SmartRecruiters Blog

My Favorite Job Interview Technique

My favorite interview technique is not a question, it’s actually a request. Over the years as a recruiter and hiring manager, I developed a technique that I call “Get the candidate talking.” I want to find out what makes people tick, their aptitudes, past behaviors and mostly importantly their communication style.

Instead of the standard questions “What are your strengths?” “What are your weaknesses?” I say: “Tell me about a time when…” I set this request up as a positive situation/experience:

“Tell me about a time when you had a difficult or unique situation that you’d never encountered before. You did what you thought would be best and that would work out. It succeeded so well, that you sat back and said to yourself, “Gosh, I’m good!” Tell me about that time.”

I then listen to and watch them as they explain that situation. What I’m listening for is pride in accomplishment, logic in how they describe/explain details and flow of language. What I pay attention to is their facial expression and body language as this they are major components in human communication.

I’ve seen this displayed in a 16 year old High School student and lacking in an experienced Masters level job candidate.

After a few more “typical” interview questions, I make that request again; “Now tell me about a time when…” and set up in regards to a negative situation/experience. This is situation again, was new, unique or difficult, but it just failed miserably or fell apart. What was that situation/event and how did you react? I again, listen and watch. I key into what it was and how it affected them. I want to know if they’ve experienced failure, but more importantly, what they learn from it and how did they recuperate.

People who cannot answer this question concern me as I feel if you haven’t failed, you’re not doing enough to succeed. Another perspective is that they don’t recognize failure, which is a red flag for any employer. How do people avoid making the same mistake?

On the flip side, a savvy candidate needs to make these same requests to a potential employer. This is especially critical when you are interviewing for senior positions. You want to make sure that this employer/hiring manager has their act together. What’s their pride level, their management/communication style?  Do they encourage creativity and how is it rewarded? How do they handle mistakes and what are the ramifications? A great example of this is the 3M Corporation situation with Post-it Notes (an R&D “failure” with a new adhesive formulation resulted in success, and profits). Remember, the candidate also needs to heed any warning signs that display incompatibilities or contradictions during the interview.

As a Career Coach, I often have my clients do this in an interview. They will start with “What typical happens when…” using both the positive and negative scenarios. Again, how does the potential hiring manager handle these questions/requests?

Everyone needs to put all of their cards on the table during the interview process to avoid surprises (and a bad hire/decision). Interviewing is an art and a science. The ability to listen, watch and interpret results is critical in this process. I often suggest (and practiced) the three interview process to achieve good results. It takes time and several direct conversations for both parties to make the best decision.


Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 9.01.41 AMKathy Bornheimer has over 30 years of diverse experience in recruitment and career coaching. Kathy is the author of The Street Smart Approach to Job Search (2004); 2013 e-book is available directly through her and the co-author of Work Makes Me Sick (Prescribe Something Quick!) (2006). Photo Credit mrbill78636’s flcikr.

SmartRecruiters is the hiring platform with everything you need to source talent, manage candidates, and make the right hires. Check out more interview tips on our blog.

Kathy Bornheimer