Resumes and cover letters can tell us only so much when we’re trying to make a hiring decision. Here are 3 questions I think you should always ask during interviews, and one you really need to stop asking.
1. Why do you want to work here?
What led the candidate to apply for your company? Do they think they’d be a good fit for your team? Candidates have an advantage as they walk into the interview – companies usually have a website that explains who they are and what they do. Candidates can use this information to assess whether they want to work there. Usually the interviewer walks in with only a couple pieces of paper.
Even with all the information that technology provides, I’ve had candidates either not know anything about the company, or worse, describe another company in their answer. This shows a lack of preparedness and attention to detail. Mediocre answers include reasons why it would be good for them, practically: closer commute, better pay, etc., rather than why they’d want to work for the company specifically. Although it’s nice to know a candidate has thought about logistics – they don’t really matter to me as an interviewer.
When a candidate can talk about the mission of the company and how her values align with the company values – it’s magical. When a candidate can describe experiences and strengths that have led him to this type of position in this particular organization, it makes my heart sing. The best answers talk about the mission and values of the company (with a clear understanding of what the company does and why they do it), with a side dish of what the candidate can offer to the company. Not many applicants give this answer, but if more people thought at this level, I believe the world would be a better place. Or maybe people would just like their jobs better.
2. Do you have sufficient technical skill?
When you’re hiring someone to do important technical or clinical work – maybe even for the first time in their career – you need to make sure you’re getting a true assessment of their skill. However, it’s more important to give them an opportunity to show how they think, rather than looking for a “correct” answer. Create vignettes that reflect real life situations that don’t have simple answers. Simple questions only rule out candidates who have very little skill. Complex questions help you learn about each person’s ability to sort through confusing and maybe even conflicting information. It helps you assess potential, not solely current skills or knowledge.
Clearly, completely missing the point or providing incorrect information are the absolute worst answers. Slightly better, but still on this list – candidates who silently sit with deer-in-the-headlight eyes and then talk about asking a supervisor or explain that they were not taught this information. To clarify, I’m not saying that someone wanting to check in with a supervisor is a bad answer. It’s freezing, providing no real content in their answer, saying they would have to ask a supervisor, and then making excuses – that’s what I object to.
When you’re hiring someone who will be facing dangerous situations, you must evaluate their ability to assess risk. The worst answers related to risk assessment are reactive, miss vital information, or suggest that the candidate would fail to notify you of a problem (no indication the candidate would seek supervision when needed). It’s so important to make sure that you avoid hiring someone who will provide inadequate care, miss red flags, or put themselves, you, and your clients at risk.
I think many candidates (and too many interviewers) believe the best answers are definitive and “correct.” I disagree. The best answers are the ones that show the candidate’s thought process. How do they think? Have they identified the most pertinent pieces of the vignette, including the red flags? Do they prioritize information according to risk? Do they understand how to assess the client or situation, including any differential diagnosis and relevant cultural context? Most importantly, does this person have the potential to learn what he or she does not currently know? If someone is level-headed, thoughtful, and knows the basics, you have a good start. If you can add to that specific experience and skill with your type of work – you’re golden.
3. What are you looking for in a supervisor?
The relationships we’ve had with our supervisors tell a lot about who we are as workers. It’s important that employers understand how potential employees approach those relationships.
“I don’t want someone who will micromanage me.” This is a ridiculous answer. When I hear this, I imagine that the potential employee has previously pushed back against required aspects of supervision. Not good. Even worse, I’ve had people say “I want a supervisor who will really trust me and let me try new interventions.” Now – I think a supervisor who trusts and empowers their supervisees is awesome. BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THIS PERSON JUST SAID, at least not to me. I heard “My last supervisor didn’t trust me and thwarted me from trying really nutty stuff. I just want to be left alone.” The worst answers are, by and large, ones that lead to doubt about whether they’ve been easy to supervise in the past.
“I want someone who will teach me effective best practices and who will empower me to try new things. Someone who will provide me with consistent feedback, including constructive criticism. I want someone who will support me in my work, for sure. But I also want someone who will mentor me in my career.” How lovely is that? If the candidate can talk about the positives, the ideal supervisor – rather than coming from a negative bent as I described in the worst answers – I’m totally sold.
Don’t ask: What are your top 5 weaknesses?
I HATE this question. It’s absurd. It’s a trick question that only tests how well someone can spin things. Even worse, I think a lot of candidates try to spin this and mess it up. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist.” “I go above and beyond for my clients.” – these answers sound like hidden strengths described as “weaknesses,” but they’re actually just weaknesses. Perfectionists often can’t get a lot of traction with their paperwork and fall really far behind. When I hear “going above and beyond,” I imagine someone who does more than is asked and burns out in 3 seconds flat. This question is lazy, trite, and usually fails to provide useful information. Just stop it!
What question is better?
I think we need to understand a candidate’s self-awareness, especially around areas of weakness. One of my first mentors taught me to do this more effectively: describe a typical, but challenging work day or week. Provide details around the primary expectations for the job. Then ask: what would you find most difficult in that job? You’re seeking answers specific to work that they’ll actually do, not some random weakness that they think won’t look bad.
When a candidate says that nothing in that description sounds too challenging, I want to run for the hills. Frequently, the work is hard. Something is going to challenge you. This answer doesn’t suggest competence, but rather a lack of self-awareness.
Thoughtfully looking at each aspect of the job and talking through what might be challenging is great. Even better, adding an example of past challenges and how the candidate sought support and/or was able to correct it. That’s awesome.
Knowing which questions to ask can help minimize hiring mistakes, which can turn messy. What questions have you found especially helpful in your decisions?
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