Employers: Interview questions and the answers to expect

30 Nov

Much is written for graduating college students and other job seekers about how to interview effectively. However, no matter how much the candidate practices, if the interviewer does not know how to conduct an interview or what questions to ask and answers to expect, all the practice in the world is wasted effort.  The problem stems from a lack of planning and direction for those who are in the interviewing role. That may be a problem, but remember, interviewing is still a two-way street. Let’s start by cruising down Applicant Avenue. If you are the person applying for the job, and the interviewer talks 70-80% of the time, it’s up to you to ask questions about job duties, the organization and mention what you have to offer. Don’t just sit there nodding, smiling and wondering when you will get to speak. When the interviewer comes up for air, ask if he/she has any questions about your resume and qualifications. Even if the interviewer doesn’t have questions, prepare and share a 30-second commercial of what makes you right for the job. And now a word for all you interviewers….

The Intersection of Applicant Avenue and Employer Drive

As an employer in today’s world of work, interviewing may be one small part of your job. The number of candidates applying for every one job opening may be as high at 100. Yet finding the right candidate is a critical business process. Whether you are a small business owner or hiring manager for a large corporation, the way you structure the actual interview is important to selecting the right person. It’s the interviewer’s responsibility to create a good framework for two-way discussion and gain useful information needed to make a hiring decision. Every organization’s business needs are different, but here are a few tasks to complete before inviting candidates into your selection process:

  • Prepare a well-written, job description–know what you’re looking for and why. What business problem are you trying to solve? What process needs to be maintained or improved? What skills are necessary and what skills would be nice to have? Is the salary you’re offering competitive in your market/industry? Are there cross-functional responsibilities?
  • Require a resume and conduct other screening before inviting candidates in for an in-person first interview. This can be via phone, Skype or simply conducting a Google and social media search of the candidate’s name.
  • Develop a minimum of five consistent, standard questions you will ask of every candidate ( see below). Formulate and ask more specific questions of each candidate during the interview but make sure you don’t go off on tangents. Take notes during the interview– jotting down key words or phrases alongside each candidates name. If you are seeing a lot of people you may forget who said what.
  • Create a candidate rating system or sheet. Nothing elaborate but some way to compare overall impressions and desirability of each candidate. You may also choose to take your notes on this document before rating the candidate.

Preparing and planning how you will interview and what questions you will ask can make the experience better for both you and the candidate. I recently provided a leadership training workshop to a group of sales managers and small business owners. We discussed the typical first interview questions and how to evaluate the answers. Here’s some of what I shared:

Question 1: Start the interview with introductions of your interview panel, names, titles and a general, non-threatening opening question. You may also set-up how the interview will proceed. The opening conversation should serve to calm down both you and the candidate. If you have allocated an hour to interview each candidate, you should spend at least the first two minutes trying to connect on a neutral topic or setting up the interview process. Let the candidate know upfront that you have a few structured questions and then signal that the interview is about to start. Help the person feel at ease and you’re likely to gain better information—and more honest responses.

Option 1: How was your holiday/weekend/day/morning? How are you doing today?

Question 2: Tell me about yourself. This is really a general statement designed to see if a candidate knows what is appropriate to reveal without rambling. The candidate should not try to tell you every detail of their life, family or work history. Listen for information related to three points: education, transferable skills/experience and maybe one interesting personal item (i.e. community service, recent overseas trip, etc.). The personal items serves to show they are human, it may also help you remember something unique about them. The candidate should be able to keep the answer brief yet give you basic insight into general facts about who they are and why they are interviewing for your position (i.e their personal brand statement, perhaps?) The candidate should always highlight at least one or more past experience that points out relevant transferable skills that makes them right for the position.

Question 3: Describe a time when you had to overcome a major obstacle. This statement will help you get a clear picture of the candidate’s past performance, self awareness and ability to choose an appropriate situation. The candidate should choose a work-related or academic example and not an overly personal one. Listen to see if the person plays the victim or the hero in the situation. The way the candidate recalls a situation gives you an indication of how they might solve simple to complex problems.

Option 1: Describe a time when you made a mistake, how did you handle it? Follow-up with: If you had to do that again, how would you do it differently?

Question 4: What interests you about this position?You should expect the candidate to talk about transferable skills already highlighted on their resume and to tell you what they know about your brand, customers, reputation, or any other key statistics found on your website. The answer may also be personal such as a connection to your customers or experience with your brand. Any of these answers (or a combination) are acceptable. A personal answer could indicate a sincere connection to the business and a sense of ownership in whatever role they might play in the organization.

Option 1: What do you know about this company or organization?

Option 2: What motivated you to apply for this job?

Question 5: Do you work better with a team or alone? Depending on the job, a candidate should be able to confidently choose one and explain why. However, it is acceptable for a candidate to say they can do both, depending on the tasks you expect them to perform. A good candidate should give more than a one word response. They should follow-up with a brief explanation of how and why they work well in either or both of the situations. You’ll also want them to give an example of a team experience and the results of the team’s work.

Option 1: Do you work better independently or with close supervision?

Option 2: Tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team. What was that experience like for you?

Question 6: If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be, and why? Go ahead, laugh! But this question can help you see how the candidate deals with surprises or obscure situations. This type of question helps break the cycle of well-rehearsed answers. As long as it’s not a one word answer or too long, virtually any response is a good one. The key is to pay attention to attitude. Will the candidate play along? How much ease or difficulty did the person have in coming up with a response? The candidate who becomes too flustered or too serious, may indicate inflexibility. Beware of the candidate who avoids an answer altogether, this may indicate an inability to make basic decisions quickly.

Option 1: If you were a pencil would you be the lead (pronounced led) or the eraser?

Option 2: If you were an animal in the zoo, what kind of animal would you be,why?

Question 7: Describe a time when you encountered conflict with a co-worker (or boss)? How did you handle it? The purpose of this question is to learn more about the candidate’s judgement and decision-making skills. This is an example of a situational question, but it also illuminates the candidate’s thought process. You want to see whether the candidate deals with negative situations honestly yet diplomatically. They should be able to identify a specific example and talk about comfortably.

Option 1: What would you do if a co-worker got behind schedule on part of a project or task for which you were responsible?

Question 8: Why are you interested in this position? With this one you run the risk of hearing a phony, drawn-out answer about how great the company is, but listen carefully for whether or not the candidate truly understands what you expect based on what they know about your organization or the skills needed to perform the job. This question is also about getting a sense of values, motivations and how much of a keen understanding the candidate has of your needs. Concepts like values and culture can be subjective, but you should be looking for someone whose work ethic, motivations, skills and methods best match the company’s.

Option 1: What keeps you coming to work besides the paycheck?

Question 9: What are your greatest strengths and what are your greatest weaknesses? Yes, this age old question still works. It helps you find out if the candidate is self-aware and comfortable talking about what they do well and what they need to improve. These should be asked as two separate questions. Watch for the ability to describe strengths in meaningful, work-related terms. “I’m a people-person” tells you nothing. Instead, “I connect easily when meeting new people.” With weaknesses, listen for the ability to describe traits or characteristics that are honest, not overly personal and demonstrate an attempt to improve or grow from a weakness. The typical, rehearsed answer is, “I’m a perfectionist,” ICK! it’s overused. You should look for an answer like, “I have high standards and get frustrated when others don’t do their best.” Good candidates will always be able to describe both their strengths and weaknesses with equal comfort.

Option 1: What would your colleagues say you do well? What would they say you need to improve?

Question 10: Why did you leave your last job? The answer to this question can help you determine the candidate’s wisdom and diplomacy. The candidate should never criticize a former company, boss, or colleagues. A good candidate will focus his answer on how this new job will give him/her the opportunity to contribute more in a particular area or use a skill that is key to helping your organization become more successful. A good candidate might use this question as an opportunity to suggest ways to improve processes or services in their previous or current role.

Option 1: What did you dislike about your last job/boss/company?

It’s always good to close the interview with: What questions do you have for me? Reversing roles communicates that you care about the candidate, and it will demonstrate how curious and knowledgeable a candidate is about your organization. If the candidate doesn’t ask any questions about the job or the business, it’s safe to assume they are just applying for any job. Listen for insightful questions that demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the job duties, long range vision or the competitive landscape of your industry. A good candidate will always have at least two questions. It is still wise to be concerned about the candidate who asks about vacation days or pay is during a first interview, it  might signal they are running from their current job and interested in your organization for the wrong reasons.

Besides these, be sure to ask questions customized to your specific industry and/or position. You’ll want to leave the table knowing that person understands your business environment. Even if you need to fill a position quickly, take time to review your notes, compare answers and remember first impressions are lasting impressions– sometimes you must listen to your gut. Give yourself at least 24 hours before making a decision or extending an offer no matter how overworked you are. If you have the time, conduct a second interview with your top two candidates only. Eliminate as much internal red tape as possible and move to the selection and hiring stage quickly.

Applicants: Have you ever had a bad interview? What happened?

Employers: What other questions do you ask candidates? What answers do you expect? What do the answers reveal? Leave your comments below.

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