If You Only Had ONE Job Interview Question to Ask?

While interviews can seem hard on job candidates, they may actually be harder on hiring mangers. Apart from recruiters, most people – unless they’re an ineffective “interview and burn through people manager” – don’t interview enough to make interviewing second nature. As a result, instead of focusing on the candidate, hiring managers can get lost in thinking about their next question to ask, engage in a little white knuckle time while interviewing, and actually sweat and pray they’ll finally interview well.

It doesn’t have to be that hard, and frankly it’s not.

Apart from thinking through the key competencies / skills / experiences needed for the job, it primarily boils down to one question for the hiring manager to answer: “What do I need (or hope) to learn, and how will I know when I’ve learned it?”

Why is this important?

Assessment and selection, which is the outcome of interview, should be akin to breathing for anyone who makes choices – like hiring people. You should be able to do assessment well as a routine part of your skill set. If you can make good choices on cars, spouses, or the clothes you wear, you should be able to do the same for interviewing and hiring people. (And if you can’t there are people who can coach you.)

Why can interviewing seem so complicated?

It’s not, but legions of HR people along with a few in-house attorneys have put the fear of god (or at least a fear of a burdensome discrimination lawsuit) in people and inadvertently made it so. To compound things, too many practitioners have tried to help and the interviewing process has been made to be complicated and mysterious, and certainly – like the jungles of the Amazon – not something to be taken lightly.

Information about the experiences / competencies / skills part of interviewing will come in a later post: for now let me give an example about one question I generally ask candidates, why it’s helpful, and what it tells me:

How would the people with whom you’ve worked describe you and in doing so what would they list as your strengths as well as your gaps?

Why this question?

As a general bias, I’m partial when I manage folks to hire people who have some ability of self reflection, a method of collecting accurate feedback from people with whom they work including customers and vendors, who can build an accurate picture of themselves, and a have sense of where their strengths stand and where they have some deficit gaps.


Hiring people with that that quality makes my job as a supervisor simpler and frankly easier: if the time I spend with folks is either providing feedback that will be internalized, and working on actions steps and brainstorming, then it’s time spent on moving forward. If I spend significant time giving feedback that won’t be internalized, or debating with someone what their skills sets really are, then it’s time spent NOT generally moving forward.

What else does it tell you?

You now have data from the candidate that you can map directly against the references they provide, as well as other references you can surface. I generally want references from 6-8 people who have worked alongside, below, above, or external to collect enough data points.

What the candidate says, and what people say, will tell you:

  • What are the skill and gap areas, and does the candidate understand himself or herself well?
  • How well do they integrate feedback? Does the candidate mention changes they’ve made based on the feedback?
  • How candid is the candidate? If they’re transparent as a candidate, hunch is they’re transparent as a new hire. If not, look out.
  • How well do people actually know the candidate? If the stories are close and personal, probably pretty well. If distant and vague, not so well. It suggests, perhaps, a candidate that is a little guarded.

All from one simple question – and, by the way, you may quickly learn what the candidate’s strengths and gaps are as well.

The “silver bullet” in interviewing is not knowing what to ask; it’s first knowing what to vet and what to look for.

The asking part is simply putting some thought on how to fairly surface qualities that either show the candidate has what’s needed to do well in a particular role, or , lacks those qualities or you’re unable to determine if they have those key elements.

More to come.

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