When hiring a new employee, it’s important to ask the right questions.
There are some interview questions that are a given; we all know how to put a good spin on the classic greatest weakness question. It’s also expected that you’ll have potential employees review their job history and qualifications.
But how do you really dig into what makes someone tick as an employee, and how do you determine if they’ll be a good fit for your business—not only in terms of their skills, but also their personality, and as a part of your company culture?
To help you come up with the perfect list of interview questions to ask potential employees, I’ve divided this list into five categories: personality questions, culture fit questions, background and work experience questions, work habits and working style questions, and career goal questions. Be sure to check out my article on How to Hire Your First Employee as well.
Pick and choose a handful that feel most applicable from each list, or ask them all (though that would be a lengthy interview indeed). With a well-rounded list of interview questions, finding the perfect candidate for your open position should be no problem at all.
Personality interview questions
It’s a good idea to get a sense of what your potential candidate is like as a person, in addition to their skills as an employee.
A lot of this comes down to what kind of person you want working with your company. Ability to do the job at hand only goes so far, and drilling down into the personality traits and motivational goals that your candidate holds will give you a more holistic view of them as a person.
Take, for example, the question, “Give me an example of a time you did something wrong. How did you handle it?”
Now, this question isn’t just about workplace mistakes, and should be framed in such a way that it gives them a chance to tell you about a time in their lives where they felt they were in the wrong.
Maybe your candidate will tell you about a time they let a friend down, and had to make up for it; this gives you a sense that they are able to take responsibility for their actions, and make amends.
Other answers may reveal a potentially toxic employee; for example, if their answer to “Who is your hero?” is, say, Darth Vader, you may want to steer clear.
Personality questions to ask job candidates:
- Tell me about yourself.
- What are three character traits that your friends would use to describe you?
- What are three positive character traits you don’t have?
- What do you like to do?
- What are your lifelong dreams?
- What do you ultimately want to become?
- What is your personal mission statement?
- Tell me about your proudest achievement outside of work.
- Give me an example of a time you did something wrong. How did you handle it?
- What is your greatest achievement outside of work?
- If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
- What is the last book you read? What did you think of it?
- What magazines do you subscribe to?
- What’s the best movie you’ve seen in the last year?
- What would you do if you won the lottery?
- Who are your heroes?
- What do you like to do for fun?
- What do you do in your spare time?
- What is your favorite memory from childhood?
- What is one thing you’d like to achieve in life?
Culture fit interview questions
Building on the idea that hiring for personality is at least as important as hiring for experience (and sometimes more so), hiring an employee that fits in with the culture you are trying to establish is extremely important.
The “right” answer to many of these questions will depend on the culture of your business, or the culture you would like to build. What does your company look like, and what does ideal company culture look like for you? If you’re just starting out, get a sense of how to answer these questions for yourself first, before you begin asking candidates.
For example, if you strive to create a company culture where employees are like family, and routinely grab a meal or a round of drinks after work, a job candidate who expresses distaste for workplace functions and social gatherings might not be a great fit.
Look out for areas where your style of running an office and their preferred work environment overlap, and where they clash. This can be the hardest thing to get right, because while someone may be a great employee on paper, the two of you also need to share a similar philosophy about what makes a place great to work for.
Culture fit questions to ask job candidates:
- What does your ideal company look like?
- What attracted you to this company?
- What do you know about this industry?
- What do you know about our company?
- What is your ideal working environment?
- What kind of personalities do you work best with and why?
- What do you look for in terms of culture?
- What do you think of your previous boss?
- What will you miss about your present/last job?
- What are five things you disliked most about your last job?
- What are you ideal top qualities in a co-worker?
- If you could open a business, what would it be and why?
- What personality traits do you butt heads with?
- Describe your ideal company culture. What five characteristics does it have?
- Why do you want to work at this company and what are your expectations?
- Who inspires you and why?
- What’s your superpower?
- What motivates you to come into work every day?
- How do you rely on others to make you better?
- Do you have any questions for me?
Background and work experience interview questions
Here, we get into the more traditional interview questions, where you’ll get into the nitty-gritty about what makes this person qualified to perform the tasks at hand.
In a sense, these should be the easier questions as they should demonstrate clearly whether or not the job candidate has the necessary skill set you are looking for.
Be sure to ask enough questions that you get a well-rounded view of their skills, and provide opportunities for them to show you their aptitude. Most of these questions will require tailoring, depending on the position you are hiring for.
Work experience questions to ask job candidates:
- What types of jobs have you held in the past?
- What was your title at your current/previous/last job?
- What were your duties in that position?
- What did you like most/least about the position?
- Why are you leaving your present (or past) employer?
- What’s the most important thing you learned in school and/or at your last job?
- Why did you choose your major?
- If selected for this position, can you describe your strategy for the first 90 days?
- What is your understanding of the skills necessary to perform this job?
- What special training have you completed that qualifies you for this job?
- What certifications do you hold?
- Can you describe how to _____________ (fill in with essential job functions, repeating as many times as necessary to get a good idea of necessary job skills)?
- This job requires the ability to _____________ (fill in as stated above). Can you give me an example of a time that you have had to _____________ (restate requirement)?
Work habits and working style interview questions
Once you’ve gotten a sense of whether or not your employee is qualified to do the job you want to fill, take some time to determine what kind of worker they are.
This series of questions is a bit of everything: it looks at personality, the culture they work best in, and a little bit of their background as an employee.
Where it differs from the previous categories is by focusing on your potential new hire’s work style. Are they more detail oriented, or are they a big-picture thinker? What are their strengths and weaknesses as an employee? How do they deal with difficult coworkers? These kinds of questions inform what type of employee you’re dealing with.
As with personality and culture, it comes down to a matter of fit. Do you prefer someone who works best collaboratively, or who keeps to him or herself? Do you want an employee who directly addresses a conflict with a colleague head-on, or who goes through you to resolve it?
There are no right answers here—it depends on the type of employee you’re looking for.
Work habits and working style questions to ask job candidates:
- How would you describe your work style?
- What techniques and tools do you use to keep yourself organized?
- If you had to choose one, would you consider yourself a big-picture person or a detail-oriented person?
- What are your strengths as an employee?
- What are your weaknesses as an employee?
- When were you most satisfied in your job?
- What can you do for us that other candidates can’t?
- What were the responsibilities of your last position?
- Give me an example of a time that you felt you went above and beyond the call of duty at work.
- What was the last project you led, and what was its outcome?
- Can you describe a time when your work was criticized?
- How do you handle working with people who annoy you?
- Have you ever been on a team where someone was not pulling their own weight? How did you handle it?
- Tell me about a time when you had to give someone difficult feedback. How did you handle it?
- If I were your supervisor and asked you to do something that you disagreed with, what would you do?
- Describe how you would handle a situation if you were required to finish multiple tasks by the end of the day, and there was no possible way that you could finish them.
- What did you dislike about your least favorite former supervisor and/or coworker?
- How would your previous co-workers describe you?
- Can you give me an example of a time you worked through a conflict with a coworker?
Career goal interview questions
Finally, get a sense of where your job candidate sees him or herself going in life. What is their required salary for the current position, and tentative career trajectory? What are their big-picture dreams?
Answers to these questions will reveal a lot about your interviewee’s longevity as an employee, and their long-range goals. If they mention that they’d like to move up within the company, that could signify that they’re ready to work hard and could potentially be built into your business as an integral, foundational member—but what if you don’t have a vacancy for them to grow into?
Again, the “right” answers will depend on your business and the role you are hiring for, so keep that in mind and have a sense beforehand of what the deal breakers are—for example, if you know you’d rather hire someone for the long haul, and they tell you that their five-year plan involves starting up their own company within the next few years.
Career goal questions to ask job candidates:
- Why do you want this job?
- Where would you like to be in your career five years from now?
- Why should we hire you?
- Why are you leaving your present job?
- What salary are you seeking?
- What’s your salary history?
- If I were to give you the salary you requested, but let you write your job description for the next year, what would it say?
- What are you looking for in terms of career development?
- How do you want to improve yourself in the next year?
- What kind of goals would you have in mind if you got this job?
Which questions do you think are most helpful when it comes to hiring new employees? Have you had better luck focusing on personality or work experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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