Well-baked interview questions are designed to serve up high-performing, culture-fitting and long-term job candidates — but with so many options out there, which ones should you focus on?
I asked three recruiting experts if they would be willing to share some of their tried-and-tested recipes for interviewing. Following are their responses, covering a diversity of traits and competencies so you can screen candidates for potential impact, skills, decision-making ability, strategic thinking, culture fit and much more. All the while, these questions can help you allay candidate concerns, building confidence and trust in the overall interview process — and your company in general.
1. "Tell me about your greatest accomplishments or highlights."
Why It Works: Darryl Dioso, Managing Partner, Resource Management Solutions Group, says he asks this for each role he reviews on the resume because “it shows what they did and how they impacted their previous company.” It also reveals a candidate’s personally prized accomplishments and provides further insight into personality.
[Related: 5 Tips for Targeting the Right Talent]
Why It Works: Bill McCabe, Talent Acquisition Leader/Consultant, ferrets out achievements based on the candidate’s level, and this is his favorite accomplishments-focused question. McCabe explains, “The ability to influence others is critical in nearly every role. Input to build the argument should first validate that a problem exists that has an adverse effect on … the business. The business case can be made through a data-driven approach (prompting a follow up as to where the data was derived, how the candidate knew the data was valid, how he/she is convinced that taking this approach will have the desired effect, etc.) or an anecdotal one (candidate should describe how using their history and experience led them to apply a proven approach to a new situation). Sometimes an approach used in the past may not apply when attempted in another structure so the candidate should explain why they feel an approach can be successfully duplicated in a new environment or situation.”
Best and Worst Scenarios
3. “Tell me about both the best and worst interview you ever had with someone regarding a career opportunity.”
Why It Works: Sandra B. McCartt, President-Executive Recruiter, Professional Search, Inc., International, aspires to relax the candidate before diving into the meat of the interview by asking this question. In addition, this question, “… will tell an interviewer a lot about the person: What bothers them, something funny or how to direct the interview,” according to McCartt.
4. “Tell me about the best and worst employee that ever reported to you. What might they say about you? How did you handle the worst and utilize the best?”
Why It Works: “This question provides a good reflection of the candidate’s management style in dealing with both good, and difficult, staff; it also checks for a fit with those currently working in the department," McCartt says. "If the candidate has not been in a management position, I ask about coworkers,” she adds.
5. “Tell me about the most difficult supervisor to whom you have reported. What would that supervisor say about you?
Why It Works: This question is designed to unearth potential problems, particularly “if the new supervisor is somewhat like the one the candidate has just described as her worst nightmare,” McCartt says. McCartt then moves on to “asking for a description of the best supervisor, what that supervisor would say about the candidate. When doing a reference check, this question provides a specific question to ask to ascertain if the candidate has a realistic concept of their boss seeing them the same way the candidate thinks they do,” explains McCart.
6. “When you have failed to achieve your goals/quotas, what plan of action did you take to get back on track?”
Why It Works: We’ve all heard the adage about "failure being the key to success." The job interview is a good opportunity to capitalize on the value of a candidate’s failure in a new role. Explains Dioso, “I see if they are resilient and can shrug off setbacks. Furthermore, I see if they have a continuous improvement process and mindset in place to learn from their mistakes and move on.”
7. “Tell me about a ‘big picture’ project that brought true change to the organization and built equity with your stakeholders."
Why It Works: According to McCabe, this question moves the focus from transactional accountabilities to “an example of really moving the needle through change that shatters the status quo and serves to allow a team, function, business unit or organization to run leaner and add to the top and bottom lines.”
8. “If you could change three things about your current or previous position that would make it the perfect job, what would they be?”
Why It Works: The responses to this question will help ascertain if the candidate’s expectations are in line with the job for which they are interviewing, says McCartt.
9. “Provide an example of when a decision needed to be made and there were three different approaches to consider. How did you decide which would work best? What was the outcome?”
Why It Works: The ability to make decisions is crucial for most employees to succeed in the workplace, and these questions unearth a repository of results, according to McCabe. “These questions are less about which decision was made and more about the ability to make a decision using as much data, history and instinct as possible,” explains McCabe. “Can the candidate show that they didn’t set out to mitigate all degrees of risk in the decision to go the safe route? Can they illustrate that they can make tough decisions quickly? A candidate should be willing to share if the decision, in retrospect, was the wrong one and why. If they admit to making the wrong decision, can they provide what they learned for the next go-round? Or that the decision didn’t paralyze them in the future from making decisions for fear of the wrong outcome?”
10. “What three criteria will you be looking for in selecting your next company?”
Why It Works: “I like this question as it gives me insight into their motivation to leaving and also if the employer matches what they are seeking,” says Dioso.
11. “Give me one word that describes you as a professional that you would like for me to remember you by.”
Why It Works: Dioso is seeking out creativity in how candidates describe themselves and screening whether or not it matches with what it takes to be successful at the company.
12. “Detail the set-up of a metrics dashboard you created. How did you know the metrics involved provided value to the function and organization? “
Why It Works: According to McCabe, “The candidate should be able to explain that certain metrics previously used were no longer measured and that new metrics were introduced that added more value. They should be able to communicate how the measures align [with] the strategy and how the key stakeholders had input into which measurements were important to them. Also, are the measurements leading or lagging metrics? Often times, a Sr. Leader will want to know that the metrics that are established are simple, measure what they are supposed to, are transparent and are set into a continuous improvement loop,” concludes McCabe.
13. “Bring this resume to life. What do you do for fun? Where is the coolest place you have ever visited? What do you read?”
Why It Works: After the interview has progressed through standard inquiries, McCartt lobs this more colorful question the candidate’s way. McCartt explains these questions provide insights beyond the resume, helping the hiring manager feel they not only have a good sense of the candidate's professional self but also their whole self.
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14. “What do you think an interview really is, and do you worry about saying the wrong thing?”
Why It Works: McCartt leverages this question to expand upon her interview partnership philosophy. As such, she follows whatever they answer with, “It has been my experience that an interview is really two business professionals sitting down together to see if they have mutual needs, skills and philosophies that would make a partnership a potential success. I don’t think there are wrong answers in interviews if one is looking for a business partner.”