Developing Interview Questions

interview questionsIdentifying Specific Behavioral Traits: Before you start developing your interview questions, go back to your job description and identify three or four behavioral traits that you’ll be interviewing for. You’re not really looking for personality characteristics; you’re looking for specific behavioral traits that are required for the job. Some examples might be:

  • Outside Sales—Hunter, independent, competitive
  • Controller—Detailed, patient, confidential
  • Engineer—Creative, flexible, process-oriented
  • Customer Service—Adaptable, results-oriented, friendly
  • Service Technician—Timely, creative, technical

You can see how the list for any given position could be quite long. If you come up with five or six based on your job description, stick to the top three or four to develop into questions, but be looking for examples of the others.

Behavior-Based Questions: This is really the key to good interviewing, and consequently good hiring. Almost everyone has participated in an interview where the interviewer said: “Tell me about your good traits?” Or my favorite: “Tell me what you need to improve?” While these are interesting to know, they are most often not a real predictor of the interviewee’s behavior, and in some cases the answers will be totally made up. For one thing, most people are very self-unaware: they simply won’t have a clue how to answer and will come up with something just to answer the question. Moreover, women will tend to tell you they are terrible at several things they are actually good at, while men will tell you they are great at everything. I know this sounds horribly sexist, but I also know I have experienced it in hiring, and I’m sure you have as well. So, the bottom line is, while they are typical interview queries, those types of questions don’t tell you what you want to know.

Open-ended, behavior-based questions are the very best way to elicit the kinds of answers that will give you real information about how a candidate is likely to perform within your company and in the position, you’re hiring for. Once you’ve established which behavioral traits are key to success in this position, you can develop questions around those specific traits. Let’s say you’re looking for a salesperson who really goes out there and creates new business (as opposed to an account manager who takes care of existing accounts), your first question might be: “Tell me about a time when you had to develop a new account.” Hopefully the candidate will be able to tell you about one, and then you can ask follow-up questions based on what you heard. If a candidate cannot tell you about a specific incident, then it didn’t happen. Or, if the candidate makes up an answer, and you’re doing three different interviews with the same questions, the story is unlikely to be the same all three times and you’ll know that the candidate is not being truthful.

I recommend coming up with ten questions because ten is enough to elicit information about all the behaviors you’re looking for, but it’s not so many that you’ll totally drain the person you’re interviewing. And by asking the same ten questions in each of the interviews, when your team gets together to debrief, you are really comparing apples to apples.

Resume Review: In addition to asking behavior-based questions, another helpful way to find out about a candidate’s behaviors is to have the person walk you through their resume from oldest position to most recent. Listen for their reasons for transitioning from one position to another, as well as for what they say and don’t say about each company where they worked. Take notes but save your follow-up questions for after you’ve asked the scripted behavior-based questions. This exercise can give you a sense of patterns in their work history, while providing you with specific points to follow-up on if there is a particular job on their resume you wanted to know more about.

Other Questions: Another important way to match people to your culture is to devise interview questions around the values you identified in Chapter One as essential to your company (remember from Chapter Two that Culture = Lived Values). If one of those values happens to be “fun,” have your candidate describe what a fun workplace looks like to them. When have they had fun on the job? Remember you want them to tell you their version, not repeat back what you have told them is yours.

The last question I always ask in an interview is: “If I were to offer you the job today, would you take it?” This is a great way to assess whether or not the candidate is really interested in moving forward. You don’t want to waste your time keeping this person in the candidate pool if the answer isn’t an honest and excited “Yes!” to the possibility of moving forward with your company. It’s no fun to call someone you think is terrific to make an offer, only to have that person tell you they don’t actually want the job. When this happens, you have to move to your second choice, and, somehow, candidates always finds out they were not number one. That’s not a great way to start a new job.

Evaluating Interviews

When you start interviewing, throw out the resume ranking because you’re starting fresh with the in-person interview. At this point all of the interviewers will be working from the same ten behavior-based questions. Because each question examines a particular behavioral trait, you can give each good answer one point and no points for an answer that was weak or vague. This way, when you get together with the rest of the hiring team to compare interviews, you have a concrete starting point. This doesn’t mean you’ll hire the candidate with the highest score, it simply means you have a place to start the discussion.

A word of caution: all the work you do in the interview process is predicated on the assumption that you have vetted each candidate for the education and skills required by the position prior to interviewing. Why would you interview someone without a college degree if you stated that as a requirement of the job? And be very careful and explicit about what is really required. If a qualification is preferred but not required, say that in the job description. You don’t want to get caught in a potential discrimination lawsuit because you decided to hire someone who has the skills but not the education you were looking for or vice versa.

Excerpted from my book, “Putting Together the Entrepreneurial Puzzle: The Ten Pieces Every Business Needs to Succeed.” Available here on Amazon.