Leadership

Members share interview questions that demand meaningful answers

If you need interview questions that bring out the information you really want to know about a candidate, then you need to try these suggestions from TechRepublic members.

Let’s face it—the hiring process can be risky. The end result to your interviewing efforts could be that charming candidate who wowed you with her people skills changing her name to an unpronounceable symbol and not letting coworkers into her office unless they know the “special code.” Many of us have experienced something like this, though maybe not so drastic.

While determining a candidate’s technical skills is a major goal in an interview, finding out how the person will fit into your organization’s culture is also tantamount. You need to know how this person will adapt to the environment and work with others to accomplish changing goals in the organization.

There are boatloads of books out there that advise people on how to answer the most typical interview questions and, therefore, many candidates are well rehearsed. So how do you break through the candidate’s facade and find out what you really want to know?

Bob Artner recently wrote a column about questions he’d like to ask the next time he interviews—questions designed to really pin down the best candidate and circumvent the staged answers that many interviewees are trained to give. In the discussion that followed the article, TechRepublic members offered their own suggestions. We’ve chosen the best of these to share with you. (These questions are not designed to determine a candidate’s technical skills—those are going to be particular to the job. These are the questions you ask to find out more about the candidate’s work ethic and fit within the organization.)

Specific questions about work history
You’ve got the resumes so you know the candidates’ work history, right? Well, yes, but there are ways to probe deeper into specific events in a person’s work history and gain insight into the way he or she works. For example, member Gary Lempert suggests asking the candidate: “Describe a critical system, program, or process for which you served as the primary designer/developer and for which you provided ongoing support. Is that system, program, or process still being used?”

Along those same lines, Gina, a senior technical support analyst at SSE, Inc., suggests these questions:
  • Tell me about a team you have worked with and your role on the team.
  • How did your role affect the success of the team or project?
  • What kind of feedback have you received from past clients and customers?
  • How have you handled negative feedback from clients, customers, or team members?

Cam Walton writes:
“I ask the candidates to give me an example of when they were working in a team/group situation and there was a conflict. How was the situation resolved? What did they do, how did they handle it? What I’m looking for here is the ability to go straight to the source. Telling the boss right away, without telling the person concerned, won’t get you the job. Totally ignoring the situation and hoping it will go away isn’t going to get you a second interview, either.”

Let’s talk about failures
Edmond Altonji, senior vice president of Bank of America, likes to spend 50 percent of an interview probing the candidate’s failures. “I expect people to fail at some point and need to know they can rebound from it.” Toward this end, he asks:
  • Tell me about your biggest failure.
  • Why did it fail? (Watch out for the blame game. You want a team player; one who is accountable.)
  • What predictors did you see but not recognize?
  • How did you react to the first signs of failure? Were stakeholders notified? Did you hide the problem?
  • What steps did you put in place to resolve the problem? (Here you look for someone who had contingency plans in place.)
  • How did you communicate this up the chain?
  • With 20/20 hindsight, how would you do this differently?

Can you think on your feet?
A big part of IT is change, and a big part of dealing with change is being able to think on one’s feet or make crucial decisions at the drop of a hat. Some members offered questions whose answers could be used to gauge a candidate’s talent for dealing with change. Kathleen Holford, a network engineer for the IT department of Rock County, WI, likes to offer up sample scenarios for candidate feedback. Here are some examples:
  • A call comes in to the help desk from a user stating that no one in his or her building can get logged on. The PCs in that building are plugged into a switch and then connected to your building with routers over a T-1 line. What do you do? (This question is used to assess planning, organizing, leading, installing, checking, and documenting skills.)
  • Fifty new PCs are to arrive within two weeks, and you're tasked with installing them. You have a staff of five people. Describe how you would take this project from beginning to end.

The scenario approach was popular with many members. Richard Foster, the software team leader for Peek, suggests taking a problem that your company has already solved and describing it to the candidate. Ask how he or she would go about providing a solution.

“Some people may not be comfortable with this,” Foster says, “either because they’re scared of giving the wrong answer or because, unfortunately, some companies/managers have used this type of process to gather ideas without actually giving someone the job. So be sure you tell the person in advance that there is no wrong answer and that this is a problem that’s already been solved.”

Ernie Marks, with Marks' Technology Solutions, asks the candidates to imagine they are about to go on an extended assignment away from their current work responsibilities. This is followed by, “What would you include in your information transfer to the person taking your place? What would you do to make sure your work continues without reducing effectiveness?”

Paul Caron, a network administrator at Maine Medical Center, asks, “If budgets were of no concern, what would be the first thing you would spend money on and why?” This question, Caron says, “gives you an insight as to how involved the person was at their previous job. How quickly candidates respond lets me know how much thought they’ve put into this subject in the past.”

Unique approaches to personality questions
Asking a candidate what his favorite color is will get you nowhere. But some questions that seem innocuous can point to the kinds of coping skills a candidate has.

Grant asks, “What type of people do you work best with?" (This may elicit a canned response, but you may also get a nugget of real information if the person replies, "People who aren’t idiots.") Grant also asks, “What situations make you lose your temper?”

Rubens Da Silva, manager of the technical consultants group at Fenestrae BV, asks candidates, “What is your primary personality strength?” and “What is your primary personality weakness?”

Cynthia Lee asks candidates to describe their perfect job. The purpose of this question is twofold, says Cynthia. “It tells me how comfortable this candidate is with revealing his wants and needs and being assertive, and it gives me the opportunity to see how I can change the job to make it more satisfactory to the applicant.”

Paul asks candidates how they deal with change. “One’s ability to deal with change effectively is a make-or-break characteristic in IT, considering the speed with which new technologies are introduced. So much of IT’s function is to successfully sell change to its customers, both external and internal.”

Try out some of these suggestions the next time you have to make a hire. They’ll most certainly bring you closer to the kind of information you need.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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