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Top 11 Questions That Employers Should Ask When Interviewing

An owner of a small business reports that, after receiving an unexpected large number of applications in response to an employment ad she ran in the newspaper, she selected 10 candidates to come in for a job interview. She offered the job to the one who seemed to be the best after answering the interviewer’s questions.

Big mistake. On the first day, the new employee made so many errors and caused so much damage to the business that it was also her last day. The employer blamed herself for not asking the right questions at the interview.

Each industry will have its own set of questions that need to be asked. While a real estate broker may ask how a new agent will handle an open house, and a CPA firm may want to question a candidate about his or her knowledge of the tax code, there are some general questions that any employer should ask.

Asking the right questions will allow you to get a good understanding of the candidate’s honesty, qualifications for the particular position, and ability to get along with other employees. You will be able to evaluate whether or not the applicant has qualities necessary to succeed in the business world in general and, in particular, with your company. Here are just a few questions that some employers have identified as helpful to them.

1. Why do you want to leave your current employment?

It is almost a given that an employer will ask this question, so job candidates should be prepared with an answer. You will discover if the applicant has a negative attitude about their previous employer or job situation. You can also determine if the candidate is honest and will admit to having been fired. If that is the case, you can ask follow-up questions about the circumstances surrounding or leading up to the termination. You can learn if the person can see a negative event as leading to a positive outcome—"running toward" a future opportunity rather than "running from" an unpleasant employment experience.

2. What is it about this job description that makes you want to work here?

This answer should help you determine if the candidate is just looking for a job—any job—or has a real interest in fulfilling the role you need him or her to fulfill. You can learn about the candidate’s real interest in the position and what kinds of things the applicant views as important. It is also a question that can help determine if the candidate is a good fit for the position; for example, does the answer express how the candidate's skills and qualifications match that of the job description?

3. Tell me about…

You need to determine if applicants are being honest about their experience and credentials. Ask specific questions about items listed on their resume, such as where they worked and the education they received. Ask things like, “How did you like working for…?” It is helpful if you can give a name of someone you know personally or a specific topic you know something about to see if the response agrees with your knowledge.

You may want to ask, “Do you agree with your former company’s mission statement? Why or why not?” Is the applicant even aware of the mission statement? Is the answer on point or convoluted? The idea is to ferret out those who may not be telling the truth about their credentials.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for candidates to exaggerate, or outright lie, about their experience and qualifications. Even when the truth is readily available, some are still undaunted. A software executive made it as far as becoming the CEO of the company but was forced to resign when it was discovered that he had lied on his resume. Among other things that were found to be untrue, he claimed to have an MBA from Stanford when he had, in fact, never attended that university.

Career expert Liz Ryan, in an interview with Monster, said, "People think that they can make up and embellish details about companies that have been sold or gone out of business." She suggests using social media platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, and other networks to uncover the applicant's true work history.

4. Tell me about a time in your career when you were not successful.

This answer gives you insight into whether or not the applicant has self-awareness and can admit to having failed at something. Does he or she have the ability to analyze and critique themselves and come up with problem-solving strategies? Make sure to also ask why the applicant believes that they were not successful and what they should have done differently. Another variation might be, “What was the biggest mistake you made in your last job, how did you rectify it, and what did you learn from it for the future?"

5. Tell me about a time in your career when you were highly successful.

This answer will provide you with insight into whether the job candidate is a team player or takes all the credit for a successful venture. What the applicant says he or she learned from it will also give you insight into how they can apply what they learned in one situation to another similar one. Make sure to also ask what the candidate believes contributed to that success and what they learned from it.

Piece It Together

If you ask questions four and five back to back, you can determine if the failure in one instance—and learning about what went wrong—had any contribution to the results in the highly successful project.

6. Tell me about your work accomplishments. What is your favorite one and why?

This will help you assess the passion and interest the applicant has in his or her work. It will also tell you if the accomplishment is one based on real experience or one that just sounds good on a resume.

7. If you could choose to have one superpower, what would you choose and why?

This has recently become a frequent interview question. The answer can tell you a lot about the person you are interviewing:

  • Can the person think quickly?
  • Can they exercise good reasoning skills?
  • Can they loosen up at being asked an off-the-wall question?
  • Can they show a sense of humor, or do they tense up when faced with something totally unexpected?
  • Can they be creative on the spur of the moment?

Entrepreneur Alan Schaaf, in an interview with Inc., identified this as his favorite interview question. After the interviewee's response, Schaaf then asks follow-up questions about how the superpower will work and how it will be used. For example, if the person answers they would fly, Schaaf asks, “How fast are you going to fly? Are you going to fly so high you can’t breathe anymore? Can you carry someone?” Schaff adds that the follow-up questions force the person being interviewed to think quickly, be creative, and demonstrate problem-solving skills.

8. If you owned this company, what is one thing you would change?

From this answer, you will learn whether the candidate knows about the company. Has he or she researched what the company does, how it treats its employees, its mission statement, what its plans for the future are? Or is the candidate looking for a job—any job. As Jamal Asskoumi, a business owner, responded when he was asked about interview questions he asks, he said he definitely asks this question. He added, “This is one of my favorite questions when hiring a new employee. This is particularly awesome as you get to watch the interviewee think of a logical answer without offending the company itself.”

This is a good question whether the candidate will be your first employee or your thousandth. If the person is unaware he or she is your first employee, that tells you he or she has not done research and knows virtually nothing, or very little, about your company.

9. What do you think I should know about you, your qualifications, and your work history that I have not yet discovered?

This is a variation of the “Tell me about yourself” question that is commonly asked by many employers at the beginning of the interview as an ice breaker. If asked at this stage of the interview, it gives the interviewee the opportunity to really let you know who they are. You find out how prepared they are for the position and how well their background and qualifications will really fit the position.

Focused Candidate

The response can also tell you whether the interviewee can stay focused on the job, its description, and its opportunities, or whether he or she meanders and responds by talking about irrelevant personal information and experiences.

10. Why should I hire you right now and cancel any subsequent interview?

This answer will tell you how the person views his or her own set of skills and qualifications and how they match the job description. They should be able to include why they want to work for the company and how the company will benefit from hiring them.

It also gives them an opportunity to express how their personal attributes will be a positive impact on other employees and enhance the reputation of the company. If the interviewee stumbles and cannot answer the question, that really answers the question. That person is not the best fit for the job.

11. Do you have any questions for me?

This is a good question to use at the end of the interview. If the interviewee has no questions, that is not a good sign. It appears they are not really interested in your company, but only in getting a job.

If the questions focus on the salary, hours required to work, whether there are time cards, the vacation policy, or whether there is health insurance, you may want to pass on this potential employee. While these are appropriate things to discuss in a second interview, they should not be the interviewee's focus at the close of a first screening interview.

You want to find out how much they know about your business. Do they have a question about the structure or organization of the company? Do they have a specific aspect of the business that they want to learn more about?

Be prepared for a question to be thrown back at you, such as, “Do you have any concerns about my qualifications or my ability to do the job? Is there any question you have asked me that you would like me to answer in more depth?"

Asking these 11 questions will help you focus on the type of employee you really want to hire. You may decide that the interviewee is not the best candidate for the job for which you are interviewing, but is a perfect fit for another available position in your company. It is possible that you may discover the interviewee is lacking in some qualifications, but has the ability to learn and is still the best candidate for the job. On the other hand, the interviewee may be exactly the candidate you are looking for and the tedious interview process can be over.