People often write in to my advice blog to ask about what interview questions are best to ask — both as the interviewer and as the job candidate. Here are the top five questions to ask, from each side of the desk.
I’ve hired for junior-level positions before, but for the first time, I need to interview candidates for a manager role. What questions should I be asking candidates at this level? — Katie, Maryland
When interviewing candidates for any role, the overarching key is to get beneath the superficial and truly probe a candidate’s fit for the role. With candidates for management roles, you’re particularly looking for a drive toward getting results — people who understand what it takes to get things done, who will make hard decisions, find ways past roadblocks and who have the smarts and interpersonal skills to influence and motivate others.
Here are five questions that will help you suss out those traits.
1. “What has been your biggest achievement at (current or recent company)? What results that you produced are you most proud of?”
You’re looking for someone with a track record of building something, making things happen or taking a project successfully from A to B (where B is bigger and better than A). Beware candidates who talk in hypotheticals about what they could achieve rather than being able to tell you what they have actually achieved.
2. “Tell me about a goal you or your team had that you didn’t meet.”
By getting the candidate to talk about a time when things didn’t go well, you’ll learn about how much insight she has into why some projects don’t succeed, how much responsibility she takes when something goes wrong and whether she learns from failure. You should also watch for humility: Does the candidate take any responsibility, or does she blame others?
3. “Tell me about a time when…”
The best way to predict how candidates will act in the future is to find out how they’ve acted in the past. So rather than asking questions that focus on hypothetical situations, like how a candidate thinks she would handle a particular situation, instead probe into how they’ve acted in the past by asking about a time when they had to manage a struggling performer, set goals for a new area of work, resolve a problem on their team or any of the other work they’ll need to perform in the role you’re hiring for.
4. “That’s interesting. Tell me more about that.”
Too often, interviewers ask a question, hear an answer and then move on. But you’ll learn far more if you focus on depth over breadth in your questions — getting into the details of a few experiences rather than covering each and every job listed on a resume. For instance, you might ask to hear about one of the candidate’s most important projects and how she managed it from start to finish. From there, you might ask follow-up questions like: What was the initial vision for the project? What happened? How did you ensure that happened? What was the biggest challenge? How did you deal with that? Why did you choose that route? What lessons did you take away?
Interview like this, and you’ll get a much greater understanding of how your candidates really operate.
5. “Tell me about a difficult personnel decision you’ve had to make.”
Rigorous people-practices are critical for building a team of talented staffers who can perform at a high level. Ask the candidate to walk you through a people-problem she faced, what her thought process was and how she ultimately handled it. Listen here for signs that she holds her staff to a high bar while being fair and compassionate and that she’s willing to make tough decisions.
I was recently interviewed for a job, and when the interviewer asked me what questions I had for her, I didn’t know what to ask. Most of what I was wondering about had been covered earlier in the conversation. Is it OK to not ask questions at all in that situation? And if not, what are the best questions to ask? — Rochelle, Colorado
Even when you feel like all your questions have already been answered, it's smart to take advantage of the opportunity to ask more. After all, this is a job where you’re considering spending 40+ hours a week; do you really not have anything else you’re wondering about the work, the culture or the management? Plus, not asking questions when given the opportunity can signal (rightly or wrongly) that you're not being particularly thoughtful about the role, which can set off alarm bells for your interviewer.
Here are five questions to ask that won't just impress your interviewer, they’ll also get you valuable information about the job, which is key in helping you decide if it's the right fit for you.
1. What are the biggest challenges the person in this position will face?
This question shows that you don't have blinders on from the excitement about a new job, you recognize that every job has difficult elements and you're being thoughtful about what it will take to succeed in the position.
2. What would a successful first year in the position look like?
Here, you’re demonstrating that you're thinking in the same terms that the hiring manager does — about what a new hire will need to excel. You’ll also sound like someone who isn't seeking to simply do the bare minimum, but rather to truly achieve in the role.
3. How will the success of the person in this position be measured?
This question might sound similar to the previous one, but it will give you more insight into what the hiring manager values most. You might discover that while the job description emphasizes skill A or responsibility B, the manager actually cares most about skill C or responsibility D.
4. How would you describe the culture here? What type of people tend to really thrive, and what types don’t do as well?
If the culture is formal and highly structured and you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment, or if it's an aggressive, competitive environment and you are more low-key and reserved, this job might not be an ideal fit for you. And you want to find this out before you take the job, not after you’re already working there.
5. Thinking back to the people who you've seen in this role previously, what’s the difference between a good performance and a great one?
Interviewers love this question because it signals that you’re someone who cares not just about doing an OK or even good job, but about being truly great. It’s hard not to adore the candidate who asks this.