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Asking the Right Interview Questions in Today’s Competitive Workplace

Kurt Birkenhagen May 29, 2018

Crucial Job Interview Questions
Staring across the boardroom table at your potential next employee is as nerve-wracking for you as it is for them. Is it because, after dozens of interviews, you’re still not sure about those basic questions you’ve been asking for years?

Now’s the time to enhance your hiring process by adding a few of these questions from HR experts, CEOs, and other masters of the job interview.

Personal Core Values Questions
Teamwork Interview Questions
Leadership Interview Questions
Conflict Resolution Interview Questions
Time Management Interview Questions
Communication Skills Interview Questions
Problem-Solving Interview Questions
Competency-Based Interview Questions

Personal Core Values Questions

Good people working together—that’s what makes a company successful. Here are some probing questions to help you hire people who care about the same things you do.

Two years from now, if you’re part of the team at XYZ, how will you judge if your time has been a success? (Jeff Butler, workplace expert and author)

“The answer to this question will indirectly show what the candidate values in terms of success,” says Butler. “If your company is all about teamwork then the candidate should be supporting their success point by using the words ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.”

What was your best day at work? (Adrian Ridner, CEO & Co-founder of Study.com—one of Fortune Magazine’s Best Places to Work in the Bay Area)

“Their answer helps make it clear what drives them in their career, what they value in a job, and if they feel a sense of purpose and passion,” says Ridner. “This makes it possible to determine whether or not the candidate is a good fit with the core values of the company.”

What will make you put your resignation in immediately? (Mirjam Ijtsma, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Owner, President, Cultural Chemistry, LLC)

“When asking for core values, (don’t) specifically ask for what their values are—ask the opposite,” says Ijtsma. “The candidate will give you a very generic answer. Then … ask them to give you an example of when they have been in a situation like they just provided to you and what they had done about it.”

Tell me something you have taught yourself in the last six months. (Jeff Butler, workplace expert and author)

“The answer to this question will reveal how intrinsically motivated they are to self-improvement,” says Butler. “The thing to look for is: Are they motivated to improve themselves?”

What are the biggest life events in the past year that have shaped you? (Jeff Butler, workplace expert and author)

“The life events, and the lens of which the candidate expresses them, dictates what the candidate values,” says Butler. “For instance, ‘I published a paper that was featured in Forbes,’ versus ‘I was apart of a team that was featured in Forbes.'”

If I spoke with your current or past manager what would they say makes you most valuable to them?

Thinking back on the best boss you have ever had, what are the characteristics they exhibited that you most admired?

Has there ever been a time when you experienced a setback for doing what you perceived is right? What happened?

These three questions come from Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder & CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a global marketing and branding firm. “In my experience, the right people can learn the job quickly with smarts and high energy,” says Arnof-Fenn. “But you can never make up for character flaws or integrity issues.”

Teamwork Interview Questions

Get candidates outside of their comfort zone and away from prepared answers by asking questions that reveal how they respond to problems in teams and what motivates them in life.

Give me an example of a time when you had a conflict with a coworker. Why was there a conflict and how did you handle it? (Staci McIntosh, HR executive)

“A person who doesn’t create conflict and works effectively through problems will usually struggle to find a specific example,” says Staci. “This is because he or she doesn’t actually see disagreements as conflicts. Candidates unlikely to be great team players … are usually able to come up with an example quickly and easily.”

What gives your life meaning? (Rod Brace, PhD, former CLO at Memorial Hermann Health System)

“Meaningfulness … is a powerful motivator that will propel employees and potential managers toward success,” says Rod. “After they describe what drives meaning for them, ask them to relate that to your organization and why they will find their work meaningful if they partner with you.”

Could you tell me about a time you lacked skills or knowledge to complete an assignment? (Rebecca Barnes-Hogg, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, YOLO Insights)

“This behavioral question reveals details about a candidate’s work style (e.g., teamwork, problem-solving, communication, etc.),” says Rebecca. “You want to know how a candidate responds to change, faces challenges, approaches learning opportunities, and if they can problem solve.”

How do you get to know people in a new environment?

What role do you play in your group of friends?

What do you do when someone comes to you with a problem you think is unimportant?

All three questions come from Robin Levine, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Scouted, a job placement firm. “Ask each candidate the same exact question so you can start to compare answers in apples-to-apples comparison,” says Robin. “The biggest mistake is over-relying on any one answer or any one data point or even any one interviewer’s perspective.”

Leadership Interview Questions

When you’re looking for leaders, search for examples of past failures and successes that might predict future ones. Answers to these questions signal what caliber of leader you’re talking to in the interview.

How would you handle a situation where project [X] was in danger of missing its deadline? (Lynda Spiegel, HR professional and Founder of Rising Star Resumes

“Zero in on the candidate who assumes responsibility without laying blame and who attributes success to others without claiming it for themselves,” says Lynda.

Tell me about a time you needed to speak up and nobody agreed with you? (Jeannette Seibly, business advisor and executive coach)

“Behavioral-based questions… get underneath [a candidate’s] strengths and weaknesses,” says Jeannette. “For example, just because someone doesn’t want to be the boss, doesn’t mean they can’t be a leader within their team.”

How do you develop morale in the people who report to you?
How do you support behavior that you would like repeated?
How have you been able to lead teams you have managed to become more effective?
What’s an example of how you’ve developed individuals that have become highly successful?

All four questions come from Brian Binke, President/CEO of The Birmingham Group. “It’s extremely important to ask behavioral-based questions for the most important aspects of the position,” says Brian. “Past success is a major indicator of future success.”

Conflict Resolution Interview Questions

Conflict resolution means more than getting past problems with other workers; it can also mean confronting conflicts that pop up between an employee’s personal and professional life. Here are a few questions to find out how well a candidate deals with disarray.

Your supervisor comes to you Friday afternoon and assigns you a task due Saturday at 4 pm, that you must be in the office to complete. But you are throwing a surprise party for a relative’s college graduation on Saturday. What will you do? (Zach Hendrix, Co-Founder, GreenPal

“The worst answer is, ‘I will be there to prepare and ship the order,’ which is most likely not true,” says Hendrix. “We want to hear a person provide us with options. We want a person who can think and be honest rather than just telling us what we want to hear.”

Tell me about a time when an employee disagreed with your performance evaluation of him or her. (Marielle Smith, VP of People at GoodHire)

“Without one or two specific examples, it’s difficult to know how (a candidate) will address conflict resolution,” says Smith. “I try and ask questions that will require them to provide examples and more context.”

What happens when your family/friends aren’t all on the same page? (Laura MacLeod, LMSW, HR expert and consultant)

“Candidates can easily prepare statements about company mission/values and cite examples of ethical business practices,” says MacLeod. “You will see true core values in family, friends, hobbies/interests—stories about life outside of work.”

Tell me about an instance where you disagreed with a company rule or a manager’s approach?

Describe a time when you and a colleague disagreed on a project. What was the eventual outcome?

Have you ever had to deal with an unhappy customer?

James Rice, Head of Digital Marketing at WikiJob, suggested these three questions. “For each question, (I’m) looking for the candidate to: Show what they did to manage the disagreement, indicate what their style of conflict resolution is, and be articulate about the situation and how it was dealt with satisfactorily.”

Time Management Interview Questions

Establish a candidate’s basic level of interest in time management as a discipline, then work from there to zero in on their specific strategies. Here are questions to help.

Is it better to be perfect and late, or good and on time? (Alexander Lowry, Professor of Finance, Gordon College)

“How the candidate answers this question tells me everything,” says Lowry. “For most companies, the correct answer is ‘good and on time.’ It’s important to let something be finished when it’s good enough.”

How do you decide when an idea is worth spending time on? (Jonathan Denn, Chief Thinking Partner at DrumbeatProductivity.com)

“Neuroscience is fairly clear that we humans get only about three hours of high-quality thinking time a day,” says Denn. “These thinking sessions need to be aligned with the most important tasks for the week. The remaining hours in the day are largely governed by habits (hopefully good) and mental models. So how a new prospective team member spends their precious time at work can be the difference between an ‘A’ player and a bad hire.”

How would you organize this list of five to seven tasks, and why? (James Pollard, business coach)

“I’ve found that some people organize from most important to least important,” says Pollard. “Others start with the quickest tasks so they get the most ‘stuff’ done in a workday. Others have their own rationale for doing things. Whatever (their system) is, asking the question in this way will help you figure it out. You have to be direct, and you have to observe the person’s thought process in action.”

Tell me about a time in the past where you had to prioritize multiple tasks. What was the situation, and how did you address it?

When you have had to report in to more than a single manager, how have you prioritized your duties?

What productivity tools have you used on the job previously?

These all come from Lindsay Mustain, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, an 18-year veteran of the talent acquisition process. “The questions are based on behavioral-based interview style,” says Mustain, “which goes on the assumption that past behavior is future behavior.”

Communications Skills Interview Questions

The process of the interview itself helps you understand how the person communicates. But interviews are scheduled, allowing for planning, and are often 100% verbal. A good strategy forces interviewees to put other skills on display and to discuss their communication philosophy.

Can you show a correlation between these two words: “spider” and “computer”? (Dr. Marlene Caroselli, author, keynoter, and corporate trainer)

One of the best ways to test for depth of insight and also verbal fluency is to give an applicant two unrelated words,” says Dr. Caroselli. If the prospect says, “There is a spider on my computer,” you don’t have an applicant with the ability to deal with abstractions. But, if he or she says, ‘Just as a spider can spin a gossamer web that can be both intriguing and dangerous, so, too, can the computer offer both allure and ensnarement,’ they certainly can.”

How did your past employers deal with lack of communication? (Dana Case, Director of Operations at MyCorporation.com)

“This gives you an idea of how important good communication skills are to the prospective employee and if they align well with your communication practices,” says Case.

What team communication tools do you like best and why?

If you feel that you are losing the attention of your audience during a presentation, what do would you do to get their attention?

These questions from Uwe Weinkauf, CEO of MW2 Consulting. “Good communications skills are important in any industry,” says Weinkauf, “so asking a potential candidate the right questions to where their skill sets stand is imperative.”

What is your favorite form of communication and why? (Alon Rajic, Managing Director, Finofin LTD.)

Rajic gave us a common mistake hiring managers make when assessing communications skills: “(A common mistake is) bluntly asking people if they are good communicators. Very few people can be objective about themselves.”

Problem-Solving Interview Questions

Problem-solving skills are a top priority for any new hire. Employees with good critical thinking skills have the intellectual capacity to meet the evolving demands of your company.

Why do you want this job? (Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa, Behavioral and Management Psychologist)

“Ask (the candidate) to write — using a minimum of five sentences — on this topic,” says Dr. Jaffa. “Note how they organize their thoughts. This intellectual exercise should give you a good idea of their critical-thinking and organization skills in a high-pressure situation.”

How many grains of sand are on the average beach?

The goal of problem-solving questions like this (or, “How many jelly beans fit in the trunk of a car”) isn’t to get an accurate answer, it’s to get a vision into how a person solves problems—what questions they ask, how deeply they think.

How would you handle this [tricky situation that could arise as part of your job]?

Providing a real-life scenario helps you assess problem-solving but also gives you a sense for how well the person has researched the position and your organization.

What’s a problem at your current job that you haven’t solved yet? What are you doing about it?

A good spin on the traditional “tell-me-about-a-problem-you’ve-solved” question, this gives you insight into a potential employee’s strategy in the moment—not the story they tell in hindsight.

Competency-Based Interview Questions

The experts we talked to recommended some form of written test as the best way to gauge an applicant’s overall competency level—but recommended a few questions as well.

Describe a time when you were not able to meet a deadline. How did you handle this situation? (Jacob Dayan, CEO, Community Tax)

“This question gives you insight into how a candidate will handle a stressful situation,” says Dayan. “It also allows you to see if the candidate will take a proactive or reactive approach. Competency does not necessarily mean that you do everything perfectly all the time. Rather, it means that you know how to effectively handle the situation when things don’t go as expected.”

How would you respond to (insert realistic situation here: “customer complaints”, “angry phone call”, etc.)? How would you resolve the situation? (Mary Pharris, Fairygodboss, an online community for professional women)

“Behavioral or situational questions are a terrific way to determine competency in a given area,” says Pharris. “The interviewee’s response can give you great insights into their own personal experiences as well as their thought process and how they’ve handled similar situations in the past.”

Describe a project you worked on that you feel you could have improved upon. (Dillon Chen, ProSky, an online recruiting and interviewing solution)

“Candidates are uncomfortable talking about failure—after all, they are trying to impress you,” says Chen. “Focusing on a time they could have improved implies that they actually did complete the task; you are now giving them a chance to perfect it.”

What don’t you like about your current / most-recent employer? (Rod Brace, CLO and executive coach)

“In most organizations, the required core competence is that of judgment,” says Brace. “This question invites the candidate to disparage their last place of work to see if they will do so.” How they respond will show their ability to demonstrate judgment.

How do you feel about luck? (Stephanie Troiano, Executive Recruiter, The Hire Talent)

“Ask questions that require a thoughtful response—not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ones,” says Troiano. “If there is no substance to (the candidate’s response), then it might be a red flag that they don’t have the competence.”

What Next?

As you plan your next interview, compare the questions you’re comfortable with against some of the unique ones on this list. Or just sprinkle one or two new ones into the mix. Just because you’ve been using a question for ten years doesn’t mean it’s the best one. Job interviewing, like any other skill, is something you can always be improving.

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