In the current hiring market, when a day’s delay can mean the difference between attracting a great candidate and missing out, it can be tempting to extend offers to applicants just because they look good on paper.
In fact, harried recruiters admit that they often cut the interview process short to provide candidates faster to frustrated hiring managers. In turn, those hiring managers—striving to fill positions that may have gone unfilled for many months—whiz through interviews, allowing candidates with strong resumes who can talk a good game to fill the empty seats. Unfortunately, as many recruiters can attest, permitting a rushed approach through the interviewing process often leads to costly hiring mistakes.
“When they are doing their jobs effectively, interviewers know that the best way to coax detailed responses is to ask behavioral questions,” said Paul Falcone, CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and a bestselling author of books written for the HR community. “For example, if you ask, ‘What do you like least about your current job?’ and the candidate answers, ‘Having to fire people,’ then the interviewer can open up that can of worms by discussing the last time that happened, the circumstances and results.”
Conversely, relying solely on a handful of superficial questions does a disservice to all involved, said Falcone, whose new book is Workplace Ethics: Mastering Ethical Leadership and Sustaining a Moral Workplace (HarperCollins Leadership, 2022).
One proven approach that helps to make sure a new hire can perform the job is to focus on achieving three goals during interviews:
- Uncover candidates who are great interviewees but not much more.
- Gauge which person will be the best fit based on experience and temperament.
- Confirm through their actions the candidate who really wants and can excel in the job.
“One of the typical mistakes made by smart job candidates is to think they can just ‘wing it’ because they’re smart, and they’ll get away with it if interviewers let them,” said Wendy Enelow, an executive resume writer and author in Coleman Falls, Va. “The truth is that nothing beats preparation. Truly committed candidates will rehearse answering tricky career-related questions so that they can respond to them confidently, but it usually takes a series of good questions over time to separate people who interview well from those who will fill the position best.”
To that end, here are 10 classic questions that interviewers should be ready to ask each job candidate, regardless of the type of position they’re trying to fill, as well as how to interpret their answers and follow up effectively:
1. Can you please tell me a little about yourself?
Many interviewers start with this question not only to gather information, but also to assess each candidate’s poise, delivery style and communication ability.
“If the candidate launches into a mini-speech about his or her childhood, schooling, hobbies, early career and personal likes and dislikes, it only took you one question to realize you probably don’t have a strong fit,” Falcone said. “A meandering answer that takes him or her down rabbit holes raises a legitimate concern that the individual may have a difficult time compartmentalizing responses.”
To be sure, not staying on script could be fine if it’s a 30-second divergence, Falcone said. “But it becomes super problematic if that side story goes on for two or three minutes. After all, the recruiter wants to get to know the real person, but at the same time keep the conversation relevant and on point as far as the individual’s career experiences and qualifications.”
2. Why did you leave your previous employer (or why are you leaving your present job)?
Look for honesty and transparency in the answer. Many talented professionals lose their jobs at some point during their careers, so don’t stigmatize those who were part of a downsizing or acquisition. However, if the candidate offers a vague reference to differing opinions or the arrival of a new boss, dig deeper to try to uncover performance issues that you can later confirm through reference checking. Of course, unemployed applicants who can refocus the discussion on how their skill set matches the current position are ready for the next question.
“As you listen to each answer, look for a situational context within which you can judge the individual’s decision-making abilities, decisiveness and ability to work in concert with others,” Falcone said.
For currently employed candidates, seek credible explanations for why they’re in search of greater opportunities, challenges or responsibilities. If that includes transitioning into a new industry, find out why they’re attempting to make that change and see if the answer ties into the new job’s short- and long-term responsibilities.
3. What are your greatest strengths?
This is an interviewing stalwart (along with the next question) that every applicant should be ready to hit out of the park, “and [it] should tell you a lot if they don’t,” said Enelow, author of Modernize Your Resume: Get Noticed … Get Hired (Emerald Career Publishing, 2016).
Look for answers that briefly summarize work experiences and the applicant’s strongest qualities and achievements that are directly related to the duties of the open job. Listen for candidates who cite such skills as self-motivation, initiative and the ability to work in a team, and avoid those who focus on perceived strengths “that might not carry much weight in your work environment,” she said.
4. What are your weaknesses?
Few applicants are so honest and self-aware that they’ll share an accurate overview of their weaknesses. Smart interviewees try to turn the question around and present a personal weakness as a professional strength. For instance, applicants who are overly detail-oriented workaholics who neglect family and friends while driving colleagues crazy may present themselves as meticulous, dedicated workers. To get to the truth, ask for detailed, specific examples of their workplace efforts to see if they’re hiding a difficult personality.
Savvier candidates who are deserving of consideration will talk instead about how they’re taking steps to improve themselves. An accountant, for example, might explain how he’s working to bolster his knowledge of payroll procedures by enrolling in courses at a local college, while an IT professional might outline the additional certifications she’s targeting.
5. What can you tell me about our company and industry?
Did they do their homework? Nothing should eliminate a candidate from consideration faster than a lack of research into the employer’s business lines, locations, customer base and company culture.
“I don’t take these applicants seriously because they obviously don’t take the interview process seriously,” said Falcone, who suggests that interviewers should dig for more than superficial answers that could have been gleaned from a five-minute review of the company’s website.
“Even at the entry level, while a candidate may not know much about a company, there are multiple opportunities to research the organization in advance of the in-person meeting thanks to Google, Glassdoor and the company’s website,” he said. “I often refer to this as the ‘candidate desire factor,’ which can serve as a significant swing factor in the ultimate selection.”
6. What do/did you like most and least about your present/most recent job?
Look for answers on areas that are specific and relevant to the open position. Job seekers who describe their last job by saying “it was an easy commute” or “the benefits are great” will likely be job hunting again soon. Instead, identify candidates who value the same workplace qualities that the company values, such as seeking opportunities on the cutting edge of technology or creating teams with strong camaraderie.
When discussing the least-liked aspects of their present or previous jobs, applicants who mention areas of responsibility that are far removed from the functions of the available job are the best bet. And those who say they performed the assignment well nonetheless or learned something useful show they stick with tasks, even those that don’t particularly interest them, Enelow said.
7. Tell me what isn’t on your resume.
Applicants who prepare well for interviews and are smooth enough not to sound too rehearsed can be thrown by this question because it requires them to talk about something other than work experiences.
“When I ask this question, I’m often told by candidates that they’ve never been asked that question before,” said Luong Phu, a senior technical recruiter at Micron Technology in Fremont, Calif. “A few struggle and can’t think of an answer, but I often hear terrific responses from some candidates who really showcase their soft skills,” as well as talk about what’s most important to them in their personal lives.
8. Aren’t you underqualified or overqualified for this position (depending on their past experience)?
Smart interviewees focus on the experiences and skill sets they’ll bring to the position and the value they’ll deliver. However, this is a question that often leads to lengthy explanations that can offer real insights into a person’s true motivations—good and bad—for seeking the job, Enelow said.
Conversely, as Baby Boomers age, it’s not uncommon for them to seek positions with lesser responsibilities in which they can be a strong team player and mentor to younger employees, so don’t necessarily hold that overqualification against them, depending on the position.
9. Has your perception of this job opportunity changed based on our interview?
Too many recruiters have been lured into thinking that a candidate who fared well in an interview is really ready to accept an offer that’s extended. And even worse, they’ve been burned by candidates who accepted an offer but then later changed their mind and even failed to show up on day one. This question is designed to help weed out those who weren’t really serious or heard something during the interview that didn’t sit well.
“This is usually the last question I ask before ending the interview,” said Bimi Menegatti, SHRM-CP, human resource director at the Community Housing Partnership in San Francisco. “The answer to this question tells you whether the person really understands what they will be doing. Have they asked the right questions to learn more about the position, and were there any misunderstandings that need to be cleared up?”
Menegatti added that she hopes to hear a “yes” answer to this question. “The candidate likely has a vague understanding of the job when they walk in, but they should have a good understanding when they leave.”
10. Do you have any questions? Can you think of anything else you’d like to add?
Beware of candidates who say “no” or say that everything has been thoroughly discussed, Enelow said. Now is the time for them to restate why they’re the most logical candidates for the job opening by asking key questions they’ve prepared and haven’t had a chance to voice. Those who want to explore the company’s professional development efforts or ask what you personally like best about working there are looking for insights to help them decide whether to accept an offer if it’s extended.
While these 10 questions should separate serious “A” players from the rest, be prepared to ask additional questions tied to specific duties and requirements of the job. These should be developed while working closely with the hiring manager for each position, and you should dive into the details needed to distinguish the finalists from one another.
“Working through a detailed list of solid questions will help you identify candidates who have a positive attitude, are competent and confident, and have a calmness under fire, which demonstrates that they can handle whatever emerges on the job,” Enelow said.