If you have a favorite question when interviewing a job candidate, you aren’t alone. Most seasoned human resource professionals develop a short list of interview questions over time that allows them to quickly find out what they want to know. These questions can become the backbone of an interview process and lead to more effective hiring.
The best questions typically focus on three things: the candidate’s ability to make a meaningful contribution to your company, whether they have the skills to make this contribution, and fit within a company culture.
One of my favorite interview prompts for people applying to HealthJoy is, “Walk me through a time where you brought joy to a customer.” To me, this is a great question to figure out if someone is a good cultural fit here at our company. We want to make sure that our people care about our members, clients, and brokers and want to work every day to make other people’s lives better.
I thought it would be interesting to ask a few experts with different backgrounds about their single best interview question and what they are trying to accomplish with that question. Here are some of my favorite:
“Tell Me About Yourself”
As a former hiring manager at two different ‘Fortune 1000’ companies before becoming a management professor, I often used open-ended questions of this sort at the beginning of an interview. And since there’s really no “right” answer, it’s generally a low-stress way to relax applicants — and get them talking. But while there may not be any “right” answers, there are definitely subjects that wise candidates would avoid. For example, if an applicant is recently divorced and is now the primary caregiver for an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s disease or two preschool toddlers, those would generally be topics to avoid during a job interview. So given that caveat, what is a potential employer really looking for? In a single phrase, “organizational fit.”
As a general proposition, organizations seek people who can help them grow stronger. Thus, they want folks who will solve problems, not create them. So as much as possible, I looked for applicants who discussed the relevant transferable skills and related experiences that they could bring to a particular job, a work team, and the overall organization. Further, answering by weaving the notion of enjoying challenging work and the sense of accomplishment gained for a job well done also earned high marks during my evaluations. But, on the other hand, I always expected the whole truth: folks who over-embellished important facts were routinely “discovered” down the line since my organizations (like most, these days) did thorough reference checks and background investigations.
“What are you looking for in your next opportunity?”
I purposely leave the question pretty open-ended – some candidates interpret this as salary, culture, actual job description, location, work/life balance, etc. This gives me a lot of insight into their pain points in their current role without asking that directly (I have found asking for pain points elicits ‘politically correct’ answers.) By asking a general question, it gives me the immediate awareness of what is most important to each individual candidate.
“What do you think we do at our company?”
I meet with every potential candidate and always make a point to ask them what they think we do at FreightCenter. It’s a loaded question that quickly sums up if a candidate has visited our website, researched our industry, or desires to know more about what we do. Without a basic understanding of what we do, a candidate wouldn’t be able to translate their past skills to the job in front of them. Many of our candidates don’t come to us with prior freight experience; therefore, it’s helpful for them to make those connections for me. They should know how to apply what they know to what we need.
“Tell me how your co-workers and direct reports describe your management style?”
I prefer behavioral interview questions that allow the interviewee to share a story or example. Candidates with poor management skills will struggle to come up with examples, instead, they’ll use “I” statements, like “I’m a direct leader and my team members like that.” Whereas, candidates with excellent leadership skills, will probably have a good example of a time a peer or direct report praised them for leadership, can name the person that said it and tell you about the situation that prompted the person to compliment them. Those examples give me insights into the candidate’s temperament and leadership approach.
“What Is Your Value Proposition?”
For Functional exploration, I ask: “What Is Your Value Proposition?” Their answer tells me whether or not they understand the role they play in past organizations, whether or not they can quantify their accomplishments, and provide examples of how they solve problems. I am seeking to learn if they understand their full impact on top and bottom line. But that is only one aspect of their performance.
We want to hire people who understand how to play well with others. People repeat behaviors. Exploring their past behaviors carefully provides a predictor of future behavior. Therefore, I not only ask functional and technical questions, I also explore their behaviors and try to understand their EQ. My purpose is to understand the candidate’s behavior (EQ) in multiple roles they play in a given work day. A few of these would be leader, follower, mentor, collaborator, and servant leader, to name just a few. I am also exploring their current leadership skills and their potential to grow into more senior leadership roles.
I believe that diving deep on functional and/or technical skills, and then simply brushing over the behavioral skills leads to problems, both short- and long-term; these problems manifest themselves in lower productivity, unhappy team members, possible disruptive behavior, and eventual turnover. Turnover is one of the most serious hidden bottom-line costs all companies face today.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
My favorite interview question and the one I use most frequently is “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s a classic, and sometimes overused, but in a sales-focused environment, it can reveal a lot about the person I’m interviewing.
The answer reveals how goal-oriented a person is, and what kind of goals they are setting. I always look for an answer with a good balance of career-focused goals and personal or family goals. That tells me that they are a well-rounded individual and are developing in more than one aspect of their life.
I also look for goal-setting that is realistic and attainable, but still outside the comfort zone. In my opinion, that is the sweet spot for growth inside and outside of a company.
If someone struggles to come up with an answer or says something that sounds overambitious, it’s a red flag and an indicator that they might not be right for the role. Setting goals and achieving them is crucial for any sales position.
“Can you tell me about a situation from your past where you had an issue with a supervisor or coworker and how you resolved it?”
This question accomplishes a lot. On its face, it offers me a concrete example of a situation the candidate found him or herself in and how they handled it. Did they forge a win-win for everyone? Did they look to ‘win the argument’ at all costs? Or to maintain or strengthen the relationship?
“It also gives the candidate a chance to shine, or to trip up, insofar as helping me understand what they think is appropriate to say about former bosses or coworkers, about whether they’re going to throw someone under the bus or show me how self-aware they are, and what they did to control the only thing they can control, their own actions and reactions. And finally, it gives me insight into their problem-solving abilities and their willingness to learn from their mistakes and take actionable steps to handle a similar situation better the next time around.
“What was your first job, and what did you do with the money?”
I clarify that I’m asking about their first job, ever. Not their first job out of college. I ask the question to get a sense of their work ethic. If they had a job at 16 vs. 22 that tells me a lot about their enjoyment of work, their relationship with balancing work and life, plus most people who started working at a young age aren’t entitled.
So what did you do with the money? Sometimes I hear that they used the money to pay for college or to buy their first vehicle. This tells me about their independence, resourcefulness, and determination. People like this set goals, and don’t let circumstances prevent them from being successful. That’s the type of people I’m looking to hire.