Critical Interview Questions
by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

Dr. Donn Lobdell is one of the smartest men I've ever met. When he was head of research and development for COBE Labs, a global high-tech medical device manufacturing company, I asked him, "What's the most important part of your job?"—figuring he'd say something like, "artificial intelligence, plastic polymers, or statistical sampling." Instead, he said, "Hiring is the most important part of my job—because when you're hiring, you're creating the future of your company." That was brilliant, and I've never forgotten it.

Word processing speed, college degrees, percentage of sales closed—all these are a matter of record. They can be measured. What is harder to gauge in hiring is character, and such things as honesty and integrity. Does your applicant fit your corporate culture? Are they a team player—will they fit in?

That's what the following critical path interview questions are designed to measure. While there are no "right" or "wrong" answers, there are better or worse answers. No job candidate will have all the "right" answers. The question is, does the general direction of what you're hearing fit with your game plan—or are there some real problems lurking nearby.

In interviewing we're often looking for "knock outs," things people say that trouble us and disqualify them. When given a chance, people will disclose the most negative facts about themselves, not realizing they're doing so. For example, if I ask, "Tell me about a time when you had a disagreement with a boss," and the candidate reveals unresolved conflicts with a variety of bosses, that's a red flag, because as one recruiter put it, "The past predicts the future." If they've had serious problems with bosses before, they'll likely have serious issues with our supervisors. Do we want that?

Qualified candidates often look nearly alike, so we're looking for small differences in selection. You might have three Senior Electrical Engineers—all great. How do you choose the one to recruit. It could be something as simple as honesty. When put in a compromising situation, which one will always tell you the truth. That's important in the midst of a critical path deadline. Take a case where you ask an engineer, "Can you redesign this circuit in less than three days?" If she can't, you'd want her to say, "No, I can't. Let's use the existing design." You wouldn't want her to say yes, and then miss important production targets and delivery deadlines.

Most of all, we want job candidates to disclose the truth. We all make mistakes, we're all human. It's important for candidates to admit that, to confess errors, and to try to learn from them. It's best to avoid someone who always wants to be perfect, or who tries to hide their flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings.

The best questions disguise what you're looking for. The applicant can't figure out what you want, so they answer honestly. "Did you like growing up in the South?" sounds innocent. But it isn't. It gives the interviewee a chance to hang themselves by being negative. Look for negativity about anything. Negative people tend to be negative in many different situations. That can come back to haunt you.

Chances are, you're looking for positive, upbeat, dependable, honest, competitive employees who want to be superstars themselves, but who have a team attitude. That's hard to find, but these questions smoke out the small differences between people.

"+" = The answer we want
"-" = The answer we don't want

  1. How do you like to be managed?
    +specific ideas
    -no ideas, doesn't like to be managed

  2. If you couldn't do [this particular job], what else would you do?
    +something competitive, demanding
    -don't know

  3. What's been the biggest disappointment in your business career?
    +names and describes one, explains rebound
    -uncertain, doesn't disclose

  4. Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a fellow worker.
    +specific conflict, resolves conflict
    -can't remember, doesn't have conflict, doesn't resolve conflict

  5. Tell me about a time when you had a disagreement with a boss.
    +specific conflict, resolves conflict
    -no disagreements, holds grudges

  6. Who is the worst boss you ever had? Why?
    +no bad boss, learned from all
    +specific problem with a boss, but resolved it
    -a complainer

  7. Are you a team player or individual achiever?

  8. Besides making good money, why do you [do what you do]?
    +specific reason
    -doesn't know

  9. How important is money to you?
    +important, but not the major motivation
    -very important

  10. What's wrong with your last employer that you would change?
    +something specific that might be changed
    -a complainer, dislikes authority and authority figures

  11. We're three days behind schedule on a major project. What are you thinking?
    +we can still get it done (or) something positive
    -blaming, finding fault, or we're going to fail

  12. How are you different from other candidates we're trying to recruit?
    +has an idea, shows confidence
    -no idea

  13. Aside from an injury, why would you quit [your profession]?
    +wouldn't quit
    -to start a business, other reason(s)

  14. Suppose your boss gives your promotion to another employee.
    What would you be thinking?
    +I can win this back (or) something positive
    -unfocused anger, dislikes the boss or other employees

  15. Why should we hire you rather than the other candidates we're considering?
    +specific reason(s), wants it more
    -no idea

  16. How important is it to be the best at what you do?
    +very important
    -not important

  17. How much do you want people to like you?
    +very much, important to me
    -don't care, respect only

  18. I know your strengths. What is your biggest weakness as a candidate?
    +names one that can be corrected or is irrelevant
    -avoids or doesn't have any. Good at everything

  19. Is there anything else you can tell me that would help to understand you better?
    +something positive, wants the job
    -no comment

Experiment with these behaviorally-based interview questions. Adapt them to your situation. Prepare for hiring interviews better than your candidates do. Overprepare. Do some probing during interviewing. Ask non-scripted follow-on questions like these:

  • "Tell me more."
  • "Explain that."
  • "Give me a specific example."
  • "Why did you feel that way?"
  • "How did you resolve it?"
  • "What did you learn from it?"

Interviewing is an important skill to add to your management talent bank. If you master the skill, you'll gain a reputation as a hiring wizard and create a brighter future for your company.

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