Ask the Right Questions

We Conduct Job Interviews To Try To Predict What They Will Be Like After We Hire Them.

By Thomas J. Roach

Employment interviews are like a game. The interviewee anticipates what the interviewer wants the new hire to be like and appears to be that person. The interviewer should know that the interviewee is anticipating what they want and try to ask questions that will reveal what the interviewee is really like.

A smart interviewee will have researched the job and the company, and maybe even the interviewer. If the interviewer lets the interviewee control the interview, the conversation will only address issues that make a positive impression. 

The interviewer will come away from the interview thinking that the interviewee is more than qualified for the job, that they have common interests, that they will enjoy synergistically working together, and that they will probably become best friends forever.

Then six months later the interviewer realizes that the new hire isn’t a perfectionist whose biggest weakness is working too hard, isn’t really a people person, isn’t passionate about the mission statement, and doesn’t love country music and square dancing. 

This would be funny if other employees were not working overtime to compensate for the new hire’s ineptitude and the manager wasn’t looking forward to six more months of psychological wrangling trying to get rid of the new hire and running another search. 

Why We Conduct Interviews
We don’t conduct job interviews to hire new employees. We conduct job interviews to try to predict what they will be like after we hire them. The few hours spent preparing for and conducting job interviews can save thousands of wasted manhours in the future. 

Past experience is the best predictor of future experience, and it should be the focus of the interview. After the search committee or human resources have vetted candidates for qualifications, and it is time for the manager and coworkers to do the determinant interview and make a hiring decision, they should conduct a probing interview that zeros in on the candidate’s behavior in previous jobs.

An example of a good strategic question is “Tell me about a group project you worked on that didn’t go so well.” This puts a mind screw on the interviewee because they want to demonstrate how cooperative and open they are, but to do so, thy have to discuss something that may put them in a negative light. 

Once the interviewee sets the scene and explains the problem, the interviewer can start taking it apart with questions like, “Looking back on it, what might you have done differently?” That may lead to asking, “Why would you do that?” 

The story told by the interviewee isn’t as important as the insights the interviewer gets into their work habits, relationships with coworkers, and thought processes. 

Another Revealing Question
Another revealing question to ask is, “Consider your previous jobs and tell me about your favorite supervisor.” This can lead to follow-up questions about their working relationship. And, after this line of questioning is exhausted, the next primary question can be, “What was your least favorite supervisor like?” An honest and realistic job candidate should be able to have this conversation; someone who can’t probably isn’t mature enough to be hired.

If the job candidate is a new college graduate, the question can be converted to “Tell me about your favorite class.” Follow-up questions might reveal if the student was eager to learn, interacted with the professor, or was motivated to work on a project with other students. 

Good Interviewers
Good job interviewers are like a therapists. They walk job candidates through past experience and observe details, measure intensity, and ask them to evaluate their actions. 

No interview technique is foolproof, but when a probing behavior-based interview is finished, the interviewer should have a good idea of the interviewee’s work habits and will be able to eliminate a degree of chance from the hiring process. 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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