In the November 18, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we take a look at what managers need to ask themselves, before they ask job candidates anything:

You’re a hiring manager

Your human resources department just handed you a list of questions to use when interviewing job candidates. Put it aside. We can do better.

tell-meThe problem with such questions is that they quickly make their way into hundreds of books with titles like Top Interview Questions & Answers! Any job candidate with a decent memory can recite clever rejoinders to the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions:

  • If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?
  • Why are manhole covers round?
  • What’s your greatest weakness?
  • How would you handle a difficult boss?
  • Gimme a break!

Before you decide what questions to ask job candidates, interview yourself.

Managers are not ready to interview

As we saw in HR Pornography: Interview videos, a recent survey of 600 HR professionals by McQuaig Institute, which develops talent assessment tools, found that 65% of respondents said their company’s hiring managers are not very good interviewers.

I find that most managers conduct rote interviews because they fail to understand what they really want out of a new hire. (See Don’t conduct junk interviews.) They don’t ask themselves, What am I really trying to accomplish for my business?

More common than the failure to assess a candidate properly is a manager’s failure to understand what’s important to him. Once you can get a handle on that, you will be able to develop your own interview questions without help from anyone. (Just what does your HR department really know about your department’s business, anyway? Enough to come in for a few days and do the job you’re trying to fill? If HR can’t do that, then what qualifies them to pose legitimate interview questions?)

I think most managers aren’t ready to interview anyone because they haven’t interviewed themselves first.

I’d like to suggest some questions for you — the hiring manager — to answer before you meet any candidates. I hope this exercise leads you to expect a lot more from the interview process. Perhaps these questions will give you food for thought, and you’ll think of more of them.

Questions for managers

  1. What’s the one thing you wish you could quickly figure out about every candidate in an interview?
  2. A year from now, how do you want your department to be different as a result of filling this job?
  3. If a candidate were to go up to the board and draw a detailed outline or flowchart, what would you want him to draw?
  4. At what point in your search for the perfect candidate will it start to cost you more to keep interviewing than to hire and train a talented person in the necessary skills?

man sketch a bulbI’ve got lots more of these questions for a DIY interview for managers, but I’d like to invite you — Ask The Headhunter subscribers — to suggest more good questions managers should ask themselves before they ask you (job applicants) anything at all. I’m sure you’ve been in enough interviews that went south for lack of productive discussion — and you probably could have helped the interviewer. (Not doing so might have cost you a job — so, maybe, next time you should nudge the manager back on track for your own good!)

It never ceases to amaze me. Managers can ask job candidates for almost anything they want — so, why do they ask for a resume, and about where you see yourself in five years? Why don’t managers address the really tough stuff? For example, why don’t they ask all candidates to show how they’d do the work, right there in the interview? (See The Single Best Interview Question Ever.)

I think the employment system is broken because employers use a worn-out, one-size-fits-all script when they decide to add people to their teams. Managers simply don’t know what they want much of the time, and they don’t take time to think about it. Consequenty, they conduct ridiculous “interviews” and wind up rejecting outstanding job candidates who never get a chance to really show what they can do.

The manager and the job candidate both lose.

Don’t you think managers could do a much better job of deciding what they want before they ask for anything?

What questions should managers ask and answer before they ask you to apply for a job and go to an interview? What can managers do to make interviewing a more productive experience?

: :

  1. Managers need to decide if they are sticking with hiring a sack of skills or a high potential candidate. If they talk to high potential candidates, find questions to let the person explain how they will solve the managers needs and develop into the position.

  2. A good question a hiring manager should ask him/herself would be “Which problems are there that I want a potential hire to fix or work with? What need is it I want this hire to fill for my department/company?” Answers to these question would probably be great input for a solid interview/headhunting after the right person.

  3. I mostly hire new college grads who are not able to do the job now – and we don’t expect them to, so we train them. I ask them to tell me the reasons behind the stuff they learned in school. That shows me the difference between rote knowledge and true understanding. They don’t have to get it right, but they do have to come up with some reasons why. Getting it right is a plus.
    The second thing is to evaluate enthusiasm. I understand a candidate may be faking excitement, but not even faking it is a killer for me. I know of one manager of child actors in New York who auditioned kids by asking them to say “I love Cheerios.” Surprisingly, that is enough of an initial screen.

  4. A couple of questions for the hiring manager:
    What do I think motivates people?
    How would I describe the performance of my department?
    If you can’t get these right, you may hire a good person but you will make them leave.

  5. What is more important:
    * That the candidate have all the skills & experience for the position.
    * That the candidate demonstrates an adeptness at learning new skills & systems.

    I think hiring mgrs place too much emphasis on the former. They miss out on candidates who have a varied background and are sharp, smart and fast learners.

  6. I’m in IT and here’s something that we’ve done in the past when hiring a technical person. After all the base interviewing is done and we get our short list, which is usually two or three people, we put them through a technical interview. I have a list of about 10 questions that are things that they are likely to come up against in their normal daily job. I like it when someone is able to answer everything correctly, but even if they can’t we look for the ability to think on one’s feet and to at least come up with a plan of action on solving the issue. This played out really well the last couple of times we used it in that we were really struggling between a couple of individuals and the results of the technical interview were like night and day and in both cases, I think we got the best person for the job.

  7. I hire engineers. My favorite question is:
    “Tell me about an interesting problem you’ve solved.”
    The people I’m looking for start moving their hands, and I ask, “would you like to draw it out.” They enthusiastically start drawing diagrams, or sometimes just charts. When I ask questions, they do more drawing.
    Marketing types who are trying to get an engineering job, just want to talk. When I ask questions they just talk some more. And don’t feel a need to draw.

  8. I agree with the comment from Leslie.
    I look for people who are enthusiastic, who are happy to learn something new. Technology keeps changing, so technical skills come and go.
    The attitude of “I can figure it out” is what I want.

  9. I think what a manager should do is not ask questions but explain what his or her department/division does. And I don’t mean in general terms such as, “Oh, we’re the accounting department and handle the accounts payable and receivable.”

    I mean explain to a complete outsider what exactly the company does and how his or her department contributes to that. Explain the good and the bad. What do you do well and what do you, for lack of a better phrase, suck at? What increases sales or cuts costs and what reduces sales and increases costs? Lay it all out.

    If you can explain this in detail to someone not familiar with your business or industry, you’ve successfully described what a candidate must do well and what a candidate must help fix. Throw all that into a candidate’s lap a week before the interview and let the candidate come in to show you how he or she can improve upon what you do well and fix what you don’t.

    No other questions will be needed.

  10. I find all the comments about enthusiasm really interesting! I do hiring for an organization that a LOT of people are really excited about, but often those people don’t pass my first screening round. The reason is that they’re really pumped about the organization, and don’t appear to even understand the job. A recent hiring round was for a legislative assistant, which is essentially an admin position for a policy department. I was getting a lot of responses about how great the candidate thinks they are at lobbying, building coalitions, even fundraising, none of which are things that this job does. For this job, I need an exceptional proofreader who can deal with the large volume of detail-oriented work that will be thrown at them; there’s no time to reinvent this position or expand it into these areas.

    This organization generally has pretty good job descriptions, so one of my favorite questions is “Based on the description, how great of a fit are you for this job, on a scale of 1 to 10? Why?” It gives plenty of room for candidates to start talking about what specifically they bring to the needs I’ve already said I have, but it also gives me an idea of how accurately the person self-assesses. If they tell me they’re a 9.5 but their resume doesn’t have 3 out of the 5 traits I said I was looking for, and they don’t address that discrepancy in their answer, it tells me they’re not really engaging with the needs of this particular position. They’re convincing themselves that they can do it without those skills or traits. Which is fine, if you can defend that stance! But often, they can’t.

  11. “If I make the wrong hire, how much will it affect my internal reputation and cost the company on the whole?”

    “Would I rather hire someone who seems to interview well and is very personable rather than her counterpart who has a challenging personality although with a superior skill set?

    “Why would someone want to work for me? What do I bring to the table that would help a subordinate’s career?

    “Will I be intimidated by a candidate who went to a better school than I, earned a higher GPA and speaks a few languages?”

    “Do I fully understand which questions are illegal and/or discriminatory? Do I ask men different questions than women? How can I be a better interviewer?”

  12. I hire summer interns for a small municipality. My potential hires attend an elite college, so they’re all capable of learning any technical information that I require, even though summer is a short window. What’s harder to teach and learn is a new attitude – so I weigh attitude and approach to work heavily in the hiring process. I carefully consider what’s needed for the specific job.

    As an example, an intern who will be on a controversial project and interacting with the public and contractors requires good judgment and the ability to present a professional customer service persona.

    Because college students tend to be inexperienced in the job search process, I help them out a little and explicitly state the personal characteristics that I need in the advertisement –along with the job duties. Some note that help and use it during the interview – and some don’t.

    During the interview, I explain the larger project in some detail, then I:
    • provide an assignment and ask them to prioritize which tasks to do first and explain their reasoning –I learn if they’ve grasped the objective of the larger project and their piece within it.
    • ask them to write a response to made-up simplified question from a member of the public –I learn if they can understand another person’s perspective and provide a simple clear response that likely covers the questioner’s situation.
    • show them a picture of a concrete wheelbarrow and ask them to estimate how many cubic yards of concrete it holds. I learn if they can apply theory (their education) to real life situations. People who have pushed a wheelbarrow usually have better answers than those that haven’t.

    I provide immediate feedback after each question and treat the interview as a learning experience for the students. I’ll even say things like, “I explicitly stated that very simple survey work with a level was required for this job, so I’m disappointed that you didn’t stop in the engineering library or google and learn the basics …and just now, I was hoping that you’d try to reason through how checking grades on a project would be done – but you just threw up your hands and said you had no idea.”

    When I check references for my favorite, I briefly explain the job and desired personal characteristics, and after the usual questions, I ask if there’s anything I need to know to help this person be successful in the job. Sometimes I get interesting responses.

    I’d be eager to rehire just about every intern I’ve had – and there were no duds — not all my peers can say that.

  13. What makes a good team?

    A great manager needs to understand his team, what holds it together, what are it’s strengths & weaknesses and how the team relates to managemnent and how it relates to other teams.

  14. “Managers are not ready to interview”

    Well, that’s a telling statistic. If a manager cannot interview a candidate, should they be a manager.

    I consider this to be a foundational starting point for all managers, interviewing people to know them and be able to motivate them to do a great job for the corporation in a team environment.

    Sheesh, North American Industry should have these basic things figured out by now.

  15. Questions for a hiring manager:

    “What is my biggest weakness?
    How does my biggest weakness affect the department?
    Will this candidate either compensate for or reinforce the impact of my biggest weakness?”

  16. Wow — great stuff here!

    @Scott: “They don’t have to get it right, but they do have to come up with some reasons why.” I think this is key for almost any interview question. Even if a candidate were to take my advice and “do the job in the interview,” it’s still an effort, not the real thing. (Well, it could be if the manager arranged it that way.) But that’s where you’re point is key. It’s the reasoning that reveals the candidate’s true acumen, and I think that’s what a manager should know how to assess. Few managers can do that.

    As for enthusiasm, I know some very good managers who would jump over 10 candidates with perfect skills to get to just one who demonstrates true enthusiasm and the ability to ride a fast learning curve.

    So this begs the question: How does an online application form, or a resume, or HR “screen” for that? The best candidates are left on the cutting room floor. That’s the disaster in hiring today.

    @Leslie: Managers “miss out on candidates who have a varied background and are sharp, smart and fast learners.”

    I wonder how many people in the employment business get this simple fact?

    @Doug Moreland: Your comment about marketing types not drawing pictures made me smile. Please check this feature that I wrote recently for, about Nick Panayi, head of digital marketing for CSC:
    Nick looks for what you look for, exactly! Maybe the point is that the marketers worth hiring are the ones that do what good engineers do in interviews, eh?

  17. @Kimberlee: Thanks for bringing this back around to work abilities. Motivation and enthusiasm are key, but I agree with you about how you make your first cut. “…often those [enthusiastic] people don’t pass my first screening round. The reason is that they’re really pumped about the organization, and don’t appear to even understand the job.”

    I like how you make candidates “stick to the text” and explain how and why they are a fit. That’s a great discussion to have.

    @Steve Amoia: Your questions are scary good!

    @Lynne: “Because college students tend to be inexperienced in the job search process, I help them out a little and explicitly state the personal characteristics that I need in the advertisement –along with the job duties. Some note that help and use it during the interview – and some don’t.”

    Think they point this out to students when they go through their college’s “job search prep” program? I don’t. Too much of the “prep” is how to present yourself and answer questions. Not enough is about recognizing, reading, and responding appropriately to signals.

    I think you win the prize for interview tips: “People who have pushed a wheelbarrow usually have better answers than those that haven’t.”

    And you use one of my favorite reference-checking questions: “I ask if there’s anything I need to know to help this person be successful in the job.” The answer can tell you all you need to know.

    @Richard Tomkins: “If a manager cannot interview a candidate, should they be a manager… Sheesh, North American Industry should have these basic things figured out by now.”

    If they had, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, right? :-)

  18. I set up and ran Software QA organization within a Software Development/R&D Division. Several times.
    I competed with development managers for people…most often the same people. The mindset was “real men did development…lesser beings did QA” Which I took exception to. So first I needed to be a salesman..and turn that around to “only special people can do QA work”.. So along the lines noted by Chris I did much of the talking, indoctrinating candidates, on the the wonders of Software Quality Assurance. This is context
    As to questions. There’s two kinds of as usual. What I need now. Can you help me right now? In my world that would be very technical, programming, testing, evaluating. They’d get that from my leads and managers. The other kind of deployment is future. What will you do for me in the future? And that was my department. Any manager who’s not baby sitting status quo, has a vision of where they want to go, and where they want their organization to go…to make the company grow.
    Having explained my organization..and where I want to take it, my main…Tell me how you can help me build/improve/create the organization I want to go. When I found a candidate who could please my reports, and me. then I’d go into hard sell.
    And in my world it was extremely gratifying to beat out my development hear them say “I don’t understand why he/she’d choose QA over development”. Music to my ears.

    • Strange, I never thought QA was easy. As a developer, I was glad for separate QA departments because I was so tired of doing it myself! QAs found bugs I never would have caught.

  19. This is for fun. For those of you that think a question like If you could be any animal, what animal would you be? isn’t real. It is.
    When I was an agency recruiter…I sent a candidate to a software company for a management role, who was asked this very question…the first time I ran across it.
    But that’s not the whole story. They really had a reason for asking it. When the candidate debriefed me he explained that when you joined the management team at this company…you got tagged with an animal nickname or handle that he felt fit the role and/or you. For instance..The CEO was a Lion (of course what else?). The marketing manager a Gazelle…I don’t recall the others..And on the wall outside their doors was the appropriate picture…not your name. Recruiting is a field that when you get complacent, and think you’ve heard everything…you still get this “are you shitting me!” moments

  20. While you are waiting for a manager that understands how to hire, you can still help him/her along by presenting yourself as the solution to some of their problems.

    How to say it: Before you start the interview, Ms. Manager, I’d like to present some ideas about the company, the job, myself and why I believe I will be a good fit. If you still have questions after that, I’d be happy to answer them, of course.

  21. @Lynne

    Your reference to wheelbarrows and concrete brought a smile to my face.

    I worked construction jobs in my youth. A few involved concrete work. I remember once asking a mason what the name of this special board was to smooth out concrete that had just been poured onto a foundation.

    “Son, after 30 years, I call that the ‘expletive’ ‘expletive’ board. Go get me more mud!” :)

    The colloquial term for that device was a “screed” board.

  22. @ Steve Amoia: Your questions are the kinds that managers should be asking themselves both before and during the interview process.

    @ Leslie: Your questions and comment strike at the heart of the whole interviewing and hiring conundrum.

    Too many firms hire people for specific chunks of knowledge that they possess, and they only want them for a limited set of situations. Knowledge is temporary, whereas talents are adaptable for additional applications that might not have surfaced at the time of the interview.

    Combining both of your responses with some of Nick’s original questions points to questions that I’ve asked myself, and that managers who’ve hired me in the past have alluded to during the interviews:

    • If the candidate is replacing someone who has moved on, do I want someone as close as possible to the person who just left this job, or do I want a different mix of skills, or a different personality?
    • If the position is a newly created one, do I want someone with a background similar to the other people in the department, or do I want a different skill set and a different array of experiences?
    • Which is more important: That the candidate meet the listed job requirements; that the candidate have experience performing the duties described in the posting; that the candidate exhibit the same traits as others in the department; or that the candidate show some potential for expanding the role and enhancing the quality and reputation of the department?
    • If the intention is to move the department in a different direction or change its emphasis, how much of that information do I share with the candidate, and at what point in the process?

  23. More good questions managers should ask themselves before they ask you (job applicants) anything at all:

    What if the next job applicant I will be interviewing was the perfect candidate for the job, but I failed to recognize that using my interview questioning techniques?
    What if I am concentrating my attention on the wrong clues to identify the perfect candidate for the job?
    How can I round up my interview strategy to not miss identifying a perfect candidate?
    How do I know that the next candidate I will be interviewing is not the best candidate for the job?
    What questions can I ask my job applicants to get new perspectives to continuously improve my interviewing skills?

  24. @Robert O’Brien and others: Man, you’re scary! ;-)

    I think we could run a workshop about this…

  25. Managers, please write a job description which describes the job, rather than a list of attributes.

    Then ask for a demonstration of how the candidate would do that job in that job description.

    Instead, when I see a job description, it is a list of acronyms showing the manager knows how to spell C++, along with a bunch of wiffly words about high energy, and smart people. When I get the phone screen, we mutually check that we both can spell C++ (which I find ludicrous and insulting, frankly, since my resume shows decades of experience) and then when I say I’d like to present the boss with a demonstration of how I’d solve the business problem, could he tell me of a business problem, so I can do the research?, the manager chokes.

    Oh manager, please know the business problem!

  26. I’m enjoying this discussion – and I think there’s loads more material here, Nick!

    I’d like to see a few specific examples of:
    1. brief job description
    2. personal characteristics desired and reasons why
    3. interview techniques designed to find a good fit
    4. discussion of results – successful and unsuccessful hires – what lessons were learned? Did the desired characteristics make sense, but they weren’t evaluated well? Etc. Any new ideas to try to next time?

    @ Robert O’Brien
    • If the intention is to move the department in a different direction or change its emphasis, how much of that information do I share with the candidate, and at what point in the process?

    I think the answer depends on context. If the candidate is the first effort to turn around an outdated culture and no one wants change or understands the need for it, then the candidate should be informed that selling the new approach and bringing others along is a big part of the job. The process may be slow and frustrating.

    If the candidate is entering a climate where there’s already been lots of pruning of dead wood and there’s excitement and clear direction about desired improvements, the primary focus will be to “do what you always do”….

    The two jobs are very different and require different skills.

  27. One big problem for most managers is that they want to hire the guy that just left. This filters into the job description when you see a laundry list of programming languages, half a dozen hardware types, a few operating systems, some BA & PM concepts … all glued together with the rancid gravy of motivational phrases left over from the last feel-good seminar.

    First question: What do you need for the next six months?

    Second question: What would you like for the next few years?

    If you really really need (for instance) someone who can sequence the DNA of bunny rabbits right now, and would like that person to be the leader of your wildlife DNA sequencing down the road (because you couldn’t sequence if you had to) then you can frame a job description that will get you a pretty decent selection of people who have experience with bunnies and leadership potential.

    Then go hang out where DNA sequencers (or bunny lovers) hang out because HR will never get you as good of a candidate as you can yourself.

  28. From the candidate’s perspective, knowing why the position exists (newly created, someone left for one reason or another, etc) is also useful.

    I’m not sure how forward hiring managers can or will be when there are secrets/dirty laundry lurking. I’ve gone through so many toxic, overworked, or simply soul-destroying and demoralizing environments that I doubt that ability is hampering many companies’ hiring. I’ve left places for new gigs for reasons such as existence of raging a88hole boss, micromanaging freaks, and warring/back-stabbing departments.

    What I would do from a hiring manager’s perspective is not only focus on what @Barbara alluded to– position description, rather than person description, but also try to get a sense from the candidate and his/her references how we’d work together on things.

    Honestly, most work is not excruciatingly difficult, most people are.

  29. Great stuff here. Leslie pretty much summed if up and hit it out of the park with her powerful statement which should be in every hiring managers mind when looking for the right person. Steve you’ve got it down too. Adaptability and adeptness is key for any candidate.

    …Now for North American managers to read this blog and try to finally “get it”.

  30. Great discussion! When I was a hiring manager in a difficult industry (consulting) my questions include time-based projections about activities. New hires were often either just out of school or early on in their career.

    (Note that I use the same questions to ask managers about a position *when I am interviewing* as well, from my viewpoint about what the manager would want me to know and understand at each time point.)

    After discussing the work involved, and also providing a snapshot of the culture (very, very important), I ask the candidate:

    1. What would you do on your first day? Start with the empty desk.

    2. What would you want to know and be able to do by the end of your first week?

    3. What should you know how to do, and be comfortable with, by the end of your first month?

    4. What would you want from me to help you during this time?

    Again, the candidate does not have to “get it right” but does need to explain how they can get up and running in a new job (that I have already described the basic duties of) and be producing in a short period of time. And, in consulting, independence, quick thinking, and pro-activeness are highly valued behaviors.

    I also provide a few real work situation examples and ask how they would handle them, what would they need to be successful, and when would they ask for help?

    Whiteboarding is encouraged. I do it to describe the department, the hierarchy, the team, and any cross-organizational points of contact at the beginning of the interview.

    I really value all of the participant’s comments on this board. I learn something new every time.

  31. @Nick,

    This is slightly off topic, but has anyone else seen this hilarious site about ‘purple squirrels’?

  32. @Carl: That link is not off topic at all. It’s dead-on and scary hilarious. Thanks for posting it.

  33. There used to be a Purple Squirrel magazine for HR professionals.

    As I recall, it went out of business owing staff and free-lance writers money.

  34. @Don Harkness: Sounds like that company was a real zoo :-)

  35. My favorite Manager/HR quotes:
    “We need to make you a well oiled machine!” Last I checked I am a person…

    “You need a husband so you don’t have to work so hard to get somewhere.” Self explanatory

    “So, your spouse was military. Is that for real? Then why do you have employment gaps? You have to do better to explain this!” Seriously? 6 duty stations in 13 years…

    “Tell us something no one else knows about you.” I am a goat.

    “Hi Sara, we have a little project for you. Do you think you could handle that?” Gee I don’t know, I’m a project manager…

    “In my fast food business, I only hire aliens. Can’t speak a word of English but they sure push buttons real good!” let’s talk about this lawsuit…

    Used to have tennis elbow. Boss said, “Mm, you’re in pain – emotional pain?” Uh, no, my elbow hurts and I need a new mousepad…

    “I can’t get hold of your references! Give me a list of your private clients.”
    (They had only called 1 of my 4 references to date)

    and the winner,
    HR interviewer in hallway whispered, “Run!”