Clients often ask me to help them craft interview questions that will reveal which candidates will be good team players, leaders, customer-focused or better people persons in general. I give them these sample questions and stress the importance of asking questions about what the candidate has actually done as opposed to what they hypothetically would do in the future. I also recommend that at least some of the questions be given in advance so that you have an opportunity to observe who prepares for the interview. This levels the playing field because some candidates are better at responding on the fly but they are not necessarily the better candidate. Also, responding to questions about past failures can be difficult, but necessary to learn how candidates deal with challenges, assume responsibility and build on life experience. Finally, let candidates know that it is o.k. if they share stories that are not directly in context with a similar work environment, or even work at all. The best candidate may be a leader in the community or a problem solver in a completely different realm. Observe body language, imagine you are the customer, the co-worker, the employee who is going to report to this person. How you feel inside is how others are likely to respond to this person.
INTERVIEW QUESTIONS TO HELP SELECT
FOR PEOPLE SKILLS AND COMPETENCIES
GENERAL QUESTION THAT IS APPROPRIATE FOR ANY INTERVIEW:
Tell me about your successes; tell me about your failures.
You may wish to tailor this question to a particular time period (e.g., tell me about three successes you have had in the last few years) or area of work experience, but generally information about most competencies can be gleamed from discussion about successes and failures in any life situation.
Tell me about a situation in the past when you knew someone at work was unhappy with you. How did you know? Can you describe their behavior?
Tell me what signs you pick up on that tell you a customer is angry or dissatisfied when they do not come right out and tell you. How do you know? Can you describe their behavior?
- How well does this person sense what others are feeling? Can they read body language? Different degrees of skill are needed for different jobs, so judge accordingly.
[The interview situation provides an opportunity to directly observe and experience the interpersonal competencies of another. Does this person try to understand you? Does this person ask questions to clarify what you are saying? Does this person demonstrate empathetic understanding with body language, e.g., attentive posture (upright, forward, open) rather than a posture of disinterest (slumped, back, crossed arms, legs.) Does this person exhibit an active interest in what you are saying? Do they have the skill of restating what you say to make sure you are understood? Does this person interrupt you?]
Tell me about a time when you helped an unhappy customer. What about a time when you were unable to understand what the customer needed or wanted? What did you do?
- Does this person work to try and understand the customer? Do they have a desire to help or do they shrug their shoulders and make light of the need or concern?
Tell me about a work situation that you would describe as culturally diverse. What did the situation teach you? What exactly happened?
- Depending on the nature of the job, the level of expectation will differ for this question. In some entry level jobs, there is a need to recognize the potential for problems with acceptance of diversity and a willingness to work within a diverse environment. In professional level jobs, the person should be able to converse about diversity issues without falling into stereotypical or obvious points to explain their views.
How do you feel about working in a diverse environment? [Explain the conditions that may pose a challenge in this area.]
- Observe the person’s sensitivity in this area and in particular note any sarcasm that may arise as a defense against uncomfortable feelings. Also note a strong propensity to use “we-they” language which can be divisive inside the workplace.
What are your likes and dislikes about customers?
- How realistic is this person about customer needs and wants? Do they understand the customer’s perspective or seem to be unaware? Some may be able to demonstrate they understand the customer even while they don’t like a particular customer trait – this shows good customer focus if their dislike is realistic.
What are some examples of ways you have taken the extra step to make a customer happy?
- Does this person recognize what makes the customer happy and have a repertoire of ways to satisfy a customer? Is this person willing to go above and beyond within reasonable bounds to show customer appreciation?
Tell me your best customer service story and your worst nightmare story.
- Listen for cues that this person has a realistic understanding of the role they are to play in the situation. Do they try to understand the customer’s needs and take appropriate steps to meet those needs?
Tell me about a time when you had to influence people in order to make something happen.
- Does this person know how to arouse an emotional response in others, e.g., respect, passion for project, enthusiasm for how the organization will benefit from something, excitement or anger about an issue of unfairness.
Did you ever have to change your strategy in order to improve your chances of success?
- Does this person know how to anticipate reactions from others and can they change and adapt to improve their message?
How did you know you were influencing people toward an outcome?
- Does this person have an awareness of the skills involved in influencing others and can they identify behaviors in others that show a positive response.
Tell me about the most difficult work project you have worked on.
- How well does this person communicate complex issues? Does he or she consider their audience and adjust their explanation to help you better understand? Or do they tend to give up?
Tell me about a situation (the same one just mentioned or another) where you had to work hard to get a point across to your customer or to others in your organization. How did you work through the difficult issues? What did you do to get your point across?
- Does this person use listening skills to improve communication? Do they have a sense of openness about what others might be feeling? Do they operate in a straightforward manner?
Tell me about a time you received bad news. How did you respond and why did you respond in the way you did?
- Is this person receptive to bad news as well as good? Are they able to put the news in perspective? Or do they have a tendency to over blame others?
Tell me about the most difficult/most successful/most recent group project you participated in or led.
How did your group go about agreeing on priorities?
- Is this person familiar with techniques to help groups arrive at a set of priorities?
- Does this person have a good intuitive grasp of group concerns, needs and objectives?
How did you divide up responsibilities?
- Does this person know how to self manage in a team, accepting appropriate amounts of responsibility and allowing others to assume responsibility?
How did you measure progress, or otherwise judge how well you were doing as a group?
- Does this person rely on someone else to judge the progress, or provide measures for the group, or share in a group evaluation? [One or more may be appropriate, or inappropriate depending on the situation.]
Did you have someone in the group who didn’t work out? How did you handle the situation?
- Did this person help to resolve the situation, or distance him or herself from the situation? Does this person have the ability to describe shortcomings of a group member in a reasonably fair and objective manner?
How did you contribute to the group? What were your specific skills, talents, interests, etc.
- Is this person self-aware? Do they have an understanding of their own competencies? Do they have an awareness of how they impact others in a group situation? Do they engage others in the group or do they have limited impact? (This question may require additional probing where the candidate is self-effacing.)
What particular problems have you encountered when working with groups? Can you tell me about a specific situation?
- How well does this person read situations? Do they say they have never have problems (then most likely they do not read situations) or are they able to identify problems and clearly communicate how the problem was resolved? Does this person accept responsibility for his or her part in a group problem, or distance him or herself entirely from the problem? Can this person provide a reasonably fair and objective description of a problem?
Tell me about a time at work when you either chose, or were in effect forced to resolve conflict.
How was the conflict identified?
- Did this person wait until conflict had erupted or did they take proactive steps to ward off conflict? Was this person instrumental in bringing the conflict to the surface in a productive manner? Did this person demonstrate empathy or listening skills to reduce the level of conflict?
What was your role in the conflict itself?
- Can this person express their own feelings related to the conflict? Has this person considered how they might have contributed to the conflict? Does this person take responsibility where appropriate?
Can you briefly describe the various sides represented in the conflict?
- How well does this person see various perspectives? Can this person express points of view in a neutral language?
What was your role in resolving the conflict?
- How comfortable is this person with open discussion about conflict? How creative is this person in finding ways to resolve conflict? Did this opportunity require some negotiation skills?
Tell me about a time when you helped to develop other employees.
How would you describe your relationship with the person (s) you were in charge of developing?
- Does this person focus on the employee’s respect for him or her, or whether the employee liked them, or do they focus on their own trust, respect, and regard for the employee? Was the relationship one of open trust, or one based on fear, control and compliance? Does this person show a genuine interest without an overinflated need to be liked by employees?
Tell me about how you give feedback to employees? Do you have scheduled meetings, or do you like to observe and give feedback while they are on the job?
- An experienced supervisor will have definitive and often lengthy answers about how they give feedback because someone who is good does it a lot. An inexperienced or ineffective supervisor will give pat answers without elaboration.
Tell me about a time when you had to deliver bad news to an employee regarding their performance.
- Did this person choose an appropriate place and time to deliver the news? Did they exhibit some empathy while at the same time remaining honest and straightforward?
Give me some examples of how you motivate employees.
- Does this person know how to create challenges for employees? Give praise? Let employees be involved in things? Give feedback to let employees know how they are doing? Give employees a clear picture of what they’re doing and why they are doing it? Or do they only focus on pep talks, and treats to make employees like them? [Such motivators are nice but not effective in the absence of more constructive motivators.]
Tell me something about your professional network (names are not necessary). What kind of information/expertise/help do you get from others with whom you have a professional relationship?
- Does this person have a developed network of professional contacts? (If yes, they are likely to apply those same skills to their job.)
Tell me about some of your longest and most valued contacts (again, specific names are not necessary) Why have you maintained these particular contacts and how have they helped you?
- Does this person have the ability to build and sustain relationships over time? Do they have valued contacts from the place they worked previously or did they burn bridges?
Can you give an example of when a particular contact has saved you a huge amount of time or energy?
- Does this person carefully choose and develop contacts that help him or her build expertise, knowledge, access to information, etc.?
Can you give an example of when you have tapped into your network to accomplish an important project?
- Does this person have the capability of reaching out to others to add value to a particular project or do they have to do everything on their own and assume total control over the content.
Can you estimate what percentage of time that you have “too much on your plate” and explain your answer? [Follow up questions may include, “why do think this happens? Do you like to say yes to people even when you know you are too busy?]
- Does this person have a sense of how they get overloaded with work and do they have some strategies in place to deal with work overload? Do they have trouble saying “no” or does it appear they might be overprotective of their own time and agendas? [This question probes relationship skills because it examines a person’s sense of balance between helping out others and getting one’s own work done.]
Leading a Team
Tell me about an experience you have had leading a team or group towards a goal.
What kind of challenges did you receive from group members? How did you resolve these challenges?
- Was this person able to understand concerns of group members? Did this person resolve the concern in a fair and impartial manner, or did the personality of a particular group member overshadow the manner in which this person responded to the challenge.
Did your group ever come under attack by others outside the group? How did you handle the situation?
- Did this person defend the group and look out for team members, especially if their reputation came under attack?
Did you ever have to go to bat for the group to obtain resources or save a project?
- Did this person know the system, and the power structure well enough to understand how to get the resources needed, or support needed? Did this person have some personal resources at their disposal to help the group, i.e., did this person have some leverage, know the players, understand the system, have the courage and the willingness to put their own reputation on the line?
How did you work with the group to make plans come together? Did you use a particular strategy to develop a plan? Did you take on a particular role?
- How well does this person facilitate and coordinate the work of the group? Is there a clear link between their efforts and the efficiency and effectiveness of the group? Does this person view themselves as the “brain” of the group, or do they focus on capitalizing on the knowledge of group members?
Tell me about a time when you had to inspire a group to action. How did you motivate and inspire your group?
- Did this person use coercion, bribery and force, or did he or she rely on personal leadership traits to motivate and inspire, such as involving group member, creating a picture of the future, and giving the group a clear sense of purpose?