownership,” albeit not literal ownership, has the benefit of increased motivation and creativity in doing the job.
Question: How do you handle delegated tasks?
What you are looking for: This deceptively simple question can reap great results. A person with employee mentality may say something as simple as, “I just do it.” A person with a bit more involvement may speak about needing to understand time lines and outcomes before doing the task. Although neither of these answers or attitudes are bad, what is better is someone with ownership mentality who would want to find out more about the task – what is the bigger picture, how does it fit into the overall, what are the expectations surrounding the task, etc. This kind of a person may speak about needed resources to do the task and creative ways to accomplish it.
Inspiration – the energy in doing a job
Question: In life, what lights your fire, gives you satisfaction, gives you happiness?
What you are looking for: Notice, the words are “in life…” not “in your job.” Here you are looking for what lights up this person’s eyes. Here again you are looking for themes. Accomplishments, challenges, being or working with people, learning – all would be a benefit in an employee. Vacations, movies, reading, car racing, and other such activities or hobbies, though perfectly acceptable, indicate the person’s “fire” won’t be lit until they leave work.
Ego vs. confidence – how the person balances the two and views him/herself
Note: How a person views and speaks of self indicates security or insecurity, ego and self esteem. This will be the basis for a person’s ability to work with others, communicate openly and deal with difficulty.
Question: How do you handle accomplishments?
Question: Tell me a story of a significant accomplishment of yours.
Question: If you were a representative for someone else – the perfect person for this job – what would you tell me about that person.
What you are looking for: In the answering of the general “handle accomplishment” question, in the story telling, and in the personification of the “perfect person,” look for inflated pride, the necessity of building oneself up, graciousness in giving others credit, the willingness to admit frailties in the process of accomplishment, etc. All of this can give you an indication as to whether the person is an ego maniac (at worst) or is secure and gracious in the act of accomplishment. One further point, when the candidate is talking as a “representative” about “the perfect person” they are undoubtedly talking about how he or she sees self.
Communication – the ability to effectively get a message across
Question: Can you teach others? Tell me a story of how you taught someone something.
Question: Give me instruction on how to do something you know how to do that I may not know how to do – a hobby, a skill, an expertise in something such as painting or guitar playing.
What you are looking for: For the first question, is whether the candidate is able to clearly communicate and get a message across. Additionally, are there any bits of motivation or persuasiveness in the communication?
For the second question, you are looking for the characteristic of whether the candidate is other’s-centered or self-centered. If the person simply begins teaching you something without asking you any questions, he or she may be self-centered and just doing what is needed to answer the question. An other’s-centered person may ask you questions like, “What would you like to learn?” or I do tile work, do you know how to do that?” before beginning. An exceptionally other’s-centered person would not only find out what best to teach you that you don’t know, but would also ask you how you would like to learn it – hands on, verbally, with pictures,…or what?
In both of these questions you can look for additional characteristics helpful in the work place such as respect and consideration. How the candidate speaks of others and how he or she interacts with teaching you will give you a clue about their attitude in dealing with others.
Problem solving – the ability to creatively use the resources at hand to accomplish the goal
Question: A three-ton iceberg is floating in the sea. How long will it take to completely melt?
What you are looking for: There is not enough data to solve the problem. (What is the sea temperature, direction of float, sunny weather, cloudy weather, location – an iceberg floating in Antarctica will take much longer to melt than if it was floating closer to the equator). Refrain from giving the candidate any more information than what is in the question. The frustration factor is interesting to watch in the context of this question.
Does the person give up quickly when you can’t give them any more information? Does the person make some assumptions so there can be some movement towards problem solving? How the person thinks and processes this question will reveal how the person will approach problems.
Here are a few additional suggestions that could help make your hiring a successful progress:
- After the hiring process screens candidates down to a few possibilities, have three or four current team members ask each candidate questions they feel are important. This accomplishes three goals: 1) Gives the candidate the understanding that the hiring process is a team effort and if they are hired they are joining a team, not just working for a boss; 2) Gives you additional information and perspective on the candidate; and 3) Gives the current employees greater ownership in retaining this person on the team.
- When you are quite sure of the candidate you want to hire, if your safety and human resource regulations allow for it, have the candidate come in for a day or half day with the instruction to “mingle.” That open-ended assignment lets you observe the candidate around others. We have seen promising candidates prove to be overly pushy or opinionated during this “mingle” day. This provided timely and sufficient data that the person wasn’t the right hire after all.
- Make sure you have a broad-based, extensive orientation system. Too often we have seen the “punt” method of orientation – kicking the new employees into the game right in the middle of the two minute warning (at least that’s what it feels like to them). Mixing metaphors – this sink or swim methodology can set an otherwise good employee up for failure. When a company designs a successful orientation system, retention goes up.
- Turnover costs money! In direct costs, indirect costs, opportunity costs – it’s expensive to replace someone. A good hiring process can create greater retention. This interviewing system is designed to do just that by finding the right person to fill the vacant role, and to stick around for a long time. Investing a little time in the interviewing process will result in long lasting returns.
Ask the question in a conversational way. Don’t act like you’re reading from a list. This will make for a more comfortable setting and put the person at ease. It will help the person reveal more of the true self. Ask a general question then gently ask the follow-up questions within the given category. You can follow the principle we are explaining using entirely different questions or tasks, questions or tasks you make up to parallel the dynamics in the job position for which the candidate is interviewing. For example, if the position you are interviewing candidates for demands the ability to concentrate in the context of distraction, have the candidate do a crossword puzzle while in the midst of a lot of noise or other distractions you can expose them to. Once again, you’ll be able to watch how the person thinks, processes information and interacts.