Questions You Really Should Ask in an Interview

In interviews, candidates make impressions in a variety of ways. They dazzle or dull with their qualifications, work experiences, accomplishments, interpersonal and leadership styles, the manner in which they carry themselves and their intellect.

The last of these qualities is inferred from candidates’ academic performance, interests, accomplishments, problem-solving skills and in the logic and substance of answers they provide to questions posed. It is also gleaned from the questions they ask. Some candidates foolishly elect to ask few, if any, questions which reflects poorly on their perceived interest, preparation and perhaps even judgment. Others meanwhile do research and ask insightful questions about the business, the role, its issues and challenges that prompt the hiring manager to take note. At least once per week, a client will tell us how impressed they were with the insightfulness of questions a candidate posed during an interview. And then there are the variety of questions that force a potential employer to dig a little for more meaningful answers.

Consider just a couple such questions…

How will you measure my performance in the first 60 to 90 days? What about in one year? In other words, what will I have done to give you reason to believe you made the right decision in hiring me?

Companies tend to be most comfortable talking responsibilities and tasks. They also like to discuss outcomes, such as fixing or improving or scaling functions or departments. However, such outcomes are usually the result of a number of actions, decisions and behaviors which, taken together, make those outcomes possible. There is ‘what’ someone will do and ‘how’ someone will do it (to be extreme, think baseball bats versus pots of honey and carrots). Such questions nudge the hiring manager to be much more specific on what actions and they believe combine for success in that company. The answers provide candidates with all manner of insight in company values, style, not to mention the reasonableness of expectations within given timelines.

What makes your very best people your very best people?

While managers can give aspirational answers to questions about corporate culture and how decisions are made in their firms, question such as will unlock a little insight. What does a high performer look like at this company? Is it work ethic, drive, problem solving skills, creativity, results orientation, team skills, loyalty perhaps, attitude, personality? The order in which these are listed likely matters too so listen carefully for what is said and not said. The answers invariably lead to follow-up ‘why’ questions which in turn lead to even more useful insights into the company and whether it is likely to be a good fit.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777

Ask Candidates:

Go through each job and ask the same three questions:

1. How did you find out about the job?

2. What did you like about the job before you started?

3. Why did you leave?

“What’s amazing,” Younger says, “is that after a few minutes, you will always have learned something about the candidate–whether positive or negative–that you would never have learned otherwise.”

Here’s why:

How did you find out about the job?

Job boards, general postings, online listings, job fairs–most people find their first few jobs that way, so that’s certainly not a red flag.

But a candidate who continues to find each successive job from general postings probably hasn’t figured out what he or she wants to do–and where he or she would like to do it.

He or she is just looking for a job; often, any job.

And that probably means he or she isn’t particularly eager to work for you. He or she just wants a job. Yours will do–until something else comes along.

“Plus, by the time you get to Job Three, Four, or Five in your career, and you haven’t been pulled into a job by someone you previously worked for, that’s a red flag,” Younger says. “That shows you didn’t build relationships, develop trust, and show a level of competence that made someone go out of their way to bring you into their organization.”

On the flip side, being pulled in is like a great reference–without the letter.

What did you like about the job before you started?

In time, interviewees should describe the reason they took a particular job for more specific reasons than “great opportunity,” “chance to learn about the industry,” or “next step in my career.”

Great employees don’t work hard because of lofty titles or huge salaries. They work hard because they appreciate their work environment and enjoy what they do. (Titles and salary are just icing on the fulfillment cake.)

That means they know the kind of environment they will thrive in, and they know the type of work that motivates and challenges them–and not only can they describe it, they actively seek it.

Why did you leave?

Sometimes people leave for a better opportunity. Sometimes they leave for more money.

Often, though, they leave because an employer is too demanding. Or the employee doesn’t get along with his or her boss. Or the employee doesn’t get along with co-workers.

When that is the case, don’t be judgmental. Resist the temptation to ask for detail. Hang on to follow-ups. Stick to the rhythm of the three questions. That makes it natural for candidates to be more open and candid.

In the process, many candidates will describe issues with management or disagreements with other employees or with taking responsibility–issues they otherwise would not have shared.

Then follow up on patterns that concern you.

“It’s a quick way to get to get to the heart of a candidate’s sense of teamwork and responsibility,” Younger says. “Some people never take ownership and always see problems as someone else’s problem. And some candidates have consistently had problems with their bosses–which means they’ll also have issues with you.”

And a bonus question:

How many people have you hired, and where did you find them?

Say you’re interviewing candidates for a leadership position. Want to know how their direct reports feel about them?

Don’t look only for candidates who were brought into an organization by someone else; look for candidates who brought employees into their organization.

“Great employees go out of their way to work with great leaders,” Younger says. “If you’re tough but fair, and you treat people well, they will go out of their way to work with you. The fact that employees changed jobs just so they could work for you speaks volumes to your leadership and people skills.”