Writing a good list of interview questions first requires you to suss out what, exactly, it is that you’re looking for in a candidate. You need to hone in especially on those intangible traits that go way beyond someone’s resume or track record. Maybe you’re hiring a salesperson. In addition to a history of closing deals, you’re probably looking for someone friendly, trustworthy, and competitive -- all traits that you can suss out in an interview, but are going to be hard to glean from a resume. Perhaps you’re looking for a new executive assistant. You might want someone organized, friendly, and deadline-driven, a greater indicator of success than prior assistance experience. Or maybe you’re looking for a barista. Beyond pulling a good shot of espresso (something you could probably teach them), this person should be friendly and possess a good sense of urgency (nothing worse than standing in line for your morning caffeine while the coffee-slinger chats up the customer in front of you).

Now that you have your traits, start building questions and exercises that test for them.

You’re probably going to start with a few generic questions.

These questions break the ice, and they can give you a sense of the broader arc of someone’s career -- and how your company does or doesn’t fit into it. But you can ask better questions that the standards.

Instead of asking: “Tell me about your career.”

Try: “Tell me about the position you’ve held that you were most passionate about. What did you love about it?”

Both of these are warm-up questions. But the first sets up a fairly vague walk-through (the details of which you’ve probably already gleaned from a resume) while the second has potential to actually tell you what motivates this person, or the kind of work they like to do.

Instead of asking: “What are your greatest strengths?”

Try: “What is a career success you’re particularly proud of? How did you accomplish it?”

The first version of this question asks for a boilerplate list of attributes, that may or may not actually reflect a candidate’s strengths. The second iteration allows them to highlight their best traits in a way that actually shows how they apply them to work.

Instead of asking: “What are your greatest weaknesses?”

Try: “Tell me about the most challenging moment in your career and how you tackled it.”

Candidates have been canning answers to the greatest weakness question since they started interviewing for jobs. So don’t bother asking it. Instead, ask about a challenge they’ve faced. This inherently illuminates a moment for which they didn’t have all the skills to crush. How they overcame that gap should be more interesting to you than any strength-masquerading-as-weakness they could give you.

Instead of asking: “What is your leadership style?”

Try: “Describe a project you led. Walk me through your approach to getting your team members to come together to meet a goal.”

Most people don't have a good grasp of their leadership style -- even if they think they can articulate it for you. But they can describe steps they took to get a project across a finish line. Did they set hard deadlines and assign consequences for not meeting them? Dig into team dynamics to figure out how to motivate each person to play their part? Navigate the politics of two different teams to pull something out? Their approach will tell you a lot about their instincts -- and their style.

Instead of (or in addition to) asking: “Why are you looking to leave your current role?”

Try: “In past roles, what did you dislike about your team, company, or culture? What pushed you to quit?”

Both of these questions allow for nuance -- you ask them because you’re trying to get a sense of whether this person is a flight risk. But the second version allows you a more clear picture of workplace characteristics that might not sit well with the candidate -- if your workplace features some of those characteristics, you may get a better sense of the risk.

Other good questions:

Yes, these are also generic questions -- but listen carefully to the answers, because they’re fairly illuminating.

“If you were going to design a dream role for yourself, what would it look like?”

More than likely, the candidate is going to give you a similar description to the role for which you’re hiring. But listen to the nuance -- what aspects of that role are they highlighting? Are they glazing over the operations part of an operations-heavy position? Are they playing up the customer service piece of a role that has very little customer interaction? This can tell you that their perceptions and the job aren’t quite aligned.

“If all goes to plan, where do you want to be five years from now? How do you think this position fits into that goal?”

This question should give you a sense of someone’s career aspirations -- did they apply to this job because it’s a natural step toward a leadership position in the same function? Did they want to get the foot in the door with your company? Are they not sure? Their answer might help you motivate them should you bring them on, and it might help you spot someone who’s not very enthusiastic about the work.

“What drew you to this role?”

A candidate with real interest in the job is likely going to have a more nuanced answer to this question -- their response may highlight research they’ve done on the company, or give insight into how they’ve thought about the responsibilities of the role.

Once that baseline is established, don’t be afraid of role plays or actual tests to look at more of those desired traits.

Part of your interview should include a test exercise that gauges how well this person might do at the job. That could range from a writing test for a communications position to a scripted customer service role play for a cashier to a stage, or guest shift, for a cook or server. The best tests not only screen for raw skills, but other desired attributes. Want someone coachable? Build in a feedback section and retest, looking for how well the candidate incorporates suggestions. Looking for someone who works well under pressure? Time the exercise, or give some harsh feedback and measure how they cope. Value adaptability? Change the exercise up midway through and see how well they maneuver.

Don’t zone out when you ask whether a candidate has questions for you.

This is often one of the most critical parts of an interview, and your chance to really hear how a candidate is thinking about the position. Questions about benefits or pay might give you a hint for what kind of compensation package a candidate is seeking. Questions about culture might subtly highlight workplace deal-breakers for the candidate. Questions about the future of the company give you a good sense of whether a candidate has done any research.

And some of your prized traits might come out here, too -- if you’re looking for someone data- or metrics-driven, listen for whether their questions have an analytical vibe. If you need someone particularly good at maneuvering the dynamics of a team, questions about colleagues are good indicators that they’ve thought about interpersonal aspects of the job. 

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