The 10 Best Interview Questions to Ask a Candidate

A young woman being interviewed by a panel

It is estimated that the benchmark figure for hiring an employee is approximately $4,000 – and it can top $5,000 for more professional work environments. This is an investment like anything else in your company, and hiring workers should never be taken lightly, especially since higher turnover can cost an employer an average $3,000 – that's nothing to sneeze at.

You should never believe for a moment that hiring the best candidate is a crapshoot or similar to finding a needle in a haystack. Instead, it takes tactical precision, appropriate measures and an abundance of blood, sweat and tears to bring the right person on board, whether it is done in person or on Skype.

And do you know where all this begins?

The job interview!

Many are beginning to present the case that the modern-day job interview is outdated, ineffective and obsolete. While human resource professionals always discover new ways of combing through the vast talent pool, there is an old expression that is relevant to this discussion: ‘if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it’. That doesn’t mean you can’t make slight improvements to the process, like coming up with the best questions to ask in an interview.

1. ‘What’s your best professional achievement?’

By asking this question, you can find out if the applicant is serious about their career or if they’re just doing it for a paycheque. If someone hasn’t achieved anything significant, then perhaps they are not as interested in career advancement and development as their CV suggests. Remember: when you want to climb the corporate ladder, you’re always trying to find ways to score important victories, whether it is nabbing that new six-figure client or attaining the position of Assistant Vice President.

2. ‘What has been your biggest challenge?’

When you want to separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls, you need to put forward this question. It is an important one because it reveals the individual’s character and their willingness to welcome challenges and to overcome obstacles. Simply put: do they bury themselves under their workstation in their cubicle or do they stand tall with their chests popping out?

3. ‘What is your working style?’

Everyone has their own unique working style. Generally, there are five primary types of styles:

  • big picture (completely works with the company’s goals in mind)
  • logical (uses analysis and data to proceed with any plans)
  • organised (plans everything and concentrates on the details)
  • supportive (works with the team and incorporates others into plans)
  • insecurity (double-checks, triple-checks and quadruple-checks everything!)

Of course, there are other kinds of working methods that we all relish in.

Some are morning people, and others are afternoon folk. Some like to work in silence, and others prefer to complete their tasks in a lot of noise. Some enjoy working in a fast-paced environment, and others need a more calming ambience.

4. ‘What attracted you to this position?’

It might be the fact that your lunchroom has a Keurig coffee machine with unlimited supplies for staff. It might be because the corporation offers impeccable benefits and perks. Or, in the end, it might be because the company offers challenging work in an ultra-competitive industry.

Ultimately, there might be a wide range of factors that led the applicant to submit their CV to the business. Nearly every reason could be a compelling one, except for this one: ‘I like the pay’. Well, at least they’re honest!

5. ‘How would you describe a perfect relationship with the boss?’

What kind of candidate are you interested in hiring? A self-directed, autonomous employee who doesn’t need constant supervision, or a staff member who needs routine direction and assessments? Whatever the case may be, it would be a wise idea to ask this question because then it gives you a sense of what you can expect from each interviewee.

6. ‘What are the first three things you would do on the job?’

Once they have arrived at the office and they begin their first day on the job, what are some of the first things they plan to do? This question accomplishes two things: it confirms the individual has an appropriate understanding of what the job is about, and it provides you with the opportunity to find out what their priorities are.

While this query is better suited for the closing rounds of interviews, you can still ask your candidates in the initial powwow.

7. ‘Name your three biggest weaknesses?’

If candidates still have not learned by now that it is ridiculous to say that your biggest weaknesses are that you work too much and that all your employers say you’re a workaholic, then every employer is in for a world of hurt. These clichéd responses – which have been beaten to death by horses – need to be dipped in cement, buried six feet under in Tibet and completely erased from history.

Should you put forward this question, you can learn several things:

  • Is the candidate immediately aware of what their weaknesses are?
  • Do the candidate’s weaknesses impact the job requirements?
  • Is the candidate considering improving their skills and rectifying their shortcomings?

You may roll your eyes at presenting such a redundant question, but it’s an oldie and a goodie.

8. ‘Why are you leaving your current employer?’

Workers generally do two things: they submit their letter of resignation and then look for work, or they wait for the best employment opportunity and then inform the company they are leaving. This may not exactly be an ethical practice, but it is still a ubiquitous one that employers are willing to let slide.

So, when you’re speaking with the candidate, it is important to find out what exactly is the reason they are leaving their current employer. Is it because the pay is uncompetitive? Is it because the work isn’t challenging enough? Is it due to rumours that the company is cutting staffing levels?

9. ‘Tell me about your unemployment journey.’

You can learn a lot about someone who was unemployed. The jobless may use this free time like they would any other eight-hour workday, or they may treat it like a vacation. Obviously, you would prefer the former to the latter, but that said, you should still enquire how they utilised these days or weeks.

As an employer, it would be great to see if the candidate adopted and highlighted these elements:

  • time management
  • skills building
  • exercise
  • CV writing.

10. ‘What do you enjoy doing outside of work?’

This is not necessarily a common question that interviewers ask, whether it is because they don’t feel comfortable putting forward such a query or they don’t feel it’s a necessary one. However, this question suggests one thing: you are hiring a whole human being rather than just a robot who clocks in nine to five, five days a week.

It might not be the most crucial question, but you should still work it into your interview through small talk or the after-interview sit-down. You may learn something unique about the person: they perform mixed martial arts on the weekend, they paint portraits of movie stars (Marisa Tomei and Monica Bellucci, for instance) or they volunteer at the local homeless shelter singing Cabaret tunes.

Everyone has a life outside of work, even if it is just sitting on the sofa and watching television and eating potato chips until they go to bed.

Marcel Proust said that ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in looking for new landscapes, but in looking with new eyes’. Do you need to abandon a tried and tested true technique just because it is old? Hardly.

You do not need to reinvent the wheel, though. The traditional interview model and recruitment process are still sufficient in hiring the best worker and taking a pass on the others. What needs to be done, however, is a better job at asking relevant, pertinent and good questions.

At the same time, you need to expect answers of the highest quality rather than cliché responses of ‘my biggest weakness is that I work too much’ or ‘I’m too dedicated to my work’. If someone ever gives you these tropes, then show them the air as quickly as possible.

What questions do you ask job candidates? Let us know in the comments section below.