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How to Hire Top Performers

As you prepare to conduct a job interview keep in mind that you will want to ask questions both to acquire specific information and to assess how the applicant handles your questions. You can gather basic information by simply reading the application or résumé. The interview is the place to gain unexpected insights into an individual’s personality or work ethic through a chance remark. The interview questions are your opportunity to explore in more detail those things that are important to you including interpersonal skills. Determining “technical skills” is the easy part. Deciding whether or not the applicant will fit in with the rest of your team as well as be someone that you will enjoy working with is the challenge.

Your job as the hiring manager is to determine the applicant’s weaknesses period! If through your questioning you can decide where weaknesses lie, you will know immediately if the person before you is the right fit for the job you have in mind. Applicants will be quick to share their strengths and they certainly have every right to do so, but uncovering weaknesses will tell you even more about the prospective new hire. The questions you ask and the answers you get will help you make a sound and defensible hiring decision.

Before you begin an interview, decide which questions you want to ask. While you may explore certain areas such as experience and skills for any position for which you are hiring, you may want to tailor other questions to meet your specific needs. Write or type-out the questions that you plan to ask. Failure to do so often leads to inefficient and non-productive interviews. Always pre-plan and work from your list of questions during the interview. Asking the same or similar questions of each applicant will also help you compare one against the other.

The following sample questions and what to consider in evaluating responses are divided into eight categories for ease of use. Try asking some of these questions and then listen carefully to the answers. The answers can be very revealing. Unfortunately, the number one mistake that hiring managers make is talking too much during the interview. I recognize an inexperienced interviewer immediately based upon how much time he or she talks during the interview.

Follow the 80/20 Rule. Listen 80% of the time and talk only 20%. Your job as the hiring manager is to gather rather than give information. Set the agenda for the interview by saying something like: “I am going to ask you questions from my list, the same or similar questions that I will be asking all of the applicants being interviewed for this position. When I am through asking you, I will invite you to ask me anything you would like to ask. How does that sound?” When you take this approach, you make it clear that you are in control of the interview. When you talk too much you run the risk of telling the applicant everything he or she needs to know about you, the company and the type of person you are seeking to fill the vacancy. A savvy applicant will tell you exactly what you want to hear! This could be the applicant who shines in the interview, but quickly tarnishes once on your payroll. Don’t let it happen to you.


How did you go about choosing a college major in engineering?

This question and the one that follows are good when an applicant is a recent college graduate. The applicant’s answer to this question will give you insight into a thought process. It is possible the major was chosen by default. It is more likely that the applicant excelled in math and had an interest in the overall subject area and found it challenging. He or she may have been encouraged to pursue engineering by a family member, friend, teacher or counselor.

Consider this: An applicant who can articulate the reasons behind his or her decision is a good risk provided answers to your other questions are acceptable. It is a bonus when an applicant has truly planned a course of study. Many students have no idea what they want to do when they start college. Others know where their passion lies and carefully plan their strategy for getting there. These applicants generally are a great hire!

What would your college instructors say about you?

With this question I am looking for weaknesses. We all have them, but an applicant who is honest in answering this question may reveal some issues that may concern you. For example, if the applicant states that she skipped class when she did not feel like going, this is a “yellow” flag warning. Probe further to find out how often she “did not feel like going.” Do you want to hire someone who will call in sick or come in late because they do not feel like working? We all have days when we don’t feel like working, but we recognize that we have made a commitment to do so when we accepted a job offer. We do what we have to do.

Consider this: Patterns of behavior develop early in life. People who look for excuses for not keeping commitments are not the kind of employees you want working for you. Dig deeper for more than one example of what a college instructor would say about the applicant. Perceptions are often as good as reality.


What do you hope to find or experience in this position that you did not have in your previous job?

The applicant’s answer, in addition to demonstrating whether he or she has researched the company before the interview, should also reflect a positive attitude and a desire for continued professional growth. The emphasis in the reply should be on the positive aspects of the hoped-for new position rather than the negative aspects of the previous situation.

Consider this: A flippant answer alerts you to an attitude that may have contributed to the applicant’s problems or even major conflict with another employer. Are you willing to risk that same kind of attitude once the applicant becomes an employee of your department? “Sour grapes” is a direct reflection on the applicant rather than on his or her past employment situation and/or previous supervisor.
Have you ever been asked to resign from a position? If so, tell me about it.

If an applicant was in a “resign or be fired” situation and chose to resign, he may choose to answer this question with a “no” since in essence he was not asked to resign, but given the option of resigning. If you suspect this is the case, you will want to use additional questions to find out more about the circumstances that prompted the applicant’s departure from the previous job.

If an applicant chooses to answer “yes” to this question:

ˇ Does the applicant follow the response with an explanation that appears reasonable and honest or one that seems evasive?
ˇ Does the applicant list the former employer as a reference? To do so could be an indication that the applicant resigned, by suggestion or request, for acceptable reasons.

Consider this: A “yes” answer is not necessarily a negative answer. Be sure you get the complete story. People are asked to resign for a variety of reasons. It is not always the employee’s fault. When an employee fails, the manager needs to accept a share of the responsibility. Oftentimes, there is a breakdown in communication behind a resignation. A minimum of two people are often involved when someone leaves.


What are your three biggest career accomplishments?

The applicant’s answer to this question should preferably deal with examples that relate to the demands of the position for which he or she is interviewing. Major accomplishments, even if they do not relate to the job in question, should at least demonstrate highly desirable attributes.

An applicant who has thoroughly prepared for the interview will have anticipated this question and be able to answer it easily and with confidence. Unprepared applicants may have difficulty answering you.

Consider this: If you sense that an applicant may be exaggerating, follow up with additional questions. Some applicants may use a question like this to try to convince you they have more to offer than they actually do. Be sure you get them to share three examples.

Tell me about a time when you used your initiative on a specific engineering project.

This question gives the applicant an opportunity to convince you that he or she is someone who gets things done, thereby making life easier for others in the department. An individual who cannot provide an example may be weak in this area. A self-starter is the kind of employee that every manager wants on the team. Take your time as you listen carefully to the applicant’s response to this question.

Consider this: Even employees whose strong point is that they are good “followers” need to be willing to demonstrate some degree of initiative when the occasion arises.

How would you describe yourself as a leader? Do you feel you are a natural-born leader?

Some managers lead; some encourage; some dictate; some work beside their employees. Look for applicants who have the right combination of “lead, encourage, and work beside” to get the job done.

Understand what you, the interviewer, consider a “natural born leader” before you ask this question. Otherwise, you may incorrectly evaluate responses from applicants.

Consider this: People may have natural leadership abilities, but they still need training and experience in using those abilities. Are you prepared to provide the necessary education and training they may need?

What do you think could potentially interfere with your effectiveness as a leader?

Even though applicants may feel that nothing could possibly interfere with their effectiveness, most will not be so egotistical as to state that to the interviewer. However, a number of applicants with absolute confidence in themselves may choose to respond this way.

Some people will choose to acknowledge such a potential, but wisely identify something of a minor nature and immediately offer a positive approach to overcoming whatever they name. The interviewer must assess the validity and quality of both types of answers.

Consider this: Be aware that an interviewer’s reaction to either of these answers will depend in part upon what he or she seeks in an applicant.


How do you handle situations with difficult co-workers?

Some applicants will respond that they have not had experience with difficult co-workers. This response may indicate a high level of tolerance or a high degree of skill in dealing with problem employees. They may, however, simply have been fortunate enough to work in pleasant situations. Question the applicant further to determine which is the case. For applicants who have encountered difficult co-workers, be especially aware of whether the difficulty was of a business nature or a personal nature (personality conflict, jealously or insensitivity).

Consider this: When an applicant admits to working with difficult employees, look for answers that show a positive attitude toward resolving the problem. What have they done to improve a negative situation?

Give me an example of a time when you had a disagreement with your supervisor.

Some applicants may state that they never disagreed with their supervisor. If this is the case, listen to the tone of voice and manner in which they reply to decide whether you need to ask additional questions.

For applicants who admit to encountering such a situation, look for a positive approach to handling it. In addition, look for a good attitude concerning the resolution of the problem.

Consider this: Disagreements between a supervisor and someone he or she supervises is not uncommon. Most important is how the two parties resolved the situation and whether the applicant reveals angry feelings over past disagreements.


Why do you consider yourself a successful sales engineer? Or, Why do you believe you would be successful in sales?

Success in the sales field usually requires someone with a high degree of self-confidence, the ability to handle rejection well, thorough product or service knowledge and the desire to work with customers. Applicants with experience in sales will likely answer with two or more of these qualities.

For applicants with no sales experience, you may need to question further to determine whether they have a chance at success as sales people. Previous employment, even though not in sales, may have given them experience in handling rejection, and working with customers.

Consider this: Every salesperson started as a novice at some point in time. Can you spot potential to become a super salesperson? Are you willing to hire someone who has potential?

Rejection is part of selling. How do you handle this aspect of the job?

Experienced and successful sales people know that rejection of the product or service is not a rejection of them as individuals. Look for answers that show an ability to accept one customer’s rejection and move on to the next. Answers should also indicate that the salesperson understands the need to try again, that a rejection today does not automatically mean a rejection on the next sales call.

Consider this: Applicants who seem uncertain about handling rejection, or appear distressed at the prospect, may be a poor choice even if they are strong in other areas.


How do you go about solving a problem?

Solving problems involves the following basic steps:

Identify the problem(s).
Prepare a plan of action.
Monitor the progress of that plan.
Make adjustments if needed to resolve the problem.

Ask for details if you feel an applicant is someone who uses the “putting out fires” approach to problem-solving as many people do.

Consider this: Applicants need to convince you that they understand that before a problem can be solved the source must be identified. If they do not recognize that, they may have trouble solving problems and doing the things you most need done.

Tell me about a specific time when you eliminated or avoided a potential problem before it happened.

In addition to exploring an individual’s problem solving skills, you can gain insight into their degree of initiative and their loyalty to the department and the company. Employees with bad attitudes sometimes adopt a “so what” attitude toward potential problems and allow them to develop into full-blown disasters.

Consider this: The response does not have to involve the elimination of a major problem. It should, however, demonstrate that the applicant possesses the intelligence and ability to identify potential problems and the willingness and initiative to address them before a crisis develops.

What factors do you consider in making a decision?

Effective decision-makers should be able to answer this question easily based upon their past experience. Applicants with little or no experience making decisions should still be able to tell you what they consider the important factors based upon what they have learned from their managers/supervisors.

Consider this: Experience does not guarantee good results. Applicants with experience as managers may still give you answers that you consider unsatisfactory.

Tell me about an important decision that you made at your former/present job. What was the most difficult decision you made at your former/present job?

What an applicant considers the most important decision may not automatically be the most difficult decision. An important decision may have involved money at risk for the company, yet been a decision that the applicant felt comfortable making. The most difficult decision may have involved terminating a trusted, long-term employee. As important as the examples given by applicants is the manner in which they made the decisions.

Consider this: Watch for weakness portrayed as compassion or bravado portrayed as confidence.


Tell me about your long-term employment goals.

Although it is not uncommon today for employees to move from one job to another, understanding an applicant’s long-term goals may help you decide whether he or she is a good choice. You may not want to invest time and money training someone whose long-term goal is to work in another field. If an applicant’s long-term goal is to find an upper management job, and you know the position you want to fill offers little or no possibility for advancement, the likelihood is good that the individual will become a turnover statistic.

Consider this: An applicant who has no long-term goals at the moment may possibly prove a better individual for hire than someone with long-term goals that are incompatible with the job.

What did you tell your employer about the need to take time off for this interview?

This question conducts a simple honesty test. Most employees are entitled to some form of time-off (personal days, vacation days, and compensatory time), that they can utilize for an interview. Unless the applicant works in a very unusual situation, time off in most cases, should not present a problem.

Consider this: Be aware of the applicant who told a lie to his or her employer. While many people may consider telling an employer they are “going to the doctor” as simply a little white lie, it is still a reason for concern. If they lie to their current employer, someday they will be lying to you.

In conclusion, the preceding questions are samples and are not meant to be all-inclusive. As you choose questions that you may want to ask during the job interview, start by deciding what questions are appropriate for the position you want to fill. Develop questions based upon your specific job requirements. Some of the questions that you prepare are better for a first interview, while others are better for the final interview.

The most important thing to remember is that all of your questions must be job-related. If you have any doubt about what you can and cannot ask, do not ask.

For more information about ordering the bestseller, Hiring Top Performers-350 Great Interview Questions For People Who Need People, contact Carol Hacker at 770-410-0517.

By Carol A. Hacker

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