Good Questions

Does interviewing job candidates make you nervous? Try these tricks of the trade.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the January 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Nobody's been trained to interview job candidates. That's why most managers do it poorly," says Ethan Winning, a human resources consultant in Walnut Creek, California.

Sound familiar? Floundering through job interviews is the norm among many entrepreneurs, but it's no way to grow a business. Every bad hire costs you time and money. Make enough good hires, on the other hand, and you'll find your business expanding fast.

Step one in better interviewing is to make fewer mistakes. What errors do entrepreneurs commonly make in job interviews? There's no shortage of examples, say the experts:

Talking too much. "Many interviewers talk so much, applicants cannot tell about themselves," says N. Elizabeth Fried, a Dublin, Ohio, executive search consultant and author of Sex, Laws & Stereotypes (Intermediaries Press).

How much of the time should the candidate be talking? About 75 percent is the yardstick recommended by most experts, who caution that the norm is the exact opposite-"Far too many entrepreneurs dominate the interview," says Winning.

Giving away the answers. Winning recalls a manager who invited him to sit in while the manager interviewed applicants for a secretary position. To each candidate, the manager said, "We're looking to pay $1,800 per month for this position. How much salary do you want?" Each candidate in turn looked thoughtful, then said, "About $1,800."

"He just didn't understand that he was feeding them the answers," says Winning. This occurs frequently in job interviews, and on more than money matters, too. Tell applicants knowledge of Quattro Pro is essential, then ask if they know Quattro, and don't be surprised if everyone claims they can make that spreadsheet program sing.

Not taking notes. Research emphatically shows that applicants who come in for interviews near the end of the process are much more likely to be hired. Why? Bosses have simply forgotten about the earlier candidates. The only way you'll accurately remember every applicant is if you take detailed notes during every session.

Not using written questions. Another big mistake made by interviewers: "They get off track," says Winning. This can mean that when a 30-minute interview closes, you've learned a lot about the candidate's high school soccer career . . . but nothing pertinent to the job at hand. Write out questions beforehand, and stick to them, even if that championship soccer game sounds fascinating.

Relying on superficialities. Plenty of research shows tall, good-looking candidates get more job offers than less physically attractive applicants. Are they necessarily better workers? Of course not. "If you want to hire good employees," urges Winning, "you've got to look past physical features and make the hiring decision [based] on qualities that really matter for the job."

Robert McGarvey writes on business psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, e-mail

All The Right Moves

The key to interviewing successfully is simply this: Concretely know what you want in a job applicant, then ask questions designed to discover if this is who you want. "If you know what you want in specific terms, not just a vague mental picture, the interview goes much more smoothly," says Winning.

It goes more quickly, too. A well-run half-hour is typically plenty of time for interviews for lower-level staff. An hour might be needed for higher-level positions.

That's if you have in hand a detailed job description for the opening before sitting down to interview and if you have a clear idea of the qualifications the right applicant will possess. These are simple prerequisites, "but so many managers never bother to take these steps," says Winning. "No wonder they have trouble interviewing."

Beyond that, go into the interview with a smartly selected list of questions to help the candidate tell you about himself or herself. Such as? Good interviewers work out their own lists over time, but here are some proven winners:

  • What's your most noteworthy achievement?
  • Tell me about a time you interacted with an irate customer. How did you handle him or her?
  • Why are you right for this position?
  • What are the risks you've taken on the job? When you failed, why did you fail?
  • Of your past bosses, who was your favorite? The least favorite? Why? (For teenagers, ask about teachers.)

Notice a common characteristic of these questions? None has a built-in right answer. All are open-ended, designed to move the candidate beyond pat, rehearsed answers and into showing off his or her true personality.

"You want to discover people's passions, what really excites them," says Fried. "That's how you find out what motivates them and if their chemistry blends with yours."

The Inner Game

As your business grows, you'll probably be interviewing many internal applicants for promotion. Are the interviewing rules any different? Not very. The key difference is that the interview can go faster, mainly because "there's no need to explain what the company is about," says Winning.

The cardinal sin in internal interviews: using the interview to talk about the candidate's past job achievements instead of how he or she suits the opening. "That's why terrific salespeople get promoted into sales manager jobs in which they fail," says Winning. The antidote? Again, "it's knowing the specifics of the new position and the traits a person needs to excel at it."

Incidentally, don't be surprised if many internal candidates apply for an opening not because they really want it but because they don't like what they are doing now. "That's the rule of thumb-30 percent of applicants apply only because they don't like their job," says Winning. Should this exclude them from consideration? Not if they truly would be better suited to the new position. So keep an open mind even when you detect an incumbent grumbling about his or her current job.

Interview No-Nos

Ask the wrong questions, either of internal or external applicants, and it can cost you in both money and legal pains. Federal and state laws provide job applicants with a wealth of protections against job interviewers who pry into their personal lives. The pitfalls are often subtle. For instance, it is usually legal to ask "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" But it's illegal in most cases to ask "Have you ever been arrested?" More broadly, questions about marital and family status ("Do you plan to have children?") are verboten.

Advice from employment law experts on this subject fills thick books, but one guideline will usually steer you into the clear: "Keep questions focused on the job opening and the applicant's work history," says Winning, who advises clients that today's times are so litigious, it's good policy to avoid even tried-and-true icebreakers like "Who do you think will win the Super Bowl?"

A plus of this narrow focus, says Winning: "You don't waste time on the extraneous, and you have more time to talk about what really matters-the applicant and the job opening."

The Big Sell

Careful interviewing has uncovered terrific candidates. Now it's your turn to sell them on working for you. "Few employers understand this. Most still think hiring is their unilateral decision, but you aren't the only game in town anymore," says Roger E. Herman, an Akron, Ohio, management consultant and author of Keeping Good People (Oakhill Press). "A person you want to hire will probably have many job offers. That's why you have to use the interview to sell candidates on working for you."

Don't the unemployment statistics tell us there are millions of job-hungry workers? Even so, good jobs still sit vacant because applicants can't do high school algebra, write a grammatical sentence or operate basic computer programs. "Our educational system isn't preparing workers for the jobs that exist," says Herman. "Usually, there just aren't that many people who have the qualifications you need."

So be prepared for the applicant who asks "Why should I take this job?" Warns Herman: "You've got to know what to say. Once you know what kind of employee you want to hire, ask yourself what employer qualities will turn on that worker.

"Today's interview has become a mutual conversation in which both the applicant and the employer size up how they will fit together. That's how smart hiring happens."

Contact Sources

N. Elizabeth Fried, c/o N.E. Fried and Associates, 5590 Dumfries Ct. W., Dublin, OH 43017, (614) 766-9800;

Roger E. Herman, (216) 836-5656,;

Ethan Winning, (800) 823-6366,


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