Ask This, Not That: Smarter Interview Questions For Better Hires

Interviews shouldn't feel like pulling teeth. Here are a couple tips for livening up those dreaded conversations and recruiting an all-star team.

It has been said that a company with a decent idea and a great team will execute far better than one with a great idea and an average team. So, it only goes to follow that your team is your company’s biggest asset and hiring decisions today can make or break your business’ future.

It can be hard to get to know a candidate within the confines of a 15-minute phone screen or an hour interview. After all, first impressions aren’t always correct: A mediocre worker might be able to “fake it” for an hour just as an incredible employee may be an awkward interviewee. In addition, canned questions tend to generate canned responses.

However, by asking the right questions and listening for the right responses, you’ll be able to spot those top-notch individuals who will mesh with your growing team. Here are five tips to rock the interview process:

1. Have a conversation
When you share information about yourself or just add your own thoughts after a candidate’s answer, it makes the interview seem more like a conversation than a one-sided grilling. Don’t just dive into your list of prepared questions; open the interview by chatting about what you did over the weekend or talking about a recent company event. The more comfortable a candidate feels, the more they’ll reveal about themselves and their true personality.

2. Ask specific and behavioral questions
Interviews are short and you need to make the most out of your time. The deeper your questions get, the better. Ask behavioral (actual) vs. traditional (hypothetical) questions. For example…

Behavioral: “Tell me about a time when you dealt with...”
Traditional: “Describe how you would deal with...”

Behavioral questions show how your candidate thinks and how they actually deal with real work situations. By asking for specific examples, you’re forcing a candidate to have more unique, thought-out responses. This ultimately will yield more insights into an individual’s personality and thought process.

3. Look for passion
Since we place a significant emphasis on company culture, we want to see candidates that love what they do…from their job to extracurricular hobbies. For example, when we’re looking for customer service agents (our bread and butter), we need to see a genuine love for helping others.

At Zendesk, we also look for candidates who are knowledgeable about our product and enthusiastic about the position and company. For example, signing up for a free trial or interacting in some way with our company shows initiative and genuine excitement at the prospect of working here.

4. Give an exercise
One of the best ways to evaluate if someone is capable of doing the actual job is to give them an assignment during or after the interview. For example, when we’re interviewing for a customer service role, we have all interviewees work on two trouble tickets. These aren’t fake tickets that were created just for the interview; they’re two real tickets (with the names and dates removed). We provide clear instructions on what the candidate should do, give them a specific time frame, and then let them dive right in.

While we are looking to see how each candidate approaches problem-solving, we’re also looking for how a candidate handles the feedback they receive after. Were they comfortable when listening to feedback? Did they listen carefully and consider the comments an opportunity to learn? Or did they seem irritated and impatient? If it’s the latter, they’re probably not going to be a good fit.

5. Set up peer interviews
It’s important to consider who will conduct the interviews. In addition to several layers of management, you should also have potential peers interview candidates as well. After all, finding the right employee entails more than skill-sets and experience. You want to find people who fit within your company culture and work well with your existing team. This goes a long way in assembling a group that truly enjoys working together and will be loyal to your organization for the long run.

Making a decision
When it’s time to make your decision, you and the interview team should review notes from every step of the process: Are candidates passionate? Are they excited at the prospect of working at your company? Can they take and learn from feedback? Do they have the requisite skills? If not, can they learn them quickly?

However, the most important question to ask is: Are you enthusiastic about the prospect of this person representing your company, its values, and mission? If the answer isn’t a resounding “yes,” it’s best to keep looking. Extending the interview process may take up more of everyone’s time, but your team will be stronger for it in the long run.

Keep in mind that the result of an interview can be more than a binary “yes” or “no.”

Certainly, if the candidate is perfect for the company and position, you’ll want to hire him or her right away. Conversely, if the candidate doesn’t fit your company, you’ll want to pass. However, you will also come across people who seem to be a great cultural fit for your organization but don’t have the right skills for this specific opening. Consider referring these candidates to a different opening within your company.

If you’ve done your job well describing the opening and prescreening candidates, you’ll most likely see many more viable candidates than you have openings. Think of this as an opportunity. Make an offer to the best candidates and keep the rest in a repository for the future. That way you’ll already have an impressive short list on hand for future openings or temporary hiring needs.

--Amy Kelman leads Zendesk’s Customer Success team, whose charter is to create a beautifully simple experience for all Zendesk customers. Learn more at www.zendesk.com or on Twitter @zendesk

[Image: Flickr user Sebastien Wiertz]

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2 Comments

  • Paul H. Burton

    Amy: I completely agree that inteviewing is the most crucial moment in the new-hire effort. I often recommend to my audiences that the time spent in interviews with candidates is some of the most important time any organization spends.

    One recommendation I throw out is to ask questions an interviewee cannot anticipate so that you can guage their ability to respond to the unexpected and/or how they react under pressure. It can also demonstrate their quickness of wit and intuitiveness. Here's an example question:

    If this were your office, how would you arrange the furniture?

    What I measure with this question is:
    1. How do they behave when they get a out-of-the-blue question?
    2. Do they pause to consider the answer?
    3. Do they take me seriously?
    4. Do they pander to me by saying I've done a great job (bad response)?
    5. Do they have any good ideas! :)

    Time is every organiztions most value asset. Interview time is particular valuable and it should be used well. My book The Waterfall Effect: Six Principles for Productive Leadership (Amazon) covers interviewing, along with a number of other topics on how to maximize the organization's use of time.

  • Sheila Bradley

    Paul: I like questions that draw out the collorative styles and capacity. Your question is a great one!