4 Essential Job Interview Questions to Ask

Last Updated Jun 6, 2011 6:28 PM EDT

Most job candidates feel interview questions can be decoded and hacked, letting them respond to those questions with "perfect" answers.

Guess what: They're right, especially if you insist on asking terrible job interview questions.
(Quick aside: Is there really a perfect answer to a silly question like, "What do you feel is your biggest weakness?" I think there is: "If that's the kind of question you typically ask... I don't want to work for you.")

I've interviewed over a thousand people for positions ranging from part-time to skilled to executive. While I've actively repressed a lot of my experiences, I have learned two things:
  1. Candidates I think are the most likely to succeed almost always turn out to be the worst performers, and
  2. Asking opinion-based questions is a complete waste of time. Every candidate comes prepared to answer general questions about teamwork, initiative, interpersonal skills, leadership, etc.
Interviewing is an imprecise process, but you can improve your ability to evaluate candidates by asking interview questions that elicit facts instead of opinions.

Why? I can never rely on what you claim you will do, but I can learn a lot from what you have already done. The past is a fairly reliable indication of the future where employee behavior and attitude is concerned.

How do you get to the facts? You have to ask. Ask an initial question, then put on your 60 Minutes investigative hat and follow up: Fully understand the situation described, determine exactly what the candidate did (and did not do), and find out how things turned out.

Follow-up questions don't need to be complicated: "Really?" "Wow - what did he do?" "What did she say?" "What happened next?" "How did that go over?" All you have to do is keep the conversation going. Remember, an interview is really just a conversation.

With that in mind, here are four of my favorite behavioral interview questions:

1. "Tell me about the last time a customer or coworker got mad at you."
Intent: Evaluate the candidate's interpersonal skills and ability to deal with conflict.

Remember, make sure you find out why the customer or coworker was mad, what the interviewee did in response, and how the situation turned out both in the short- and long-term.
  • Red flag: The interviewee pushes all the blame -- and responsibility for rectifying the situation -- on the other person.
  • Good: The interviewee focuses on how they addressed and fixed the problem, not on who was to blame.
  • Great: The interviewee admits they caused the other person to be upset, took responsibility, and worked to make a bad situation better. That's the trifecta of answers: You are willing to admit when you are wrong, you take responsibility for fixing your mistakes, and you learn from experience. (Remember, every mistake is just training in disguise as long as the same mistake isn't repeated over and over again, of course.)
2. "Tell me about the toughest decision you had to make in the last six months."
Intent: Evaluate the candidate's ability to reason, problem solving skills, judgment, and sometimes even willingness to take intelligent risks.
  • Red flag: No answer. Everyone makes tough decisions regardless of their position. My daughter works part-time as a server at a local restaurant and makes difficult decisions every night, like the best way to deal with a regular customer whose behavior constitutes borderline harassment.
  • Good: Made a difficult analytical or reasoning-based decision. For example, wading through reams of data to determine the best solution to a problem.
  • Great: Made a difficult interpersonal decision, or better yet a difficult data-driven decision that included interpersonal considerations and ramifications. Making decisions based on data is essential, but almost every decision has an impact on people as well. The best candidates naturally weigh all sides of an issue, not just the business or human side exclusively.
3. "Tell me about a time you knew you were right... but you still had to follow directions or guidelines."
Intent: Evaluate the candidate's ability to follow... and possibly to lead.
  • Red flag: Found a way to circumvent guidelines "... because I know I was right," or followed the rules but allowed their performance to suffer. (Believe it or not, if you ask enough questions, some people will tell you they were angry or felt stifled and didn't work hard as a result, especially when they think you empathize with their "plight.")
  • Good: Did what needed to be done, especially in a time-critical situation, then found an appropriate time and place to raise issues and work to improve the status quo.
  • Great: Not only did what needed to be done, but stayed motivated and helped motivate others as well. In a peer setting, an employee who is able to say, "Hey, I'm not sure this makes sense either, but for now let's just do our best and get it done..." is priceless. In a supervisory setting, good leaders are able to debate and argue behind closed doors and then fully support a decision in public even if they privately disagree with that decision.
4. "Tell me about the last time your workday ended before you were able to get everything done."
Intent: Evaluate commitment, ability to prioritize, ability to communicate effectively.
  • Red flag: "I just do what I can and get the heck out of there. I keep telling my boss I can only do so much but he won't listen.... "
  • Good: Stayed a few minutes late to finish a critical task, or prioritized before the end of the workday to ensure critical tasks were completed. You shouldn't expect heroic efforts every day, but some level of dedication is certainly nice.
  • Great: Stayed late and/or prioritized... but most importantly communicated early on that deadlines were in jeopardy. Good employees take care of things; great employees take care of things and make sure others are aware of potential problems ahead of time just in case other proactive decisions make sense.
  • Note: Keep in mind there are a number of good and great answers to this question. "I stayed until midnight to get it done" can sometimes be a great answer, but doing so night after night indicates there are other organizational or productivity issues the employee should raise. (I may sometimes be glad you stayed late, but I will always be glad when help me spot chronic problems or bottlenecks.) Evaluate a candidate's answers to this question based on your company's culture and organizational needs.
There are plenty of others questions you can use; these are just my favorites.

Stick to facts-based questions and you quickly get past a candidate's "interview armor" since few candidates can bluff their way through more than one or two questions. Plus you'll easily identify potential disconnects between a candidate's resume and their actual experience, qualifications, and accomplishments.

Best of all you'll have a much better chance of identifying potentially great employees. An awesome candidates will shine in a fact-based interview.

Related: Photo courtesy flickr user bpsusf, CC 2.0
  • Jeff Haden On Twitter»

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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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