leadership

The five most important questions to ask job candidates

Helen Alexander /

There’s more to hiring someone than checking they’ve got the technical skills to work for you.

Here are five questions you need to ask every job candidate to ensure they’re fully equipped for the job.

1. What will you do for my business?

This blunt question often elicits a blank stare and uncomfortable silence, says Steve Shepherd, group director of recruitment firm and HR firm, Randstad.

“I’m not looking for some wishy-washy answer, I’m looking to know what they know about my business and what specific and measurable outcomes they will deliver. For example, if they’re a salesperson, I would be looking to see what sales targets they were prepared to commit to themselves.

“Then I would ask them to detail specific examples of where they’ve done this in the past, and who I can contact to verify this. It’s important for them to be specific, as most people talk about what they can do at interview, not what they will do, and I always want to know what they will do,” he says.

The secret is not to let them off the hook, despite an uncomfortable silence, he says.

“I try to make them feel comfortable by saying something like: “I know it’s hard when you are put on the spot, so take your time, there’s no rush.”

2. Why are you leaving your current employer?

This question might initially put them on the back-foot, but the applicant’s response tells you about their values, outlook, goals, and needs from an employer, says Pam McKean, director of JSS Recruiting.

“You can determine what prompted the job search, if they were leaving to seek career advancement, or simply more money. It may be that they were bored, or that they loved a part of the job that will be performed more in this role,” McKean says.

A candidate’s body language and inflections can alter markedly when they’re asked what they liked about their previous role, so watch their reaction carefully, she says.

“Even if they say they liked an aspect of the job, it will come out in their body language if they don’t. Conversely, you learn to read if they don’t just like, but love aspects of what they do, which plays a role in your evaluation,” she says.

3. How do you handle disagreements?

Trying to understand how argumentative a candidate is can be the difference between workplace discord and harmony.

One way to do this is to ask the candidate to tell you about a time they disagreed with an idea or concept one of their team members wanted to pursue, and how they approached the disagreement.

McKean says she would expect a measured response, and possibly an example of where they were able to influence the other party, rather than telling them what to do.

“I would also be looking for examples of how they listened to the other person and possibly showed the ability to compromise or collaborate with the other person.”

Follow on by asking if an agreement couldn’t be reached, what formal steps were taken to resolve the issue, and how the relationship progressed post-conflict, she says.

“This would let me assess their listening skills and ability to influence and lead others, and most importantly, if they were able to be objective about their own work if required.”

4. What motivates you?

This can help you ascertain if the candidate is motivated by rapid promotion or the opportunity to make lots of money quickly, says Melbourne’s Aaron Dodd, of change leadership and recruitment consultants, Mindset.

“In most cases, these are things that an SME may not be able to offer. Many SMEs struggle to provide a clear career path for ambitious employees, so their answer may determine whether you can hold onto this person for 10 years, or perhaps only two years.

Depending on the investment the SME needs to make in them to get them up to speed will determine if there’s a decent return on investment if you hire them, he says.

Their response can also give insights into their work-life balance, and whether external interests impact positively or negatively on the SME, he says.

Be sure to ask what motivates them outside the workplace too, he says.

5. What makes you tick?

Another good strategy is to avoid leading questions, which may prevent the candidate from expressing their core values and motivations, says personal branding strategist and former recruiter, Irene Kotov.

“I prefer to start by telling them the story of my business, what we stand for, what problems we face and why we do what we do. Then I say: now it’s your turn.”

She’s not necessarily looking for a polished answer. Rather, she’s looking for someone who can demonstrate self-awareness and a sense of purpose.

One of the best ways to flesh out this question is by asking: “Let’s say you wake up every morning and your financial needs are taken care of forever. What would you spend the rest of your life doing?”

This cuts through the superficial motivations like status, validation, money, and gets the potential hire to wrestle with what’s real for them, she says.

“The most important thing for an SME leader (especially of a small one with less than 10 employees) is to make sure that what makes the employee jump out of bed every morning is aligned with what the company does. It’s my job to make sure that they can fulfil on their core values and motivations within the roles my business can offer them,” she says.

What you can’t ask

In an interview, you cannot ask questions that fall into the realm of discrimination, such as:

sex, disability, marital status, political or religious belief, status as a parent or carer, race or birthplace, age, physical features, pregnancy or future pregnancy or industrial activity.

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