The Key Interview Question Many Hiring Managers Forget to Ask

by Jennifer Miller on November 5, 2019

in Leadership

As a hiring manager, you’ve probably had your share of nightmare interviews. You know, the ones where the candidate clearly is not a fit and you’re wondering how few minutes you can expend before politely showing him or her the door. Then there’s the flip side: the candidate sails in, has the right skills and is a perfect cultural fit. It just clicks.

But those are the extremes of a hiring manager’s day—and most likely few and far between. What about job candidates who have the right work experience and seem like a good cultural fit, but as you conduct the interview, you just aren’t sure? Maybe the person you’re talking with is shy or nervous (or both!) Maybe he or she just doesn’t interview well. Given that the US unemployment rate continues at record lows, can you really afford to write off a person who might be a good fit?

Help Them Connect the Dots By Talking About Accomplishments

In an ideal world, all job candidates would come to interviews ready to answer the question, “What is your greatest accomplishment?” As Executive Coach Dana Theus writes in her piece on accomplishments, “stating an accomplishment is a very word-efficient and intuitive way for [interviewers] to envision [a candidate’s] competencies.” But not every job candidate is that savvy. As a former human resources generalist (and hiring manager) I’ve found that most people simply aren’t very good at telling their stories. They struggle to understand their skills and accomplishments from your point of view, which means they don’t “connect the dots” in a way that helps you, the hiring manager, visualize their contribution to your team and organization. This is especially true for front-line workers because their days typically consist of executing someone else’s vision.

So although you might be thinking, “Next candidate!” give this person a few extra minutes of your time to learn if he or she could be an asset to your team. Take some time to help the candidate connect what you see on his or her resume with your job opening. Perhaps a mediocre interview experience can be salvaged with a bit of deft questioning by you.

Master the Art of Follow Up

The key to this part of interviewing is mastering the art of the follow up question. Job candidates will often tell you what they did (tasks) but not the results of their actions (the outcomes.) This is incomplete “storytelling” and doesn’t give an adequate picture of how this job candidate might contribute to your team. For example, I once interviewed a young man who described that he was selected to be part of a cross-functional team to help upgrade the department’s accounting system. Sounds impressive, right? When I asked the candidate for the ways he contributed to the team, he said, “Well, I was selected because someone from our team needed to attend the meetings.” Turns out that the candidate was actually just a figurehead and didn’t really contribute much at all.

When I’m conducting an interview with someone who is struggling to communicate (or is a person of few words) I will often preface a few of my questions with, “OK, (name), I’m wondering if you would tell me an example of a time when you  . . .” Or, I will say, “think of it as telling me a story about a time when you . . .” This eases the tension to “perform” and makes the interview seem a bit more like a conversation.

As you listen to the story, look for the results or outcomes of the actions the candidate took. As the interviewer, it’s your job to suss out the complete story. Here are some of my favorite follow up questions:

  • How did that turn out?
  • What happened after that?
  • What went into that decision?
  • Were you pleased with how it went?
  • What did you take away from that experience?
  • As a result of (candidate’s actions) how did it play out?
  • What feedback did you receive on your actions?
  • What was the impact of your actions on your team?

A hiring manager’s well-placed follow up question helps job candidates more fully tell their work story. Moreover, mastering the art of the follow up interview question will help you glean important data to help make your hiring decisions. You’ll probably still have a few nightmare interviews, but your borderline ones can be salvaged.

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