Effective Hiring – Nine Questions to Hire the Right Person for the Job

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Last Updated on June 4, 2024 by Bill Truby

“Perfect person,” you think. This candidate looks and sounds like just the person you want in that vacant job position.

“But…how can I be sure?” you wonder. Obviously, the probation period helps you get out of a bad hire, but who likes to go through that process? Wouldn’t it be better to make a good hire in the first place? But that, too, is a process that evokes a lot of uncertainty or insecurity, wondering if you can be sure. The “perfect” candidate on paper, and in first impression, can sometimes NOT be the perfect person after all.

I remember conducting interviews to hire a cashier for a company we were working with. There was a young woman who looked PERFECT on paper. She presented herself well. And she answered all the “standard” questions about background and experience in compelling ways. She certainly knew how to be convincing in an interview setting. That is, until I asked her the “bowling ball question” (mentioned later). She fell apart. What was a perfect candidate turned out to be not so perfect with a simple question that revealed her true identity.

We’ve all been there. You ask the standard questions about experience, ability to get along with other employees, desire for advancement, and you get the standard answers. At first glance, the person looks good, gives the right answers, and based on those answers, seems perfect for the job. But, on reflection, the answers are “vanilla” answers. They could be said by anyone. You know, “Yes, Mr. Interviewer. I’ve been looking for just this kind of position to maximize my talents.” (Big smile, energetic voice, proper posture, and just the right amount of dazzling personality stirred in). What a performance!

In fact, “performance” it is – or at least at one level, it comes across that way. You have probably seen the documentaries that go behind the scenes and prove that we’re really not as objective as we think we are after all. These documentaries and research studies present a head-shaking truth – the person with the better looks, better clothes, and better personalities, more often than not, gets the job. It is your subconscious at work. Your conscious mind is engaged and gives great rationale for your decisions. But it is your subconscious that has the power of influence. Unfortunately, we often fall into the trap of hiring the “container” rather than the “content.”

Here is another unfortunate truth: Sometimes the person who gives a great performance during the hiring interview is the person who has had the greatest experience with hiring interviews. And that’s not what you are wanting – a person adept at getting the job. You want a person effective at doing the job.

Effective Hiring

So how do you get out of this trap, this subtle, inefficient hiring process? Our solution has been to change the process content to get a clearer picture of the person’s content. Here is what we mean…

In the job interview, we typically and traditionally ask questions that return factual content. Where have you worked, what have you accomplished, what are your credentials, etc? While this data is important, what is more important, is how a person will handle the job requirements he or she is interviewing for. How does this person think? How does this person respond to an assignment or delegated task? How does this person process information?

Now, naturally, if we overtly ask those questions, once again – we’d get the right answer. If you asked, “How do you respond to receiving an assignment?” you could get the “vanilla” answer, “Very well!”

Or you might get that overactive, golden retriever candidate that can’t resist implying that you “throw the stick” so they answer, “I welcome assignments. In fact, I thrive on overwork. I can’t wait to go beyond your expectations and do something you ask in such a way that you’ll say ‘wow.’ In fact, do you have something for me to do right now?” – Tongue hanging out, breathing quickly, anticipation in the eyes, tail wagging – begging you to “Throw the stick! Throw the stick! Throw the stick!”

So you can’t just openly ask the question.

Instead, you have to surprise them.

If you ask a question that demands people to think, guess what? You’ll be able to observe how they think.

A great illustration of this is a question we read in the Reader’s Digest long ago. “If a bowling ball fell off a ship in the middle of the ocean, how long would it take to reach the bottom of the ocean?” Wow, there’s a surprise. Ask that one and watch how the golden retriever turns into a deer looking straight into the headlights of an on-coming car in the middle of the night.

Actually, here is the psychology of our approach: A person is truly revealed in the context of stress. How a person handles the bad times, the stressful times – when a person is taken by surprise – that reveals the true self. These kinds of times reveal a person’s default mode including attitude, perspective, abilities, and (more importantly) how the person thinks and processes the task at hand. There is an entire book dedicated to this principle. It’s called The Adversity Quotient by Paul Stoltz. The premise is this: YOU are exposed in adversity. How you handle adversity reveals the real you.

We’ve asked that question of different people in the context of teaching the process in this article. One person, with noticeable nervousness, began answering immediately with words that showed he was thinking out loud. It wasn’t long before he hit a brick wall in trying to answer the question. He then became irritated with himself because he didn’t ask for more information before trying to answer the question – how much did the bowling ball weigh, how deep is the ocean floor at the point it fell off, etc.? He bore the whole weight of responsibility for not answering the question accurately.

As we talked with him, he told us this is exactly how he handles assignments at work. He immediately charges forward without sufficient preparation or planning; often gets into trouble or has to rework something; ends up beating himself up over his lack of forethought and planning – then vows to do things differently in the future. (But doesn’t).

When we asked another man the question, his whole attitude and thought process was defensive and attacking. How dare we put him on the spot like that, asking him to “perform” (his word) without enough information to do the task?

It didn’t occur to him to ask for more information. Instead, his default mode was to defend himself – exactly how he interacted on a day to day basis with his manager; defensive, combative, and “uncooperative” (so labeled because of his insecure response to delegated tasks).

So… if we can ask questions of job candidates that reveal how they approach specific elements of their proposed job it provides two benefits: 1) We are able to observe the content of the person in this pseudo-stressful moment, and 2) We can discern how he or she will probably handle a job requirement that has the same kind of dynamics as a given question.

One more point before we give you the interview questions we have used. We have told you how a “stressful” situation can reveal a person. There is also another interaction that can reveal what is important to a person. It is storytelling.

When you ask a person to tell you a story, the reality of what happened will be filtered through what is important to the person telling the story. Ask an environmentalist and an oil company representative to tell you the story of a tanker spill and you’ll get two completely different perspectives. Possibly two completely different stories spiced with different intentions, outcomes, blame points, solutions, and standards. The environmentalist may start the story with America’s unnecessary dependency on fossil fuel and the oil company representative may start the story with the incredible storm that was destined to shipwreck any vessel in its grasp.

What we have for you, then, is a list of questions designed to cause the candidate to think, to process and engage in storytelling – all with the intention of studying the inside of the person. Try these questions out on people you know. Watch how they process. What do they do first? How do they approach the question? How do they interact with you in the context of the question you ask them? With someone you know, you can confirm your observations and give you confidence when you begin interviewing people you don’t know. When you ask the questions below it will give you a clue as to how the person will think, process, and interact after you hire.

First, we’ll tell you what we are looking for in the context of the question then we’ll tell you the question to ask. Ask the question in a conversational way. Don’t act like you’re reading from a list. This will make for a more comfortable setting and put the person at ease. It will help the person reveal more of the true self. Ask a general question then gently ask the follow-up questions within the given category.

And don’t think you have to be stuck with just these questions. You can follow the principle we are explaining using entirely different questions or tasks, questions, or tasks you make up to parallel the dynamics in the job position for which the candidate is interviewing. For example, if the position you are interviewing candidates for demands the ability to concentrate in the context of distraction, have the candidate do a crossword puzzle while in the midst of a lot of noise or other distractions you can expose them to. Once again, you’ll be able to watch how the person thinks, processes information, and interacts.

The Nine Questions

The questions below are designed to help you find the best of the best within the available candidates. You will notice how some of the questions can give you answers that are acceptable for someone you would hire. But the question may also help you find that person with that little bit of extra making for a better hire.

1. Discovering general perspective and attitude on life and work

Question: Tell me a story about you and your past – experience, successes, regrets, obstacles, strengths, or abilities you’ve learned, weaknesses you have not been able to overcome…

(Reminder – don’t ask all of this all at once. Ask a general question such as, “Tell me about you and your past?” Then conversationally follow up with additional questions like, “What kinds of experiences have you had? What successes have you had? Have you had any regrets about life? What have been your major obstacles in life? How about telling me about your greatest strengths or abilities you’ve learned over time? What weaknesses do you have that you haven’t been able to overcome? – all the while you are engaging in conversational interaction while observing the candidate’s interaction and the content of their story.

What you are looking for: Get the person talking about self, telling you a life story. Listen for themes, aspects that keep coming up – i.e. importance of relationships, the desire or necessity for material goods, the need for status or approval, etc. This will begin telling you what is important to this person. You could potentially hear themes of the person always being a victim, or how the person loves to tackle the next challenge. Listen for attitudes and characteristics that would be helpful (or a red flag) if the person were hired.

2. Discovering the general direction of the person

Question:  Tell me about your future – goals while here, strengths you want to develop, weaknesses you want to overcome, personal dreams/goals/direction this position will help you obtain?

What you are looking for: This question and the story associated with it is designed to tell whether the person lives in the moment (i.e. paycheck to paycheck) or has plans or direction. There also may be clues as to whether or not the person sees this job as a stepping stone to a future dream. This can lead you to a time-line question so you can manage expectations.

If you are interviewing for an entry-level job that has expected short term tenure, this question can give you an idea of how long this person may stay. You can also talk about a win/win situation and begin a conversation about the necessity of staying a certain length of time to facilitate the person’s experience or learning that can take them to the fulfillment of their future dream or goal. Red flag content would be anything incongruent with the potential job position and/or your company’s direction and corporate culture.

3. Discovering the ability to work with a team and the attitude regarding teamwork

Question: There are five people available to you. There is a task at hand that needs to be done quickly. It is possible for you to do the task within the time allotted although it could be done more quickly if you involve the five available people. The task is important to the company and will be a high profile achievement. What do you do?

What you are looking for: Notice, the question does not illuminate whether the task is assigned to the person. If the person automatically assumes the task is an assignment, that assumption could suggest initiative or independence. One way to handle this scenario is to either clarify the assignment with the appropriate manager or inform an appropriate manager that the person will be taking on the task at hand AND will be using the five available people so as to get this important task done more quickly for the good of the company. This gives the candidate credit for accomplishing the task by leading a team of people.

In any case, one core concept that will come out of this question is the person’s willingness to work with others or work alone. Listen for themes: Is there a true desire to work with a team; does the person see the other five people as equal team members or are they people to be exploited or “used” to get the job done (not exactly teamwork); what are the candidate’s thoughts on leading a team.

4. Discovering a person’s attitude and ability to cope with conflict

Question: Near Chicago, there is a neighborhood with no fences between the back yards. There is a large tree between your home and another. This tree is rotting, in danger of falling, constantly losing branches, and infested with insect pests. You know it would cost about $1,500.00 to remove the tree. It is unclear whose property it is on but your son has recently been bitten by those nasty insects, had a severe allergic reaction, and had to spend a couple of days in the hospital. What do you do?

What you are looking for: Clearly, there is a lot at stake for the candidate as he or she puts self in the story. Does the person take care of the situation alone? Does the person look for more property data then negotiate with the neighbor? Does the sense of urgency dictate immediate action without due cause? (Cut down the tree even if it is on the neighbor’s property). Is there an attempt to manipulate or overpower? – all of which indicate how the candidate would approach conflict in the workplace.

Question: You have one brother (or sister). This sibling has had very little contact with you or your parents for the past 9 years; only calling a couple of times a year and never visiting face to face. Your parents have had severe health problems over the past 6 years and you have been the one faced with the energy, expense, and responsibility to take care of them. They have recently passed on, leaving a small estate. Seeming like a large estate to your brother (sister), he (she) arrives to claim half of the estate. You are the executor of the will. What do you do?

What you are looking for: This unfortunate scenario should provide enough emotional elements to get the candidate to reveal his or her true beliefs surrounding this conflict. Some core issues that can come out of the person’s dealing with this question include relationship issues (which are more important, relationships or facts), “victim” issues (life owes me something), the ability to calmly deal with facts and make decisions objectively, etc.

5. Ownership, the ability to emotionally own a project, role or task

Note: We believe a person with “employee mentality” only wants to do the job and get a paycheck for doing it. A person with “ownership mentality” does the job as if it was his or hers. This “ownership,” albeit not literal ownership, has the benefit of increased motivation and creativity in doing the job.

Question: How do you handle delegated tasks?

What you are looking for: This deceptively simple question can reap great results. A person with employee mentality may say something as simple as, “I just do it.” A person with a bit more involvement may speak about needing to understand timelines and outcomes before doing the task. Although neither of these answers or attitudes are bad, what is better is someone with ownership mentality who would want to find out more about the task – what is the bigger picture, how does it fit into the overall, what are the expectations surrounding the task, etc. This kind of a person may speak about needed resources to do the task and creative ways to accomplish it.

6. Motivation, looking for energy and inspiration in doing a job or task

Question: In life, what lights your fire, gives you satisfaction, gives you happiness?

What you are looking for: Notice, the words are “in life…” not “in your job.” Here you are looking for what lights up this person’s eyes. Here again, you are looking for themes. Accomplishments, challenges, being or working with people, learning – all would be a benefit in an employee. Vacations, movies, reading, car racing, and other such activities or hobbies, though perfectly acceptable, indicate the person’s “fire” won’t be lit until they leave work.

7. Ego, self-esteem, how the person views self

Note: How a person views and speaks of self indicates security or insecurity, ego, and self-esteem. This will be the basis for a person’s ability to work with others, communicate openly, and deal with difficulty.

Question: How do you handle accomplishments?

Question: Tell me a story of a significant accomplishment of yours.

Question: If you were a representative for someone else – the perfect person for this job – what would you tell me about that person.

What you are looking for: In the answering of the general “handle accomplishment” question, in the storytelling, and in the personification of the “perfect person,” look for inflated pride, the necessity of building oneself up, graciousness in giving others credit, the willingness to admit frailties in the process of accomplishment, etc. All of this can give you an indication as to whether the person is an egomaniac (at worst) or is secure and gracious in the act of accomplishment. One further point, when the candidate is talking as a “representative” about “the perfect person” they are undoubtedly talking about how he or she sees self.

8. Communication, the ability to effectively get a message across

Question: Can you teach others? Tell me a story of how you taught someone something.

Question: Give me instruction on how to do something you know how to do that I may not know how to do – a hobby, a skill, an expertise in something such as painting or guitar playing.

What you are looking for: For the first question, the obvious discovery from this question is whether the candidate is able to clearly communicate and get a message across. Additionally, are there any bits of motivation or persuasiveness in the communication?

For the second question, you are looking for the characteristic of whether the candidate is other’s-centered or self-centered. If the person simply begins teaching you something without asking you any questions, he or she may be self-centered and just doing what is needed to answer the question. An other’s-centered person may ask you questions like, “What would you like to learn?” or I do tile work, do you know how to do that?” before beginning. An exceptionally other’s-centered person would not only find out what best to teach you that you don’t know, but would also ask you how you would like to learn it – hands-on, verbally, with pictures,…or what?

In both of these questions, you can look for additional characteristics helpful in the workplace such as respect and consideration. How the candidate speaks of others and how he or she interacts with teaching you will give you a clue about their attitude in dealing with others.

9. Problem Solving, the ability to creatively use the resources at hand to problem-solve

Question: A three-ton iceberg is floating in the sea. How long will it take to completely melt?

What you are looking for: Like the bowling ball question from the Reader’s Digest, obviously, there is not enough data to solve the problem. (What is the sea temperature, direction of float, sunny weather, cloudy weather, location – an iceberg floating in Antarctica will take much longer to melt than if it was floating closer to the equator). Refrain from giving the candidate any more information than what is in the question. The frustration factor is interesting to watch in the context of this question.

Does the person give up quickly when you can’t give them any more information? Does the person make some assumptions so there can be some movement towards problem-solving? As with the illustration mentioned in the beginning, how the person thinks and processes this question will reveal how the person will approach problems.

Additional Suggestions

With each of these questions, conversationally follow any interesting trails. For example, in question number 8 about teaching someone else something, ask about the other person; what did the person do with the knowledge, how difficult was it to teach that person, what challenges did the candidate have in getting the message across. This could give you some information about the person’s creativity or flexibility. It could also give you input regarding readiness to blame (if the other person wasn’t learning quickly enough, for example) or take responsibility for the task at hand (i.e. “it took me a while but I finally got the right technique to teach the person”).

Naturally, you can add to these questions all of the standard information you would want to ask – the content you need to have or know for the best hire available. The above questions are designed to help you find that extra special person within the context of the data you also need such as licensures, education, experience, etc.

Here are a few additional suggestions that could help ensure a successful hire.

  1. After the hiring process screens candidates down to a few possibilities, have three or four current team members ask each candidate questions they feel are important. This accomplishes three goals: 1) Gives the candidate the understanding that the hiring process is a team effort and if they are hired they are joining a team, not just working for a boss; 2) Gives you additional information and perspective on the candidate; and 3) Gives the current employees greater ownership in retaining this person on the team.
  2. When you are quite sure of the candidate you want to hire, if your safety and human resource regulations allow for it, have the candidate come in for a day or half-day with the instruction to “mingle.” That open-ended assignment lets you observe the candidate around others. We have seen promising candidates prove to be overly pushy or opinionated during this “mingle” day. This provided timely and sufficient data that the person wasn’t the right hire after all. The person performed well in the interview process but failed miserably in the live scenario.
  3. Make sure you have a broad-based, extensive orientation system. Too often we have seen the “punt” method of orientation – kicking the new employees into the game right in the middle of the two-minute warning (at least that’s what it feels like to them). Mixing metaphors – this sink or swim methodology can set an otherwise good employee up for failure. Contact us if you want more information about designing an effective orientation system. When a company designs a successful orientation system, retention goes up. But be prepared. If you do create this system, your current employees will want to go through it too. And, if they do…why not?

Turnover costs money! Direct costs, indirect costs, opportunity costs – it’s expensive to replace someone. A good hiring process can create greater retention. This interviewing system is designed to do just that by finding the right person to fill the vacant role and to stick around for a long time. Investing a little time in the interviewing process will result in long-lasting results.

Intrigued by our 9 questions to hire the right person for the job? A lot of how a person responds can also be attributed to their personality type. Learn more about your personality type, and download resources to learn about others, with our Free Personality Type Assessment.

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Bill Truby

Founder and President of Truby Achievements