6 Tips to Asking Better Interview Questions

Catrinel Bartolomeu

Make no mistake: Of the two parties involved in a job interview, being the person doing the hiring has a lot to recommend it. You don’t have to iron your clothes the night before. You can breeze in 20 minutes late with an offhand “sorry … had to do something,” and face no serious repercussions.

And of course, best of all, the odds that, in a few hours’ time, you’re going to be miserably eating a sandwich in a park, unemployed and dealing with crushing feelings of rejection, are much, much lower for you than they are for the nervous, well-scrubbed soul on the other side of the desk.

But this relative comfort is deceptive. In the long term, the stakes in an interview are just as high for the employer as for the candidate.  They’re higher, in fact, if you’re running a small business with only a few employees. Hiring employees for your small business is a risky business. Following are six tips to help you make the most of your limited time with each candidate, and hopefully steer you to the one who’s going to help take your business to the next level.

1. Prepare

As with anything, the key to running an effective job interview is thorough preparation.

Try to find time, at least a day or two before the interview, to go through the candidate’s resume, pen in hand, and make a note of anything that jumps out at you. Are there any gaps in her employment history? Any abrupt departures that might be worth asking about? What about the overall impression? Where does it seem this person wants to go in her career, and how do you fit into that vision? Are you a potential destination, a stepping-stone, or just a stopgap until she can find something better?

If nothing else, a careful study of a candidate’s resume will help lodge the details of it in your memory, which can pay great dividends in the actual interview. The difference between “What was it like working for A&B Landscaping?” and “What was it like working for [looks down at resume] A&B Landscaping?” cannot be overstated.

There’s another aspect to preparation, though, that often gets overlooked: making sure that you yourself really understand the job you’re trying to fill.

At larger companies, where most employees occupy tightly defined roles within a formal corporate hierarchy, this may be less of an issue; the requirements of any particular position will generally stay fixed and constant over time, even as employees come and go.

If yours is a smaller business, though, the roles are probably more fluid, and the boundaries between people’s jobs less cut-and-dried. Someone whose primary responsibility is dealing with customers say, may also pitch in to help with bookkeeping. The pastry chef in a coffee shop may also be the person who picks up fresh beans in his car on the way to work.

When replacing this kind of “multi-hatted” employee, it’s important to take stock of everything they did, and decide how you want to distribute those tasks moving forward. You owe it to the incoming employee to tell him ahead of time exactly what he’s going to be responsible for, and you owe it to yourself to make sure that he’s qualified for those additional tasks by asking about them in the interview.

2. Embrace “Behavioral” Questions

Interviewing isn’t the kind of activity that usually gets buffeted by trends and fashions. It isn’t swimwear design. But if you’ve been floating around the job market over the last decade or so, you’ll have seen first-hand the meteoric rise of something called the “behavioral” interview question. Why has it become so fashionable? Because it works.

The concept is that, rather than accepting at face value the claim on a candidate’s resume that she’s an “outside-the-box thinker,” say, or a dab hand at “conflict resolution,” you can get far more useful information by asking how that trait has governed or would govern her behavior in a specific situation. (Behavioral questions are also sometimes known as “situational.”) Behavioral questions fall into two primary categories:

  1. Historical. “Your resume mentions leadership skills. Can you tell me about a time in your previous job when those skills were tested?”
  2. Hypothetical. “Let’s say I took you out of your sales role and put you in charge of marketing. As someone who ‘adapts well to new challenges,’ what’s the first thing you would do?”

Both types of behavioral question will force a candidate to set aside his “script” for the interview and think on his feet. Hypothetical questions will tell you more about the candidate’s creativity and problem-solving skills. The benefit of a historical behavioral question is that you can verify the truth of the answer — and get another perspective on the incident — later, when you call to check references.

3. Standardize

Many, if not most, of the questions you ask in a job interview will be personalized to each candidate’s unique resume and experience. However, you should also go into every interview with a list of standardized questions that you ask of every candidate.

Why?

Well, if nothing else, having a pre-written list of questions gives you a “script” to fall back on if you run out of things to ask about. More importantly, though, it puts you in a position to make “apples-to-apples” comparisons among your pool of applicants. Once the interviewing process has concluded and you’re reviewing your notes about all the candidates, you don’t want to find yourself trying to weigh the relative merits of “Linda … wants to climb Everest someday,” and “Steve … thinks sense of humor is his best feature.”

It’s vastly more helpful if you can make side-by-side comparisons of their answers to the same series of questions. And this is doubly — at least — true if you’re trying to make the decision alongside a colleague who wasn’t present at the interview. In this case, it’s really only answers to standardized questions that can give your colleague a sense of how the different candidates might function within your team.

This doesn’t mean, at all, that your list of standardized questions should all be focused on tangible metrics such as typing speed or languages spoken. Quite the opposite. Questions such as “What is your proudest accomplishment?” or “Why are you interested in this job?” will usually yield much more interesting and relevant answers.

The only danger with these more open-ended questions is that the answers can sometimes run too long for you to jot them down in a few pithy sentences that make for easy comparisons later on. You can address this before the fact by asking for brevity. Preliminary phrases such as “Tell me, in a word or two…” or “If you had to sum up, in one sentence…” are standing by, ready to assist you.

4. Go Negative

You don’t hear this advice very often in this upbeat, optimistic culture of ours, and the bulk of any job interview is naturally going to focus on such sunny topics as the candidate’s skills and ambitions, plus your own hopes and dreams for the future of your small business. But asking a question from “the dark side” every once in a while can help shift the conversation out of the comfort zone and into the candor zone — or, which can be just as useful, tell you that the candidate doesn’t make that shift easily.

If you ask, for instance, “What was your greatest frustration with your previous job?” and, after staring at you with a fixed smile for a few seconds, the candidate replies that they wished the office could have stayed open on public holidays, or that the boss didn’t have your exquisite taste in neckties…then what you have on your hands is a smoke-blowing flatterer, which may of course be exactly what you’re looking for.

If instead, they blow out their cheeks, ask “How long have you got?” and launch into a litany of petty complaints, most of which fairly describe the job they’re applying for, well, that’s a useful data point, too.

The Mother of All Negative Questions, for use only as a last resort, is the classic, “What’s the best reason for me not to hire you?” This startling question can often trigger a process of genuine soul-searching in a candidate — though of course there is also the risk that, in the process of answering the question honestly, they may talk themselves out of wanting the job.

5. Follow Up

Heading into an interview with a list of prepared questions is all very well — in fact, it’s essential. But if there’s a difference between a good interviewer and a great one, it’s usually that the latter has mastered the Art of the Follow-Up.

What are some examples of great follow-up questions?

Well, that’s just it. Follow-up questions, by definition, are questions that drill down into the details of a candidate’s last answer, and therefore cannot be prepared in advance.

But the trick to them is paying attention, not only to the candidate’s answers — that goes without saying — but also to your own reactions. If you find yourself not quite following a particular answer, ask for clarification. If a claim strikes you as unlikely, ask if it’s really true. Before moving on to each new question on your list, take a moment to scan the corners of your mind for curiosities and tiny alarm bells that ordinarily you might ignore.

Remember: A job interview isn’t a social occasion. Follow-up questions that might seem intrusive or aggressive if you asked them of a stranger at a cocktail party are not only perfectly acceptable – assuming they are within the parameters of employment law – but also they’re the secret of a great interview.

6. Hone Your Technique

The interview is over. Handshakes have been exchanged. You’ve taken a few minutes to jot down your impressions of the candidate. You’ve typed up their answers to the standardized questions (see above) and placed them in a file alongside those of other candidates …

But your work is not yet done. If you really want to get better at interviewing people for jobs — and since you’ve read this far, we can assume that you do — then take a further few minutes to make notes on your own interviewing performance:

  • What worked and what didn’t?
  • Is there anything you didn’t ask but wish you had?
  • Do you feel you gave a good impression of your business to the candidate and, if not, what could you have done differently?

Your days of interviewing for jobs may be over. (Though one never knows in this economy.) But you owe it to your business, your employees, and yourself to master the art and the science of interviewing other people, in order to grow your team and build your small business.

Tell Us: What do you do to prepare for an interview?

3 Responses to "6 Tips to Asking Better Interview Questions"

    • Valerie | March 12, 2018 at 6:20 pm

      I ask if they could change one thing about the last place they worked what would it be and why. If they loved everything about the last place then I change it to the place they liked working the least from their resume list of past employment.

      • Elizabeth Larkin | March 14, 2018 at 8:56 am

        That’s a great question. What are you looking for in an answer? -Elizabeth

        • Valerie | March 21, 2018 at 6:27 pm

          Anything and everything. I sometimes get the answer that they didn’t get enough overtime, which tells me they won’t work out for us since there is never a need for anyone in our company to work overtime. Or they tell me the boss would ask them to handle multiple projects at the same time, which tells me they may have an issue with being able to prioritize multiple projects if unsure of what to work on when, and aren’t comfortable enough in their own skin to take responsibility to ask the boss which of those multiple tasks is the highest priority. Or sometimes I hear that the company was always giving them new things to learn to do, rather than just leaving them alone to do their job. Which tells me that they aren’t seeing the positive side that maybe the company is trying to give them new tasks and challenges to hone them for a more challenging position. And I actually had one candidate complain that she wasn’t allowed to make personal calls while she was working. So it’s proven to be a really good question to find out all kinds of things about candidates that normally wouldn’t be brought out or that might be issues with them fitting in with our work needs and working environment.

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