Employers: You Need Better Questions

I’ve done a lot of job interviews in my lifetime. Or at least I have met with a lot of different interviewers. But really, I have only had one interview.

Over, and over and over, like Groundhog’s Day, but with desperation.

There is no variation. If you Google “most common job interview questions” there are 68 pages of return results.

The first question on the first hit?

Tell me something about yourself.

The first question on the last hit?

Tell me something about yourself.

That one may be a no-brainer, but you’re only going to get two responses.

From the candidates who had the presence of mind to Google “most common job interview questions” you will get a carefully rehearsed list of their finer points delivered with a smug smile because they were prepared.

Or, you’ll get the deer in headlights look.

Neither one gives you any insight into the individual, their true strengths, their personality, or their ability to think on their feet.

The same can be said of most of the other questions.

  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • Tell me about your strengths.
  • What’s your greatest weakness?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • Who was your best (or worst) boss and why?
  • What’s the biggest challenge you have faced?
  • What is your greatest achievement?

No, no, no, no, NO!

Those are not good questions. In the end, there are two types of people looking for jobs.

The ones that over prepare – they can answer every question deftly, smiling all the way. They research – you, the company, job boards and advice forums. They stalk you on Twitter and Linked In and read every public FB post you’ve ever made.They have made a job out of finding a job.

Hiring one of these people simply because they answered your questions well is akin to buying a used car without checking under the hood.

The other group is more earnest. They are more likely to come with experience in the real work world, and naively rely on that experience to land them the job. They are surprised when they apply for a job as a greeter when they are asked what their greatest achievement is.

It will throw them; you’ll get more shiny deer eyes, and a response about giving a good home to a lot of cats.

Let me put that in context: My greatest achievement is that I am the infamous crazy cat lady.


Eleanor Abernathy’s always funny. Except that was not a joke. That was a legitimate answer given to a friend when he posed that question to a real candidate.

I know what you’re aiming for with your questions. But they’re always the same, and they’re likely the same ones everyone else is asking –  you’re trying to catch a new fish with old bait.

The way to learn about your candidates is to disarm them – hit them with questions they don’t see coming. But keep them angled so that even the horrified deer can answer them.

How do you do that?

By asking about them. They’re people, remember? If you ask unexpected questions, you will be more likely to get an honest answer. And you can extrapolate the rest.

Trust me on this. One of my favorite songs carries the line, all you know about me is what I’ve sold ya – that is the theme for every job candidate you have ever interviewed.

The one question I’ll be certain to ask every applicant I interview is simple:

What is your favorite hobby?

Seems kind of weird, but what illuminates a personality better than knowing what they actually do?

Do they read? Or write? probably very good communicators with excellent focus. They’ll probably nail any research project they are given.

Knit, crochet, hunt? Patient, methodical and able to carry a project through to completion.

Cooking or baking? Results oriented, able to follow direction while exercising judicious creative license.

Gamer? Ask what game. You may have a very creative individual in front of you, or a strategist. Or a combination of both.

Collect something? Great attention to detail, understanding of value and probably good at research as well.

Volunteer? Probably empathetic, good with people, able to put aside personal gain for the greater good.

Music or art? Again, creativity but also focus on patterns and harmony.

Puzzles? More problem solvers, people able to focus on the big picture.

I could keep going, but you get the idea. What people do when they are free is what defines them.

Another question I’d ask – What is your favorite movie?

Not because I give a damn about that. I don’t care. But I want to see how fast they answer that question.

It doesn’t really matter which favorite you ask about – book, food, sport, season, color or animal.

What you want in an employee is someone who knows themselves and is unafraid to claim it. That employee will likely be a better fit.

Why? Because they are in your office because they believe they can do the job.

I could ace interviews I will never go to. I know all the right answers to all of those questions. But I also know myself well enough to walk away from good paying jobs and esteemed positions that would chafe and claw at me until I was unhappy.

I am, first and foremost, me. And if you don’t really like me, this just isn’t going to work out. That translates into expensive employee turnover.

I am nearly every applicant that walks through your door. And if you’re not looking at me, you’re looking at a liar.

And those tests! Stop with the tests.

A real question I answered on one of those tests was, ” Would you ever steal from your employer?”

A better question would have been, “Is there anyone alive that thinks “Yes” is the appropriate answer to that question?”

Of course you need to vet candidates’ experience and abilities. But those standards don’t tell the whole story.

You need to strike a balance.

And sometimes experience is not king – I know a restaurant owner in a very busy tourist town that only hires inexperienced wait staff – they have found that those that come with experience often come with bad habits that result in unhappy clientele. Rather  than hire and break the bad, they simply start with a raw material they can then train into their own model.

There isn’t a job that exists that a someone isn’t doing poorly. Just because I have done something before doesn’t mean I am good at it.

The next time you hire, whether your candidates are fidgety and inexperienced or smiling over a perfect resume, kick the tires a bit; look under the hood.

You may be surprised by what you’ll find.


3 thoughts on “Employers: You Need Better Questions

  1. Amen! I love your alternate questions. On the best interview I ever had, an editor asked me what my favorite book was and why. I was able to give a real and spontaneous, passionate answer about my favorite book being Rebecca, but was able to throw in my love of Russian literature. I think about my hobbies … musical theater, writing and stained glass, and I think they say a lot about who I am as a person … outgoing, creative, funny, committed to a schedule, committed to completing projects on deadline, precise, careful, colorful … that says a lot more about me than my rehearsed strengths and weaknesses. I mean, let’s get real here. We know the way to answer that question is to come up with a weakness that’s really a strength (i.e. I just care too much … I work so late, because I want everything to be perfect … blah, blah, blah!) This was a great piece! I’m reposting it on FB! And amidst your rants, if you need to laugh, come on over to my neck of the woods!


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