11 questions you should ask at your next interview – for candidates and companies

2020-08-17_11-29-54

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

How many times have you lied when answering this question?

It’s an all-too-common interview question that assumes candidates are looking for a job to last the long-term.

Today, that assumption looks increasingly unrealistic.

In tech firms, the average time employees spend in a role ranges from 10 to 26 months – a radical change from a decade ago, when candidates could be expected to spend 3 or more years in a post.

Today’s IT sector is a gig economy, where technology moves fast enough that candidates expect to chase their next project, technological challenge or promotion on a near-constant basis.

Times have changed, yet when businesses interview new candidates, they often use traditional questions from outdated job specs. They ask, ‘What motivates you?’ ‘Can you tell me about a time you were challenged?’ And, of course: Where do you see yourself in five years time?

These questions fail to build an accurate and detailed impression of the candidate. They therefore fail to determine their suitability for a role. And worse still, they demotivate the most talented applicants, who are unable to express their skill and character.

Asking poor interview questions means businesses miss out on star candidates, and the same candidates win jobs they’re not suited for.

Everybody suffers. So what should candidates and companies be asking instead?

Questions to ask candidates

For many businesses, the list of questions asked at interview is standardised across the company. This traditionalist approach to interviewing is ill-suited to the fast-moving industry, where roles and competencies change on a yearly or even monthly basis. This problem is compounded by the fact that many businesses recruit according to out-of-date job specs.

Instead, interviews should be performance-based. A successful interview does two things: educates the candidate on what a role requires, and assesses whether they can do it successfully.

Businesses must recognise that they are hiring to do specific things – whether that’s solve a problem, implement a system or maintain an existing one. As such, candidates should be interviewed around their relevant experiences. Rather than interviewing candidates based on how they used a behaviour in an unrelated situation, they should instead be assessed on their past performance doing the types of task being recruited for.

To prepare for interviews, businesses should therefore first review their job spec and pull out the five key skills involved. The interview should then explore these five skills through a series of five structured questions.

The answers to these questions will, in turn, build a detailed portrait of the candidate and determine whether they are exactly suitable for the role.

Question 1. Can you describe a time you demonstrated high performance doing X, and at which company?

This question tests the candidate’s understanding of the vacant role and is a useful alternative to asking them to ‘describe a time they were motivated to do X.’

Question 2. What was your position at that company, and what were the skills required for success in the role?

This allows the candidate to describe their work history and explore the associated skills they can offer.

Question 3. Why did you take the role, or why were you chosen?

Here, the candidate is offered chance to recall their key competencies – which in turn offers detail about their character and their perception of themselves.

Question 4. What results did you achieve in doing X?

This question refocusses the interview on the key skill discussed above, and ensures the candidate understands its importance in the context of the new role.

Question 5. What part of X did you really enjoy?

Again, this offers the candidate the chance to express their character and helps you assess whether they will make a good ‘fit’ for your company culture.

Asking these questions for each key skill requirement offers a more detailed, useful set of answers than traditional interview questions.

Questions to ask interviewers

For candidates, the interview should be approached as an opportunity - not an obstacle course.

Many of us shy away from asking tough questions out of fear of looking ‘uninformed’ about the company interviewing them and the role being interviewed for. Actually, interviews offer the best chance for candidates to get to the heart of a company and understand whether it will be right for them – and if the role offered will challenge and reward them.

If the interviewer asks the questions above then the candidate will have had a good chance to develop their understanding of the company and vacancy. But as this isn’t guaranteed, below are five questions to help them get the most out of their time in the hot seat.

Question 1. In your opinion, what do I need to do to be successful in this role?

This question helps clarify the details offered on the job spec. Candidates should ask their prospective manager to describe the role in terms of tasks, deliverables and, crucially, metrics for success.

Question 2. How is X requirement on the job spec important to the role?

Each skill requirement is a window into the tasks required in a role.

For example, a candidate might be needed to work in a fast-paced environment. This is a skill: the reason is that the company requires the new employee to design and implement a roadmap within three months, with limited resources.

This information is important for the candidate, but could have been obscured by the original job spec.

Asking this question has a second benefit: it roots out the parts of the job spec that have been left in because of company internal politics, which might not be be important for the candidate.

Question 3. What are my success factors on day 1, week 1, month 1, month 3 and month 6 in the new job?

The interviewer is unlikely to have defined milestones in this way, but asking the question will spark discussions about important dates for the role, and about working conditions within the business.

For example, the team might have a go-live date in three months’ time. Whether this date is realistic or negotiable will affect a candidate’s perception of the role.

Question 4. What environment will I work in, and what resources will I have access to?

Candidates typically shy away from asking this question because they wrongly believe it expresses weakness.

Too many skilled individuals are then disappointed by the low resources available to them in a job, or confused by the expectations put on them.

This can be avoided by asking the right questions up front. If the company’s expectations sound unreasonable at interview, it’s important to ask whether there will be opportunity to hire support or buy new resources.

Question 5. Are there opportunities for me to develop myself, and if so, what do these look like?

The importance of this question is obvious, but too often, candidates ask a more restrictive and therefore less useful version: ‘What’s the training budget?’

Training budgets are not everything; progression opportunities and development-minded team culture are equally significant for career-focussed candidates.

Question 6. What is your style of management?

This question is typically asked to candidates, but rarely in the opposite direction. Yet it has a profound importance for the working conditions a candidate will work in, and the culture they will be expected to engage with.

Candidates typically approach interviews as a chance to give their best account of themselves.

In doing so, they risk their interview being dominated by the interviewer, who already holds most of the cards in the situation.

By asking penetrative questions, the balance is redressed. The candidate is able to make an honest appraisal of the company and role; they impress the interviewer through their obvious interest and critical approach; and the interviewer is able to judge with accuracy if the candidate is suitable for the role.

Better questions mean better recruitment. Which questions will you ask in your next interview?

Effective interviews are key to candidate-first recruitment.