Candidate Interviews – Asking the Right Questions

“Tell me about a time when you and your manager did not get along and how you resolved that conflict.” – Some recruiter

Questions like the above come up all the time during interviews. Whether you are a candidate or a recruiter you might not know what they are good for. You might cringe at them. Team leaders might call these “HR questions” and would avoid them at all cost. Once you understand why they are asked you will find they are a useful way to drill-down and learn about a candidate.

Defining a position

The reason we ask these questions and others like it should be in order to learn about a specific aspect or quality we’re looking for in a candidate. This will begin with planning for your position. Each position will have different characteristics that will allow a candidate to succeed in it. Support positions will require some amount of empathy, a cool-headed personality, but also technical finesse and creativity. Some positions may require seemingly negative traits like low career aspirations, the ability to do monotonous labor without going crazy, or even raw stubbornness.

Asking the right questions begins with knowing what you’re looking for in a candidate for a specific position. What will allow them to succeed? what will cause them to fail? It’s important to list these qualities and actually plan ahead what you will be asking prospects.

Doing your homework

People are different and unique. It may go without saying, but it is important to take note of it. Before interviews you must sit down and read their CVs again. Look for gaps, look for interesting bits that may relate to the qualities you’re looking for (or looking to avoid) in a candidate. Did they take a year or two off? Did they switch positions? Is there one aspect that you would like to focus on more? It is there and then when you think about some of the more specific questions you would ask your candidate. Note them down and bring them into the room.

“Working in IT you must have some crazy stories about customers. Who was your craziest?” – Looking for patience and problem-solving abilities in your candidate, you might even start with something light.

Open-ended questions

HR personnel will always advise you to ask open-ended questions. They will start with the template “Give me an example for when…” or “Can you tell me about a time where…” The reason for this is that “yes/no” questions will drive you at the wall exactly when you need answers most.

– “Have you ever had a time when things did not go according to plan?”
– “No.”

It’s important to phrase your questions in a way that leaves not much wiggle-room. A candidate that will still wiggle should call you to drill deeper.

Getting to your answers

There are always cases when open-ended questions will still be blocked by the candidate. They might say there was never a case when they had trouble with their manager, or never had bad customers. These are common situations. What you should do in such cases is to push slightly for your answer. In reality life isn’t black and white. One customer was always the worst and even with the best boss you did not always agree. Phrase your comeback and call for an answer still – “Surely there was one project which you spent more time with than others,” “I’m sure one customer was more problematic than others,” “If all projects were exactly the same way, just pick one you would like to talk about.”

Keeping notes

It’s very important to keep notes during an interview. By the time it ends it is very hard to remember everything a candidate said. Notes are for you, but will also help in the next stages when someone else might want to decide or talk about it.

Notes should include basic bullets about the person in relation to the position you’re interviewing them for. They could be single words or full sentences – just make sure they don’t take from your attention to the person in front of you and that they don’t read them…

Some examples of notes could be:
“This person is always talking about his work with ‘we’ as if a team did it. Are they capable of working on their own?”
“Candidate seems only to be interested in writing code. Might not fit the position as a Data Scientist.”

Wrapping it all up

As soon as you leave the interview you should summarize in two sentences how the interview went by. This summary should be sent to HR along with your recommendation. You should note your observation about both technical and personal aspects and be sure to note (if the candidate will come for another interview) what you want to learn about them still. For example, a position might require adapting to many changes, and you haven’t learned whether the person could work well in ambiguity. Note that so the next interviewer might dig deeper and help you learning this.

Most importantly – “The right questions” are different for each position, person, and recruiter. Doing the preparation work is key for succeeding in getting that right person for your team.

For candidates

The questions you’re asked during an interview will hint towards what the position requires, and what the company is looking for in a candidate. They may hint at personal qualities or the position itself but they may also hint at points that came up when your CV was reviewed.

It is very important to recognize these points while being interviewed. They will help you learn what your deficiencies are, but also your strengths and whether the position itself is good for you. When a recruiter asks you a lot about aspects of flexibility and changes in management – you should expect to see a lot of that in this company. Do not be afraid to ask open-ended questions back. One of my favorite questions as an interviewer is when candidates ask me to describe an average day on the job. This will actually allow me to tell them more than the usual about the position and see whether or not they fit the profile by themselves.

Keep in mind that not all interviewers are experienced. Not all know what they are doing, and a lot of times you will see that you are asked the “wrong” questions. While there isn’t much you could do about it, it is important to do your own preparation work – List what you think might be good qualities for the position beforehand, know what your deficiencies may be and review your own CV. Preparing as-if to interview yourself in an honest way will prepare you for being interviewed by someone else.

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