questions every interviewer must ask

Hiring is hard. Finding good people is even harder. In this post, I want to give you the best structure for interviewing. Everyone hires in some way shape or form. Whether you’re are a parent, entrepreneur or homeowner you have to have basic interviewing skills in your back pocket.

  • Interviewing babysitters, nannies, tutors or coaches for your kids
  • Interviewing contractors, gardeners, plumbers or tailors
  • Interviewing a new teammate, colleagues or assistants

Why is hiring important?

A good interviewer has to FIGHT their instincts.

That’s right. This post is NOT about following your instincts about good people. In fact, the hardest thing about interviewing is controlling your:

Confirmation Bias

Research on ‘thin-slicing’ has found that interviewers typically make their judgments about someone within the first few seconds of meeting them and then spend the rest of the interview merely confirming their first impression—even when that first impression is wrong.

Case Study:

You are an extremely good candidate for the new position at XYZ company. You are prepared, have great references and have done your research on the company. The morning of the interview, the water in your building shuts off because of a broken pipe. No shower. No teeth brushing. No steaming your shirt free of wrinkles. No calm. No coffee. You are rushed, smelly and coffee-less. You try to stop somewhere on the way and meet huge lines. You barely make it to the interview. You are still calming yourself down, straightening your jacket and gulping deep breaths when your interviewer opens the door. Your first impression is done. Your haggard, rushed, worried look is all they need to decide, “This person doesn’t have their stuff together.” It doesn’t matter that you answer their questions perfectly, that you get over the unwashed hair and lack of coffee and make them laugh during the 45 minute interview. All that mattered was that first minute when they opened the waiting room door.

Is this fair? No.

Is it reality? Yes.

I think it is the responsibility—nay, obligation of interviewers to fight their first impression and give candidates a chance. How do we do this?

The Ultimate Interviewing Guide

Here is my ultimate guide for Interviewers. Whether you are hiring contractors or a new Chief Marketing Officer, use these as guidelines for your next interview.

Step #1: Standardize the Questions

Ask every interviewee the same questions—no whims, no preferential questions.

One of the problems with confirmation bias is that we tend to favor people who make a good first impression and ask them either easy questions or questions we know we will agree with. I have absolutely done this in interviews before—and it hurt me. I had a good first impression so I gave a candidate softball questions:

  • What do you do in your free time? –> Oh, I love hiking too!
  • What was your favorite subject in school? –> Me too, studying abroad was great!
  • What’s your favorite book? –> Yes, Malcolm Gladwell is amazing.

I loved the answers, but they didn’t help me. I hired her because I liked her, but she was not a good hire. If I had standardized my questions to what I needed to know, I would have known she lacked the skills we needed in the job.

Step #2: The 10 Best Questions to Ask

A candidate’s answers are only as good as your questions. If you want to know how someone will be as a hire you have to ask value solicitation questions, seek honesty and really get to know the person in front of you. Here are my 10 favorite interview questions to ask:

  1. Tell me about a time your behavior had a positive impact on your team or colleagues.
  2. I would love to hear about your proudest professional moment.
  3. Is your work personality different from your home personality or your social personality? In what ways?
  • I typically have everyone we work with take our free Big 5 Personality Test before coming in and we discuss it. You are welcome to use it for your hires!
  1. Tell me about a time you took a risk and it succeeded.
  2. Tell me about a time you took a risk and it failed.
  3. Please share an example of a time you had difficulty working with someone. What made them difficult to work with? What steps did you take to resolve the issues?
  4. Have you ever read a book that changed your life?
  5. What is something that you used to believe, but no longer do?
  6. Do you have a system for being more productive? Dealing with procrastination? Burn-out?
  7. What makes you most excited about working with this company / on this project?

If you want some other amazing questions, check out our video on the 10 Best Interview Questions to Reveal Behavioral Quirks:

Step #3: Use a Consistent Rubrik

If you are hiring at a company, I highly recommend reading the amazing book Work Rules! By Laszlo Bock. In it, Bock explains Google’s hiring practices for finding, hiring and retaining exceptional people. He recommends not only standardizing your questions, but also standardizing how you code their answers. You should take notes on each candidate in the same way each time so you can objectively compare them across skills and experience. This works whether you are hiring a plumber or multiple people on a team are interviewing the same person. I recommend using a scoring system. This is the easiest. For example, for all of my hires I print up my questions and then rate them on a 1 – 5 answer. 1 being ‘answer does not fit needs’ and 5 being ‘answer fits needs perfectly.’ Then I add keywords or follow up questions below it. For a recent hire, it looked like this:

  1. Tell me about a time your behavior had a positive impact on your team or colleagues.

4 – Adding in a new receipt system, efficient!

  1. I would love to hear about your proudest professional moment.

3 – Getting a new title.

  1. Is your work personality different from your home personality or your social personality? In what ways?

4- High Open, High Conscientious, Medium Extrovert, Medium Agreeable, Medium Neurotic.

  1. Tell me about a time you took a risk and it succeeded.

5 – Started a new project on nights and weekends that was adopted by the company. Initiative!

  1. Tell me about a time you took a risk and it failed.

2 – Had trouble thinking of one.

  1. Please share an example of a time you had difficulty working with someone. What made them difficult to work with? What steps did you take to resolve the issues?

5 – Very clear example and honest, straightforward response.

  1. Have you ever read a book that changed your life?

2 – Common response “Catcher in the Rye”.

  1. What is something that you used to believe, but no longer do?

3 – Vague response about family.

  1. Do you have a system for being more productive? Dealing with procrastination? Burn-out?

5 – Yes! Knows herself and how to adapt.

  1. What makes you most excited about working with this company / on this project?

5 – Matches skills with our goals.

You can create your own system as long as it is consistent and can be remembered or picked up by others easily.

Note: Be sure to take a few notes, but remember, it is unnerving for a candidate when you are writing tons about their answers. This is why I like the number and keyword system—it’s fast and easy.

Step #4: Ask for Stories

You will notice that many of the questions above ask for stories. Why? Well-rehearsed answers don’t say much, but stories do. First, they tend to be closer to truth. Second, you tend to learn more about a candidate’s personality. When possible, especially on follow-up questions, ask for examples. I call this:

Story Solicitation

You can do this by asking:

  • Tell me about a time…
  • Give me an example when…
  • When did ___ happen to you?
  • Tell me a story about …

Step #5: Read Their Nonverbal

Most candidates are ready for any question you are going to throw at them—and anyone can use their words to be convincing. Real emotions come out nonverbally. An interviewing super skill is learning how to read the 7 universal microexpressions.

Step #6: Listen to How they Listen

When you are asking questions, explaining things about the company or the project, outlining the hiring process—how are they listening? Are they engaged? Do they act like they already know what you are going to say? Do they ask follow-up questions? This tells you a lot about how they will take directions from you or a new boss.

Step #7: IQ & PQ

Scores, GPA, transcripts are all helpful—but they are a small part of who someone is. I highly recommend balancing someone’s IQ marks with their PQ marks.

IQ- Book Smarts

PQ- People Smarts

The questions above are designed to elicit people skills – how someone deals with conflict, how someone learns, etc. But we have some standard free tests you are welcome to use:

  • Our Body Language Quiz: How good is your employee’s ability to read nonverbal?
  • PQ Test: What are your candidate’s PQ skills from a social standpoint?
  • Big 5 Personality*: I think it is incredibly important to know someone’s personality traits before hiring them to make sure they will fit well with the team.

*This is the only personality test that is backed by academic research. DiSC, Myers Briggs, Enneagram, Colors are not.

Step #8: Ask One Question They Will Not Know

One of the hardest things for a human to do is say, “I don’t know.” On any kind of a new job, there is going to be a learning curve, new ideas and concepts. You want to know how your potential hire deals with uncertainty and not knowing something. Do they say, “I don’t know.”? Do they guess? Do they lie? Do they get creative? Do they get flustered? Do they shut down?

Step #9: Ego is the Enemy

You are hiring, but that does not mean you have all the power. Even if someone is not a good candidate you want to give them a GREAT interviewing experience. Why? You never know when you might see them again. You never know if their best friend or sister or husband is your perfect candidate just waiting to come in. A really good interview finds and cultivates both candidates and fans.

Step #10: Learn How to Read People

When interviewing, it is helpful to know how to read someone beyond their words. How do you know if someone is lying? What is their body language saying? Heck, what is your body language saying?

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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