When I was a job seeker, I dreaded interviews. I hated the trick questions, the brainteasers, and most of all, the questions I expected, but still couldn’t quite figure out how to answer (“What’s your biggest weakness?” was the death of me.)
But when I became a manager and had to interview people for my team, I found myself asking the same tricky and ineffective questions—because that’s all I knew. And that made my hiring decisions pretty tough; after all was said and done, I had no idea whether each candidate was a good fit for the role or not.
If you’re a first-time interviewer, don’t just wing it. Once you know the right questions to ask, you’ll be able to really gauge whether an applicant will be a good addition to your team. And that will not only save you from costly hiring mistakes, it'll also help you recruit the best of the best.
So, learn from my mistakes: Here are three types of questions that I used to ask—and how I’ve learned to change them into something much more effective.
1. Questions You Already Know the Answers To
When I began my first corporate job, the HR department provided an interview guide that was a little, well, lacking. In fact, the only instructions it provided was to ask the candidate to describe his or her professional experience job-by-job. Following that, it suggested that I ask candidates about their educational background—the school they attended, the classes they took, and they major they decided on.
Ultimately, the guide allowed me to hear candidates repeat the information that I already held in my hands—their resume. And if I already knew about their background, why would I spend that valuable 30-minute interview having them repeat it to me when I had the opportunity to delve into so much more?
Of course, if there are holes in the applicant’s resume that I have questions about (like a gap in work history or an unclear bullet point), I ask. But when those few questions have been answered, I move on to questions that will give the applicant the chance to elaborate on the bullet points they’ve listed, like “Of the specific projects you mentioned, which contributed most to your professional development, and how?” or “What did you struggle with the most when, as you listed here, you had to work cross-departmentally with the finance and marketing teams?”
This will provide you with information that can’t be qualified into short, succinct bullet points—and help you more successfully predict how the potential hire would perform in your team.
2. Arbitrary Questions to Gauge Personality
In my first startup job, my management team and I wanted to make sure any new hires “fit” with the rest of the team. So we came up with what we thought were questions that would help us gauge the personality of each candidate: Think “What’s your favorite color?” and “If you could be any animal, what would it be?”
Well, it didn’t take many interviews to figure out that this strategy didn’t actually provide any helpful insight into the candidate’s personality—because most of the time, we were met with a hesitant, “Um, green?”
First, it’s important to realize that a candidate’s personality will shine though, no matter what question you ask. From a candidate who interjects questions and turns the interview into a conversation to one who thoroughly thinks through a question before thoughtfully answering it, if you just pay attention, you can learn a lot.
But if you want to dig even deeper, try curating some targeted questions about the specific personality traits you’re after. If you want employees who are spontaneous and go with the flow, try asking “Tell me about a time when your boss or a client changed a project when you were already halfway finished. What did you do?”
From this answer, you’ll gauge both personality and work ethic—and that’s a lot more valuable than a favorite color.
3. Questions That Don’t Provide the Info You Need
After years of being the interviewee, I felt a rush of power to be on the other side of the table—and that made it very temping to ask riddle-like questions (e.g., “How many tennis balls can you fit into a limousine?”) to catch the applicant off guard, instead of soliciting canned, rehearsed responses.
Sure, I got to see how well my candidates thought on their feet, but that didn’t really help me determine if they had the skills and abilities needed for the job—especially when I wasn’t hiring for a position that required that kind of analytical thought.
Other companies have also found that these infamous startup brainteasers aren’t always helpful in interviews. Lazslo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, recently admitted that he found brainteasers to be a complete waste of time, based on a study the company did on hiring practices. “They don’t predict anything,” he said. “They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”
Instead, he suggests using a structured behavioral interview, using the same questions to assess each applicant. To create that consistent rubric, one of the most helpful tips I’ve learned is to first determine the specific skills I was looking for in a candidate—then base questions around those skills.
For example, customer service associates should love talking to people, be able to remain calm during stressful situations, and know how to problem-solve creatively. So, compile a list of questions that will display their expertise (or lack thereof): “Describe a situation when you had to deal with someone who disagreed with you,” “Tell me about a time when you didn’t have the answer you needed and couldn’t find your manager—what did you do?” or “How do you prioritize when you’re juggling multiple clients and deadlines?”
Not only will these questions help you truly determine if the person will be able to fulfill the duties of the job—but since you’ll ask each candidate the same set of questions, you’ll be able to more easily compare answers.
Of course, interviewing strategies could go on for hundreds of pages—but the key takeaway is this: Determine exactly what you want in an employee, then ask questions that will actually help you gauge those things. You’ll have a much easier time pinpointing your must-hire employees when you’re not trying to decipher tennis ball calculations and the significance of the color blue.