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Great hires starts with the right questions

Finding that perfect candidate for the job is much more than meeting basic requirements. A person who has consistently overachieved in their sales metrics may not be able to sell your product, a seasoned engineer may favor all the wrong technologies for your designs, the well-regarded nurse may be completely wrong for your patients. And, of course, someone who is new to support may be exactly what your customers need, and someone who has led teams in combat could be the perfect plant manager.

The right job/task questions could set apart the candidate with generic talent from one who will thrive in your position, or help find that amazing diamond in the rough, or simply keep you from a hiring disaster.

So, what are the right questions?

Here’s a hint – if it starts with “Walk me through your resume” or “Tell me about yourself”, you’re probably making it far too easy. Predictable, generic questions usually get predictable, generic answers. Instead, give the candidates the chance to really shine, or fall flat on their face. Either way, better now than after they onboard.

Here are three steps to generating strong, insightful questions to evaluate candidates:


Step 1: Know the job

This should go without saying (but let’s face it, it sometimes doesn’t) – before being able to ask candidates those fantastic insightful questions to see if they can do the job, you must know the job.

From daily tasks, to common challenges, to what it is to be successful, the more details you have about the position, the better you can measure candidates against those details.

Luckily, much of this content is the same as that required for writing a compelling job summary.

Here are a few questions to help you get to know the job:

What will the employee be doing daily/weekly/monthly?

  • List the most frequent, challenging, and impactful tasks.

  • List the common measurable ‘outputs’ – documents, reports, sales, NPS scores, etc.

  • Describe how the employee works on the tasks (on their own, with a team, working with customers, etc.).

What are the most common challenges of the job?

  • When things are not going as planned, what will the employee have to do/solve?

  • What keeps people in the job ‘up at night’?

  • What challenges does the team face now that they are not very good at resolving?

What is success at the job and how is it measured?

  • Describe the best people at the job and why they are the best.

  • Describe someone who was not successful at the job and why they weren’t successful.

  • Describe how success is measured and recognized.

What are the priorities of the job?

  • Of all the things listed in the previous questions - if candidates only had one thing – what would it need to be? What two, or three?

  • What can be trained or taught vs. what candidates must know / be able to do?

  • What tasks will ONLY this employee do that no one else can do?

And the big question: What are the skills, knowledge, abilities, and experiences required to achieve the common and priority tasks, navigate the challenges, and thrive with how the organization measures success?

Once you have a clear understanding of the job, you are ready to identify what to look for in a candidate, which brings us to:


Step 2: Formulate the questions

Now that you know what the job requires, you can formulate questions to evaluate if the candidate can meet those requirements.

Of course, for many jobs, there is far more to it than you can reasonably or effectively evaluate. Therefore, focus on the most important and informative information as identified in Step 1. Don’t waste time on evaluating for things that are easy to train, have low impact for the team, or didn’t make the priority list or isn’t used as a measurement for success.

Here are some tips for creating questions:

For task-based evaluation (can the applicant do the task): Start with reality.

Start with the descriptions of the common, challenging, or high priority tasks from step one then change details so that you are not exposing organization data and the candidate is not solving actual business challenges. Formulate questions around the task. This could be questions about the approach, process, or outcome.

For example: Evaluating someone for the accounting team – give them a set of basic corporate rules for expenses and a “creative” expense report full of questionable line items, bad math, and missing information that was generated by someone who is currently not available (even though that NEVER happens at your organization…) and ask them what steps they would take to determine reimbursement.

Another example: Evaluating a quality control analyst – give them an old build of a product and a short test script and tell them to execute it. See how many of the bugs they find and how they document their findings.

Note: Do not use real problems, data, names, etc. and absolutely no confidential information.

For workstyle-based evaluation (can the applicant work with the team/org): Keep it real, relevant, and appropriate.

Build scenarios with enough details that the candidate is equipped to get to the answer you are looking for without giving it away. So, if evaluating preferences, make sure the candidate has a choice without obviously pointing to the ‘right’ option. If evaluating how a candidate will handle a specific situation, the situation must be relevant and the candidate’s role or expectation in it must be reasonable.

For example: Evaluating if someone prefers to work in a team. Ask them to describe a professional experience for which they are very proud. Did the candidate describe an event that they did on their own or with a team? Did it benefit themselves or the team? Or, give them a scenario where they cannot do the work on their own and failing impacts the team (not enough time, knowledge, etc.) and ask what they would do. Do they ask for help or just go off on their own to try and get it done?

Note: Do NOT ask “Do you work well in teams” or other similar questions where the answer is obvious.

Another example: Evaluating how the candidate reacts in a contentious situation. Lay out the scenario – “You are managing a large retail store during the busiest time of the week. A person comes storming in yelling and flailing around, demanding to see one of the staff. Customers are backing away or leaving the store. The requested staff member is refusing to come out from the back and won’t tell you why but is clearly upset or scared. Calling the authorities would empty the store, but the person has already shoved away two staff who tried to calm them. What do you do?” A choice between potential safety or valuable revenue – what will the candidate do?

Note: With scenarios, keep in mind that gender, age, ethnicity/race and other details of the ‘actors’ in the scenario can affect the candidate’s response. If you add these details, do it deliberately and consistently with all candidates.

Great, you have your questions that align to the needs and priorities of the position. That’s all you need, right? Well, not quite. With one more step, you can transform those great questions into a great hiring process. And this brings us to step 3:


Step 3: Map the answers

Before engaging with the first candidate, map the answers to the questions formulated in step 2. What are good answers, bad answers, ‘good enough’, ‘fantastic’, ‘absolutely not’, and ‘clearly you have no idea what you are talking about’, answers?

Knowing what you are looking for in the answers before asking the questions allows the candidates to be compared fairly and consistently without trying to hit a moving target based on who is evaluating the responses and if they are doing it during a great day or one of those days that they are sure would have gone much better had they not gotten out of bed.

Here are some questions to help map answers:

What are you looking for in an answer?

  • Define the primary purpose of the question. For example: Process, correct answer, preference to a style like teamwork, ability to defuse a situation, etc.

  • Identify any additional information you want from the question. For example: Attention to detail, spelling/grammar, organization, tone/style, math skills, etc.

What are you not looking for in an answer?

  • Identify details that don’t matter for the job but could be lurking in an answer. For example, Spelling/grammar, eye contact (if video or in person), speed, tone/style, etc.

  • Document items that don’t matter so candidates are not unfairly penalized based on reviewer preference.

What is the scale of measurement to evaluate if the answer has what you need?

  • For the primary purpose: Have a defined scale from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ – be descriptive as possible so that responses can be evaluated fairly.

  • For the additional information: Define some way to give ‘credit’ for these without it distracting from or overriding the primary purpose. For example: Assign points for additional criteria met, but only if the primary purpose is rated as an ‘acceptable’ or higher.

When evaluating responses, don’t forget to establish how the responses and measurements will be documented. Does a simple rating work, or do you want comments from your interviewers / reviewers? Like with the questions and answers themselves, consistency is key for a highly effective process.

So now you know the job, have your questions, know what you are looking for in answers. You can now bring on the candidates!


Bringing it all together: It all starts with the questions

Asking the right questions based on the true needs of the job and consistently evaluating the results to provide fair comparisons can be the difference between an “Oy, are you kidding me? Who hired that one!” or to the celebration of a shining star.

Even better, effective questions can save a ton of time, money, and energy in a candidate screening process, as spending five minutes evaluating the answer to one effective question is worth far more than an hour of resume review and “tell me about yourself” conversations. Imagine spending less than an hour to go from hundreds of candidates to the final few and knowing far more about them than a few words on a resume and their generic, well-practiced life story.

Stop imagining. With, every candidate for each job receives the same questions in the same order, with the same guidelines for evaluating results. This enforces a consistent screening process to effectively and fairly qualify all your future employees. Career.Place provides your hiring process with a fair and non-biased solution that lets candidates shine for the right reasons.

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