SmartRecruiters Blog

5 Questions To Stop Asking Candidates — And Five To Start Asking

The business world is all about process. We are obsessed with process improvement, but paradoxically we are surrounded by horrible processes that go completely unremarked. We use stupid processes at work every day.

The business world is all about process. We are obsessed with process improvement, but paradoxically we are surrounded by horrible processes that go completely unremarked. We use stupid processes at work every day. 

Smart, nimble processes are a gift to humanity. The 911 system for emergency telephone calls is a great example. Every day we hear about a three-or-four-year-old kid making a call to 911 and saving somebody’s life. 911 is a great process. It’s so simple — just pick up the phone and dial three numbers. How many people are alive today because of the 911 system?

We can smarter about business processes. Job interviewing is a perfect example. We have followed the same horrible, talent-repelling job interview process for at least fifty years. What do we hope to learn as we slog through the same old, tired interview script we’ve been using for generations? We’re not going to learn anything useful about a job-seeker that way.

Here are five traditional job-interview questions that should get the boot in 2015 — and five smarter, more thoughtful questions to replace the ones we’re booting.

Five Interview Questions To Stop Asking

What’s Your Greatest Weakness?

This idiotic question is defended by people who love the idea that an interviewer should be able to get inside the applicant’s mind and understand his or her greatest failings. That’s insulting. It’s none of your business what a person believes his or her weaknesses are.

Are you planning too share your own personal weaknesses, too? If not, why do you presume to ask the question? I don’t believe that people have weaknesses, anyway. The idea of weaknesses comes down to us from our Puritan forebears.

You don’t have any weaknesses — you came down to the planet perfectly equipped to do your work here!

Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

What’s so special about a five-year planning horizon? In this day and age, who knows where we’re going to be in five months? It’s arrogant to ask a job-seeker where s/he’s going to be in five years, considering that you’re not offering an employment contract for even five minutes. Get rid of this lame Mad-Men-era question and talk about the actual job you’re trying to fill.

With all the Talented Candidates, Why Should We Hire You?

You work for the company. You know what the job requires. You’re going to meet the other job candidates — your candidates are not going to meet one another. Asking this question is a way of asking the job applicants to grovel and beg for the job. “You should hire me because I’m smart and hard-working!” That’s insulting. Ask people their questions about the job opening, instead. Their questions will tell you a lot more about them than their answers to your unoriginal questions will.

What Would Your Past Managers Say About You?

Why would you care what somebody’s ex-bosses would say about them? Once again, this question asks a job-seeker to praise him- or herself. You can ask smarter questions that will make it easy for you to see whether the job-seeker in front of you understands what the company is trying to do and how this job fits into the bigger picture.

If You Were an Animal/A Can of Soup/Etc., Which One Would You Be?

You may have a fun and frolicsome work environment and I hope you do. Still, job interviewing is serious business. Some of the people interviewing for the job don’t have an income right now. Some of them are worried about how to feed their children, and you’re asking them to imagine themselves as a can of soup for your amusement?

Get rid of these horrible silly interview questions in 2015. We can have fun together without resorting to kindergarten-level games.

Five Interview Questions To Start Asking

What are your questions about the job?

The best question to ask a job-seeker is “What are your questions about the job?” Their questions will show you their brain working, and that’s what you want on a job interview. Let’s say you’re interviewing for a Marketing Director. One candidate’s first question for you is “Which marketing automation software program do you use?”

That’s not a great opening question from a Director-level candidate. It’s a low-altitude question. You’re going to have to dig in to make sure that this candidate really understands the role at a high level.

The next Marketing Director candidate’s first question is “So I see that you’re very active in the trade show world and that you have a big reseller community. I’d love to know more about how those two initiatives fit into your 2015 strategy and the longer-term plan.”

This candidate is coming from a higher altitude. You still have to make sure that he or she can do the job, of course, but the job-seeker’s very first question is a strategic question, more appropriate for a Director-level person than the software question was.

How would this job advance your career?

A lot of job-seekers are looking for a job — any job. God bless them, but a person who just wants any job may not be your best hire. You want to hire someone who is tuned into what you’re doing in your company and is interested in your mission, or at least aware of it.

When you ask “How would this job advance your career?” you’re going to find out very quickly whether the applicant in front of you has a clue what you’re working toward, or not.

Can you tell me about the work you’ve done that seems most relevant to this role?

This question gets you stories that will help you understand this person’s view of the world and his or her accomplishments. This question also lets you see how well the applicant can translate your business situation to his or her own history.

We had a client who was interviewing for a Marketing chief in her small not-for-profit. She had seventy thousand dollars to spend on one Marketing hire, a fortune for a small agency! In her interviews with candidates, our client asked each person to tell her a story from their past that seemed especially relevant to her need for a solo Marketing person to build a marketing engine for her agency.

One candidate heard the question “Please tell me a story about yourself at work that you feel is most relevant to this job?” and answered this way: “When I was at Oracle, I worked on a fifty-person team to develop an intranet for our 7000-member sales force. The project took eighteen months and was considered a success.”

The Executive Director of the not-for-profit was utterly baffled. “Tell me about the relevance of that story to my situation running a tiny not-for-profit and wanting to get the word out,” she said. “I don’t know,” said the candidate. “That was just the biggest project I worked on.” This person is not the right person to come in and work at the ground level getting our client’s agency on the map, awareness-wise. A question like “Tell me your most relevant story” can help to make that connection — or lack of connection — clear.

What do you see as the first two or three issues or projects to tackle in this role, based on your judgment? Please ask me any clarifying questions you want about our needs.

Consultants naturally do needs assessment, but not all job-seekers have grown their consulting muscles yet. You’re asking your candidate through this question to perform some basic needs assessment. Assuming they’ve heard you describe the position and your priorities for the year, you’re asking them to come back to you with their analysis of what should happen first, second and third. You’re opening the door wide for their additional questions — not trying to “gotcha!” anybody, which is a horrible way to start a working relationship.

What are we doing wrong?

Even a baby job-seeker in his or her first retail job can spot ways to improve an operation. If you feel that the formulation “What are we doing wrong?” will put a job-seeker on the spot and make him or her uncomfortable, you can soften the question and ask “What’s one thing you would improve in our operations, if you got this job?”

By the time a job-seeker is sitting in the interview room with you, they’ve already seen inside your organization to a certain degree. They’ve looked at your website. What did they take away from their exploration? You’ll get a good look at their brain activity by asking them to make a suggestion for improvement in your operation.

I ran an ad several years ago when I was looking to hire an editor. In the ad I said “Please take a look at the latest edition of our newsletter at this link and include your suggestions for improving it, in your reply.”

Ninety-two people replied to my ad. Only six of them even mentioned the newsletter. People don’t read job ads! Of the six, four people said “I liked the newsletter.” Why would I hire an editor who has nothing to contribute? The other two people had wonderful, substantive feedback on our newsletter. We hired one of them as our editor and the other person started writing for us.

It’s a new day, and we can lose the tired interview script and have human conversations in our job interviews. Work these five new questions into your organic interview conversations, lose the five horrible questions listed at the top of this story and put some human spark in your interviews from here on out!

This article was written by Liz Ryan from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. SmartRecruiters is the hiring success platform to find and hire great people.

Jason Buss

With 20 years of global human resources and talent acquisition leadership experience, Jason Buss is a recognized expert with deep experience in identifying, recruiting and hiring high-performing teams. As the head of global talent acquisition for New Relic, Jason is responsible for the strategy and delivery of recruiting and workforce management solutions.

Jason is also the founder of the Recruiters.Network communities and editor of Talent HQ, a premier online news and information channel for recruiting and human resources professionals.