3 Interview Questions That Will Set the Right Course

Two decades of experience have taught Senior Talent Acquisition Manager Adam Fitzer that one size does not fit all when interviewing candidates. However, certain key questions will help set the right Q&A course.

Fitzer, who works for West Monroe Partners in greater New York City, draws on his deep recruiting experience — primarily in technology and consulting — to construct certain “base questions” that lay out the direction for further probing and follow-up. Here are a few of his favorites.

1) Tell me about one of your greatest challenges professionally that you’ve been able to successfully meet. How did you approach it?

The first question seeks to unravel skeins of critical thinking amid candidates’ storied challenges. It also helps reveal their ability (or not) to maintain a solutions-focused attitude versus getting mired in the problems.

Why It Works: “I look for specific examples where someone was able to problem solve and think on their feet and also manage some challenging professional situations,” says Fitzer.

In addition to the example the candidate provides, Fitzer listens for “HOW they describe this situation. Can they maintain a positive approach and demeanor throughout? Can they describe and focus on the solution versus just the challenge? Can they find an example that relates to the role at hand?”

“As an employer,” explains Fitzer, “we look for individuals that have demonstrated these characteristics prior, as it’s more likely that they’ll be able to do the same in the future.”

He further underscores the meaningful responses he’s received over the years, culminating in some of his favorite interview moments “when the candidate lights up with pride describing their achievements despite the obstacles they had faced.”

[Related: How to Conduct Better Interviews]

2) Could you tell me a time where you made a mistake at work? Or, could you tell me a time where you were part of a team or effort that failed?

The essence of the second question, according to Fitzer, is that it “tells [you] whether or not an individual is humble enough to admit they’ve not only made mistakes but they also can own up to them.”

Why It Works: “Having hired thousands of people in my career, I’ve heard ‘The role was not as it was described’ answer far too often. This even happens to the most thoughtful job seekers,” expresses Fitzer.

“In and it of itself, this is not an issue, but how candidates convey this during an interview can be,” he expands. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen too often when a candidate blames the company or others for their mistake when a position does not work out.”

“When candidates are honest and own up to their decision and focus on why the role is/was simply not a right fit, it’s understandable and relatable in most instances. However, when a candidate throws their manager or a firm under the bus during an interview, this is usually seen as a red flag and can work against them,” continues Fitzer.

He generally deploys the alternative question about “being part of a team or effort that failed” for less experienced candidates where a team failure may be more readily accessible.

“Not only does this question tell you how this person works in a team environment, but it also tells you if they are humble enough to own up to challenges and mistakes that happened versus blaming others or circumstances for the challenges and mistakes,” asserts Fitzer.

Finally, with both questions, he provides a platform for the candidate to synthesize learnings, including “what they’ve done or will do differently to avoid [the challenges and mistakes] in the future and continue to grow professionally, as a result.”

[Related: 5 Common-Thread Interview Questions to Ask Candidates]

3) What do you do for fun? Hobbies, interests? Do you like movies? What movie, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, do you have to watch when it’s on? If they don’t like movies, what book would they recommend or are they reading now?

The third question helps Fitzer in a plethora of circumstances, including when hiring for roles on his team and/or for individuals with whom he will work closely, or to get a better handle on more reticent personalities.

Why It Works: “The answers provide a glimpse into the life of the candidate,” Fitzer expounds, such as what is important to them; their passions (which sometimes overlap into their professional life); how well-rounded they are; and, whether they hyper-focus on one aspect or the other; e.g., work versus leisure.  

Fitzer divulges several recent revelations from such questioning:

  • The candidate’s favorite business journals or article;
  • A side business the candidate had of breeding ferrets in their spare time to make extra income. This came up when I was having a tougher time getting the candidate to interact, and his face lit up when describing this business operation;
  • A Star is Born, as the candidate’s favorite movie, as she really related to the Lady Gaga character and could not get enough.

Learn More: 

How to Recruit Informed Candidates at Scale