Re-stating the interview questions

There is a set of interview questions so common that we forgot their purpose long ago. Those questions are so common that the candidates are ready with some common answers as well. As recruiters however we ought not to ask the questions we have to, but to get the answers we need. And we may have to re-state those questions in order to get more meaningful answers – often, multiple times during the same interview.

One such question is the “Tell me about yourself” opener. It’s purpose is to see if we can actually communicate with the person. Too often people answer with a summary of their CV or with a one-sentence. It’s not the answer that leads us away from the purpose however; it is that to establish communication we have to follow up; to relate to what’s being said and eventually to share our stories as well. This usually do not happen when we discuss the CV – something we will do soon anyway. One variation I’ve heard is “tell me something that’s not in your CV”. It’s better, because it focus the person away from his resume, but still we’ll have to follow up on the topic. Some other variations that can open better dialogue is “tell me about your first paid job” – following with the story of your first paid job and you can see where this will lead you to; “tell me the story of how did you get your job at …” – which tries to force a story telling, or simply “tell me something we can talk about, which is not related to your job”. Quite often you’ll receive a short answer, a simple sentence, maybe even something you already know. It’s your job to try another question, to try as hard as you can to start a dialogue, to establish some form of two-way communication. It’s like being on a date, if you can’t establish communication, chances are it’s not going to work.

Why this is so important? If you are going to work with the person in the same team, it’s obvious that you have to be able to speak with the person on a daily basis. It’s not so obvious however for the manager, but it’s even more important that the manager can have informal conversations with the employee. What about the recruiter, who neither will work in the same team with the person, nor is his manager? As we said, it’s like being on a date; it’s not only that you are choosing the employee, but the candidate also chooses the company, and the interview experience will have an important role in assessing the company. At least, if you establish dialogue, the rest of the interview will be more relaxed and both parties can get more out of the process.

The most scary question in “tell me about your great weakness“. The question is designed to test for self-awareness, but usually the answers have nothing to do with awareness (with “too hard working” being the most common one). If you ask about negative qualities you will always get defensive answers. If you care about self-awareness, start probing for positive traits first, asking how the behavior of the person affect his colleagues, what is their perception, what of his traits are most helpful in building the relationships in the workplace and gradually move to the negative ones. Keep in mind that those traits are not necessary negative – the question actually is what of your behavior [may] hurt the relationships with your colleagues/boss/subordinates and why you are not addressing this (as usually there’s something positive in the behavior anyway).

Another common question with no useful answer is “where do you see yourself in 5 years“. This motivational question may be seen from two perspectives. The obvious one will be better restated as “If you don’t have to work for money; if you are granted all the money you need; what you will be doing?”. Chances are this is not so well aligned with the organization, so you won’t get this answer with the traditional “5 years” question. Still, this may open a dialogue even better than the “tell me about yourself”, revealing what the person really cares about. The more interesting version of the question however, is “what you will get out of this job” or “how this job will help your career; how it will help you getting your next job”. Those are the true motivational questions you have to discuss, and if your organization can support any of them, you already won half the battle.

One of the hardest things in hiring is what to do with candidates that do not match 100% the job. Usually it’s the job that do not match the candidate, while the candidate have all the skills required. In such a case you have two options. If you can re-define the job so it match the candidate better, you have all the chances to make a great hire. The other option is to choose another candidate, probably not so good in terms of skills or experience, but for whom the job will be a better match. But first you have to know if the position match the person, and for doing so you have to get the right answers, finding the right questions to ask – and those questions may vary from person to person.

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