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For Openers: Five Traditional Interview Questions and Their Interpretations

LET'S BEGIN BY EXAMINING the most often used interview questions and putting a new spin on their interpretations. These questions have stood the test of time, and we should consequently recognize their value in the candidate assessment process. Their inherent weakness, of course, lies in their overuse. Most of us can remember being asked these very same questions during our own past interviews. And job-finding books and career magazines abound with suggested responses to help candidates ''steer clear of the interview questioning snare'' vis-a-vis these popular queries waiting to trip them up.

Our exercise in this first topic, however, isn't to employ questions just because they've been around for a long time. And it's certainly not to offer candidates an opportunity to practice their well-rehearsed lines! We will, instead, offer new interpretations in reading candidate responses.

Tell me about your greatest strength. What's the greatest asset you'll bring to our company?

Why Ask This Question?

The ''greatest strength'' question works well as an icebreaker because most people are fairly comfortable talking about what makes them special and what they like. Every job candidate is ready for this one because it gets so much attention in the career press. Job candidates are also aware that this query is used as a lead-in to a natural follow-up question (which is much tougher to answer): ''What's your greatest weakness?'' Still, the greatest strength question isn't a throwaway because it can reveal a lot about an individual's self-perception. So let's open it up for a moment.

Analyzing the Response

There are two issues to watch out for in measuring a candidate's responses: First, candidates often give lofty answers with lists of adjectives that they think you want to hear and that actually add very little value to your meeting. Second, a candidate's strengths may fail to match your unit's needs, and as such could weigh as a negative swing factor in the selection process.

Red Flags

Watch out for people who give long inventories of ''fluff adjectives'' regarding their nobler traits, such as hardworking, intelligent, loyal, and committed. Adjectives are nothing but un-proven claims. They waste time and delay getting to what you really want to get out of this meeting, which is concrete proof of how the individual will fit in and contribute to the team. Consequently, you'll have to keep the candidate on track by following up on these adjective lists with requests for practical applications. For example, when a candidate says that she's proudest of the fact that she's a hard worker, you might respond:

''Hard workers are always good to find. Give me an example of how hard you work relative to your peers.''


''Hard work usually results in above-average results. How has your hard work paid off in terms of the quantity of your output or the quality of your work product?''


''Hard work in our company boils down to working late hours fairly often and occasionally coming in on Saturdays. How does your present company define hard work?''


''How has your boss recognized your hard work? How would she say that you could have worked smarter, not harder?''

The idea here is to qualify this person's generic response. The second red flag issue occurs when a candidate's strengths fail to match your organizational needs. For example, a candidate may respond, ''I guess I would say that I'm proudest of my progression through the ranks with my last company. I was promoted four times in as many years, and I feel that a company's ultimate reward to its people can be found in the recognition it gives via promotions and ongoing training.'' That's an excellent response. The position you're filling, however, may offer very few vertical growth opportunities because you need someone who would be satisfied with very repetitive work. This is a classic case of ''Right person—wrong opportunity,'' and the greatest strength query will have done its job of identifying a candidate's motives and expectations. Consequently, you might opt to disqualify the candidate for this particular position.

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