Results-Focused Interviews

While researching a project on stress, I caught sight of a forum thread on an HR website that said “Interview Questions.” As I said, I was researching stress, so this would naturally pop up in my search. After all, we know that interviews can be stress-inducing situations.

This site was asking recruiters to share some of their favorite interview questions. Having spent a number of years in corporate recruiting and having trained countless recruiters in how to interview, I thought, “Okay, let’s see what new and creative questions people are coming up with.”

To put it mildly, I was shocked. The questions people were submitting, and they were asked for their best, included:

  1. “What would your best friend say about you? Your worst enemy?”
  2. “Is honesty really the best policy?”
  3. “What do you do in your spare time?”
  4. And the vampire-like, impossible-to-kill, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Haven’t we officially retired these questions? Where’s the one about what kind of tree would you be or your favorite color crayon? Is it any wonder we’re still fighting to establish our credibility in some organizations if recruiters insist on using questions like these?

I tried to imagine myself sitting on the other side of the desk (I’m sure that the people using these questions haven’t thought about the proper seating for an effective interview) and how I might respond.

Remember, these are all questions that people submitted to the website as their best questions to use in an interview.

I am not making these up:

  1. “If a spaceship were to land outside this office and you were asked to get in, would you? Why?” (Is an acceptable answer, “Because they had a ray gun?”)
  2. “Am I a good interviewer? Why or why not?” (Well, if you have to ask me, maybe we ought to switch chairs.)
  3. “If you were a part of a car, which part would you be and why?” (Gee, I was all prepared for the tree question. Lemme think.)
  4. “What do you enjoy most about your current/last position? What did you enjoy least?” (Boy, I never saw that second question coming!)
  5. “If you had the opportunity to participate in a circus performance, which role would be yours?” (Well, I wouldn’t be the clown because clearly, that role is taken.)
  6. “What makes you difficult to work with?” (Is the correct answer, “Stupid questions that are not job-related?”)

And then there were these six, all from the same source:

  1. “What are ur strengths and weeknesses?” (Spelling?)
  2. “Why should I hire you?” (Because you’re trying to fill a position?)
  3. “How has ur education prepared u for this job?” (How has yours?)
  4. “If I asked ur present employer to describe u, what would they say about u?” (They might say that I’m employed there so why are you asking!)
  5. “What qualities should a successful manager have?” (How about good interviewing skills.)
  6. “If u had ur life to live over again?what would u do differently?” (Skip this interview!)

Overlooking for a moment the potential liability and indefensibility of most of these questions, how do these relate to how the person will perform the job at hand? For years, I’ve told people that any question used in an interview needs to be related to the job, how the person will meet the requirements of the position, and if the candidate can produce the necessary results. Maybe we need to turn things up a notch. Don’t just make the questions job-related; make them results-focused.

One of the keys to success for an HR professional is to truly understand the businesses that we support. To do this we have to know the outcomes of the business, what results they are looking for, and how we can help to meet those results. We can meet them by providing the people who have the skills to get the work done.

But it’s not just doing the work; it’s completing the work. It’s achieving the outcomes that make the organization profitable.

Therefore, in our interviews we have the opportunity to query the candidates not just on their abilities but also on their accomplishments.

Don’t simply ask them about what they’ve done or accomplished in previous jobs. If you only ask them about what they’ve done, you may never be sure if they can achieve the results you need. But in all those circus questions, the recruiter is no doubt trying to determine the person’s work ethic, or how they see themselves in the work world. Better to ask them about how they went about completing projects, overcoming obstacles, and meeting deadlines/quotas/goals.

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Make it clear that yours is an organization that values the successful completion of objectives in your interviews. Take the time to convey to the applicant what’s really important in your organization. And in most organizations, what’s important is getting the work done, properly, on time, and correctly.

I’m not going to give you a bunch of stock questions to use in your interviews. I can’t. I don’t know what results you’re looking for in the successful candidate for the position. I don’t know what your organization expects the candidate to achieve. I don’t know how your organization defines success.

But I know where you can get all this information. Sit down with the hiring manager and find out the expectations for the candidate. You’ll be that much closer to finding the right candidates for the job.

I’ll give you one question that you can use. When you meet with the managers, long before you interview a single candidate, ask them this:

“What will you see when the person we hire has done the work completely and correctly?”

Get your managers focused on outcomes and results, too. Managers sometimes think they have to talk about competencies, emotional intelligence, or work ethic when meeting with recruiters. In other words, they think they have to talk “HR-ese”.

But what most managers like to talk about is results, performance, and all that their department has accomplished. This will give you a clue as to what they value and what they see as the keys to success in their organization.

If they talk about meeting deadlines and commitments to the customer, then you know you need to find someone who can work under pressure to get the work done on time. If they stress quality and getting it right the first time, no matter how long it takes, then you know that attention to detail and organization is critical to the candidate’s success. If the talk is all about things that the department has done for the customer, then a service-oriented candidate is the solution.

Use the information you get from your managers to determine your strategy for sourcing and recruiting the appropriate slate of candidates. You’ll know what’s important to being successful and this in turn will make you more successful in meeting the needs of your clients. Then you can keep the clowns, extra-terrestrials, and deadwood out of your organization.

Ronald M. Katz, SPHR is the president of Penguin Human Resource Consulting, LLC and a speaker at the 2012 ERE Expo in San Diego. Penguin HR helps organizations to achieve their business goals by showing them how to manage and motivate staff so that they give their best efforts to the enterprise. Ron has delivered training to human resource staff and line managers of a wide variety of industries. He provides consulting in interviewing skills, performance management, diversity, and sexual harassment. He is an accomplished public speaker and has spoken nationally on human resources issues.


6 Comments on “Results-Focused Interviews

  1. Ronald, your the kind of guy I’d love to share a beer with and see who could come up the dumbest ‘stress’ interview question. The spaceship question is a jewel. As a former third-party recruiter, I supported a hiring manager who asked every candidate, ‘If you were a vegetable, what would you be? and ‘Describe the month of June.’ The best candidate response to the vegetable question was ‘Right now, I am feeling like a bruised tomato.’ On my Top Ten List is ‘Tell me a little about yourself.’ It’s not so much that it is stressful, the question just has no relevance. Candidates try way too hard to answer the question, when three of four well-constructed sentences would do.

    Candidate selection is never an easy. ‘Creative Questions’ don’t get the job done. I am a believer in competency-based, behavior-related questions, but rarely take the first answer at face value. By asking a couple of additional probing questions, you can often peel back the onion (my favorite vegetable) a couple of layers and see the real person.

  2. I really enjoyed your article and think you are dead on — this is great advice for recruiters. Too often, we get caught up in devising creative questions which we believe will demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate without stopping to think (or realize!) it has absolutely nothing to do with the job for which we are hiring. And if I read Wendell Williams closely enough, I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on when I have to defend my hiring practices to the DOL/OFCCP/EEOC.

    There are two types of questions that are missing, however. First is cultural: what type of environment do candidates feel they need to be able to perform at their best. The second: motivation — do the candidates really want to do this type of work. There are enough studies out there that show most new hires don’t fail because of inablity to do the job but rather because they hate their environment/manager/type of work they are doing and this makes it vital to explore these areas. If during an interview a candidate says something along the lines of ‘this was the best job/manager I ever had’ or conversely, the worst, I ask what made it so — you get very revealing answers that help you make much better hiring decisions. If these subjects don’t come up during the course of the interview, I will ask directly.

    While I love my company, it isn’t for everyone. My worst nightmare is for candidates to come back to me and tell me I sold them something that doesn’t exist or let something out of the . I believe strongly in full disclosure. Both sides need to know what they are getting into before signing on the dotted line.

  3. Ron,you couldn’t be more ‘dead on’! A good recruiter should make a point,early on to get to know the business, culture, products/services of the company. He/she should get out of the office and out on the floor where the action is. Sit with the people doing the work, be they engineers, scientists, customer service, accountants, etc, etc. Also talk to the mgrs, and find out who their top performers are and what attributes they have that contribute to their ability to get ‘results’. Find out who the lower performers are and what attributes/skills they’re lacking that inhibit their ability to get ‘results’. Recruiters also need to come to grips with the fact that the mgr. may be part of the problem, and need to keep that in mind when interviewing candidates for this mgr. Armed with this information, you can then formulate the right questions to ask your candidates. No one said it was easy, but it ‘ain’t rocket science’ either!

  4. Thanks Ron. Your message can never be heard too many times. I do a lot of coaching of recruiters and I am still amazed at how many times I witness so-called ‘experienced’ recruiters ask questions during an interview that are illegal, illogical, inane or all three! My mantra is ‘evidence, evidence, evidence’. You use an interview to gather EVIDENCE that the candidate has (1) the competencies to achieve the desired results in the client’s work environment, and (2) has the motivation to do so.

    Far too many recruiters have OPINIONS about the candidate’s suitability for a job that are not substantiated with any EVIDENCE. Of course, a smart recruiter then validates any interview-gathered evidence with a work reference check.

  5. You are right on target, Karen.

    As an employer, I have personally experienced that ‘nightmare’ on quite a number of occasions.

    Sometimes (more like ‘a lot of times’) a candidate gets so caught up in the sexiness of the position that they’ll say and do anything to get the job and the employer also gets so caught up in the candidate’s stellar interview performance, technical qualifications and superb references that they overlook that simple fact.

    A huge mistake which leads to their detriment and the realization down the road that they are live with Freddy Krueger on Elm street.

  6. Ronald, you are right! As I read your article, I could not help but remember an interview I went to…many years ago, which is why I got into recruiting in the first place. I was being interviewed for a bank position and was asked a few of the questions you referenced and thought to myself…’this is silly!’ I got the job, but did not stay long because the entire company (very large financial institution, today) was like the interview.

    It was the very turning point in my life that made me become a staffing consultant. I have also noticed over the years that this particular financial institution continues to have a high turnover rate/retention problem.


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