How to ask good interview questions: Be skeptical!

It’s always painful to have an opening on your team. Often, the person you’re missing was someone you relied on; someone who got stuff done! Now they aren’t there; and who’s getting that stuff done? It’s probably you (in one way or another). That open position is dragging you down. It’s no wonder that you want nothing more than to fill it! Fill it now!

I believe this feeling of urgency — the desire to get a position filled now— is the root cause of many bad hires.

good interview questions

When we bring the “I want to fill this now,” mind to an interview, we are looking for someone to fill the job. At the same time, the candidate is looking to fill a job (too often any job). So when someone who wants to get hired is being questioned by someone who wants to hire, they often work together to get their mutual goal met! You need to ask good interview questions to find out who you’re really hiring.

How does this happen? Imagine an interview like this:

Interviewer: “So do you have experience with budgets?”
Candidate: “Of course.”
Interviewer: “Did you projects come in under budget?”
Candidate: “Yes, most of them did.”
Interviewer: “So you think you could create budgets for our projects, and bring them in under budget?”
Candidate: “I’m sure I can!”
Interviewer: “Well, that’s what we need. You’re hired!”

Frequently, a candidate hired like this shows up for their first day of work only to find out that what “budget” meant at his former position is nothing like the budgets in this new one. And project management, well, that looks different too! Over the course of the day, the new hire’s position becomes more clear (or unclear as the case may be). And he’s not alone. In fact, (the boss thinks to herself) this guy doesn’t know anything about how to manage our projects and get them in under budget! But then, she didn’t really ask him if he did, did she?

Even if you need to hire now, it’s essential that you slow down and be a skeptic when you are interviewing. 

What do I mean by “be a skeptic”?

Don’t ask leading interview questions!

I’m talking about questions like, “You’ve done budgets, right?”. Instead, ask open ended interview questions and let the candidate tell you what he or she actually did; like, “What’s your experience with budgeting? What sort of inputs did you receive? What tools did you use? What did the result look like? How did that get used to run the project?” We can’t assume that what we mean by “budgets” (or any other term that we use in our office) matches the candidates definition and experience. We need to investigate; and find out what that means to them, how “budgeting” was done, and by whom. Candidates often want to talk about what their team or department did, obscuring what they actually did. Unless you are hiring the whole team or department, you need to know what they did, from what inputs and with what tools.

  • Do ask for examples and compare those examples against the tasks and responsibilities your new hire will be handling.

    The best predictor of future results is past performance. (As long as the performance is in a similar role in a similar environment. Beware of someone with lots of big company experience looking to join your small company!) The best way to evaluate performance is to elicit examples of how the candidate performed in the past at tasks which are analagous or similar to those that need doing in your company, in this role. This is where behavioral interviewing shines.
  • Do dig deeper. Good interview questions come with follow up questions.Don’t just take an answer at face value. Channel your inner journalist and cross-examine the candidate to uncover more information. If they give you a very rosy, positive example, then ask them for a time when that didn’t work. When they are struggling for a good example, wait until they finish and ask for another example. If they are an expert they will have more than one!
  • Don’t help them.When we want this candidate to be THE ONE we’re tempted to help them out a little bit. Maybe they are struggling for an answer and you prompt them with the next step; or they are looking for an example and you give them some ideas. You are effectively “rooting” for them to get the job! Don’t do that! Make them prove that they are the best candidate. If they are struggling, simply wait quietly. Either they will get it together, or they won’t.

I know it’s hard to go slow when that open position is killing you; but it’s so much better to go slow and get the right person than it is to go fast and hire the wrong person. That will to set you back months. So be patient. Let the candidates show you that they know their stuff.

Good interview questions should reveal both positive and negatives from every candidate — because, guess what, every candidate has them! You know you are really getting to know them when you get a real sense of their strengths and weaknesses. And if you are lucky enough to have a tough decision at the end of the process, being able to compare strengths as well as weaknesses only means you are making a more informed decision. So take the time to be sure you know what you are getting from your candidates before you make anyone an offer.

Employee Interview Guide

Photo credit: PicJumbo

Devan Perine

Devan Perine works with small business owners on their marketing and multimedia efforts. She's passionate about helping businesses build their presence online, and giving Gen Y a voice in the workplace. When she's not working, she loves to make a mess in the kitchen, and play with her band around Chicago. She loves to chat! Give her a shout on Google+, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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