One of the key pieces of career advice given to job seekers during their job search is to research and prepare thoroughly for their job interviews. Whether you will have a phone interview or an in-person interview, you should have your elevator pitch ready but also be prepared for whatever interview questions may come your way.
Of course, there are some interview questions that can be very difficult to prepare a stock answer for. For example, have you heard of Google’s famous brainteaser interview questions? They’re designed to test your composure under pressure and determine your analytical and reasoning abilities on seemingly impossible logic problems.
Realistically, however, most interviews are comprised of a series of questions — not a single brainteaser, even if you opt to give one at some point. So if you're the interviewer trying to decide what questions to ask an interviewee, what should you do?
And what are the best questions to ask an interviewee? During a job interview, there are a number of possible questions to ask an interviewee. Some of the most commonly asked questions may be about whether the job seeker will be good fit with the company culture and work environment.
- Why are you applying for this job?
- Why do you think you're a good fit for this role (or this company)?
- What is most appealing to you about this position?
- What kind of culture do you thrive in? What kinds of cultures do you not do well in?
- What motivates you?
- What kind of team member are you?
- How would your colleagues describe you?
- How would your last manager characterize you?
- Tell me about a problem you had to overcome as a team and how you did it.
- Why this company (and not one of our competitors)?
These questions are about whether you will be someone who can fit into the company's mission, philosophy and specific work culture. Assuming you have the requisite skill set and experiences and qualifications, what employers and hiring managers are trying to understand with this set of questions is whether they will enjoy working with you at the end of the day -- and vice verse -- whether you will fit in with them.
Many other interview questions may be about the candidate resume and the job seeker's career path, goals, and strengths and weaknesses. For example:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Tell me why you studied [what you studied] in school.
- Walk me through your employment history.
- Walk me through your resume.
- Which was your favorite job and why? Which was your least favorite job and why?
- Why are you leaving your current position?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- What would you say are your greatest weaknesses?
- What is your greatest strength or strengths?
- What is your definition of success?
- Who are your role models and why?
- What type of leadership do you believe you thrive under?
- What are you looking for in your next position?
- Tell me about a time when you overcame a problem.
- Tell me about a time when you had to overcome a failure.
All of these questions tend to be common ways that employers and hiring managers sort out the basic outlines of your personality and skill set. These questions can be asked at every level of seniority and are common across different jobs and industries because they are so universally held questions that can illuminate the character, skills and personality traits of a wide range of job candidates.
Of course, the questions you elect to ask will be more tailored and specific to the job and role you're interviewee is applying for. However, if you go through this list of common questions and also consider whether a brain-teaser type question or case study is appropraite, then you should be on solid footing and walk away from an interview with a pretty good sense and intuition about the interviewee.
In the case of Google's famous interview questions, you can forget about the extensive lists of these standard qusetions. You can even forget about abstract questions meant to draw you out. In choosing the following interview question, Google clearly believe that this interview question—which starts out as not a question at all—can tell you everything you need to know about a potential coworker or employee and guide you in hiring the perfect team member:
Tell me about a time that you had a conflict with someone at work. How did you handle it?
In my view, this question is perfect because there are infinite ways to reply, with virtually no wrong answers. Directly, the interviewee’s answer will tell you whether she prefers to deal with conflict by being confrontational or passive; indirectly, it will also tell you how this person will deal with these behaviors when they are directed at your potential hire. Let’s see it in action…
Scenario: Someone once stole the interviewee’s chocolate pudding from the communal fridge. It was labeled.
Confrontational solution: “I walked right up to Janet—because I knew she hated me—and said that I knew she took it. She denied it, and the next day, I ate her Gogurt. It never happened again.”
Passive solution: “I didn’t want to make anyone feel bad, so I started putting one of those tiny airport luggage locks on my lunch pail zipper and reported it to HR. The HR director posted a note which said that stealing food is a violation of company policy, and it never happened again.”
Okay, yes, these answers are extreme, but these two very different approaches did get the same—desired—result. You may have also noticed that the answer to this question can give you a sense of how this person might talk about your place of business if this job candidate is hired…and later fired.
In the “confrontational” solution, the interviewee has mentioned “Janet” by name. What if you were “Janet” the next time this story is told? In the more “passive” solution, the interviewee may not have listed anyone by name, but you would probably be able to discern the identity of her previous employer from the applicant’s resumé. A glance at the “Previous Employment” section will generally give you three possibilities, so next time this applicant is looking for a position, you may not be mentioned by name, but your employer may be.
Of course, if either of these personalities fits on your team—rock on. Maybe you have a team of Type A go-getters, who need to be put in their place by their peers when they step out of line, or perhaps your team prefers to keep to themselves, happily completing projects and presenting work across a shared screen in the comfort of their private cubicle. Either way, there is only one wrong way to answer this question: to deny that you’ve ever had a conflict.
Everyone gets into disagreements or disagrees with someone’s opinion at some point. It’s normal. There are a million ways to approach a person or a solution to a problem, and the way that you think it should be done is probably going to be slightly different from the next person.
So, when someone says they’ve never had a conflict, it’s a big, red flag. For a confrontational personality, you may find that the references never pan out—the interviewee may have burned bridges and may not want you to contact someone who will hurt her chances of being hired. For the more passive applicant, you may find that the resumé has few or no personal achievements listed—a possible sign that the candidate is a pushover and allows others to take credit for her work.
Job candidates can be asked many different questions and it's a good idea to probably spend time on literally more than one job interview question, but in many cases, employers turn to the tried and true line of questioning during the interview process and may not end up with as much useful information about whether the candidate is a good fit with the company culture, as is provided an open-ended question like this one.
With a little practice and a few new applicants, this telling question will provide everything you need to know about a potential employee and ensure that your next team member is a perfect fit. Happy hunting!
Dr. Amanda G. Riojas is a Scientific Computing Researcher living in Austin, TX. She is also the Advice Section Editor for the Scientista Foundation Advice Blog, Liaison to the Corporation Associates Committee of the American Chemical Society, and Chair of the ACS Central TX Local Section Women Chemists Committee. Amanda basically spends all of her time trying to tell everyone that women are awesome—because she has a daughter now and wants her to know that girls can do anything.
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