Better questions to ask a job candidate

July 19, 2017

Job applicant having an interview.Group of business people having job interview with young woman.

Job interviews can be truly enlightening for an employer—if they’re done right. Too often, employers find themselves asking the same old tired questions (“what’s your greatest weakness?”), leading to the same old tired answers (“if anything I work too hard”), and leaving both interviewer and interviewee feeling like they’ve just wasted each other’s time.


Seasoned interviewers develop a short list of questions that they have found provoke candidates to give the most enlightening answers. And, if the interviewer keeps track of these questions over time, they can see what kind of answers were given by their most successful hires to help guide them for future hires.


So…what’s your story?

This seemingly inane question can totally throw a candidate for a loop, especially if it’s your opening salvo. Not that you necessarily want to put your candidate on the defensive, but this is an interesting way to begin conversation, to set the tone, and to let the candidate know this isn’t going to be your typical interview.


This is a favorite question of Richard Funess of Finn Partners. According to him:

It’s a question that asks for a creative response. It’s an invitation to the candidate to play the game and see where it goes without worrying about the right answer. By playing along, it tells me a lot about the character, imagination, and inventiveness of the person…the way they look at me when the question is asked also tells me something about their likeability. If they act defensive, look uncomfortable, and pause longer than a few seconds, it tells me they probably take things too literally and are not broad thinkers.


Tell me about a time when things didn’t go right, and what you did to fix it?

This is a better, more specific question than “What’s your greatest weakness?” It hasn’t been asked a thousand times, it’s not trite, and it also doesn’t force the candidates to say something artificially negative about themselves. (After all, you’re not asking when they did something wrong, just when “things” didn’t go right.) Their response can tell you a lot.


What would you like to ask me?

This question does two things. One: it shows you what kind of homework they’ve done about you. After all, if they ask you a question that shows a lack of knowledge about your company, that gives you a clue about how seriously they’re taking this interview. Two: it establishes a better rapport between you and the candidate, allowing for a two-way discussion, rather than a grilling session. Remember, candidates know the basic questions to expect and so they will (or should) have pat answers to those typical questions. By asking them to ask you questions, you are asking them to engage you in a discussion, to which there are no pat answers.


What was the last costume you wore?

Warby Parker CEO Dave Gilboa recently said in a live chat that he enjoys throwing in a quirky question. It cuts through the tension and lets you see how your candidate rolls with something fun, and gives you a glimpse into their personality. Here are some other fun/quirky questions you could ask:


When were you “a part of history”?


What are you being a good sport about?


What word do you overuse? What might you say instead?


Please complete this sentence: “I have carefully engineered my life so that _____________.”


What has been the trade-off for you?


What did you have to create or invent because the thing you wanted wasn’t available?


Some of these questions may not be relevant to your company or the position you’re trying to fill, but all of these questions will force your candidate to think on their feet and lead to a more interesting interview.


For more help with hiring the right candidates for your company, contact Vanguard Resources.