After speaking to many SMEs in Malaysia, I’ve found that SMEs don’t have access to good interview training, because with limited resources and infrequent hiring, this seems like a low priority for them. Yet, in small teams, reducing the amount of bad hires is critical to the success of an SME.
Many large corporations, who are already advantaged by having a bigger brand, have excellent interview training programs to help them screen candidates that are interested to join them.
So I thought I would write down a list of some of the most important interview questions every company should ask a candidate that is interviewing with them. I would like to emphasise that these questions are based on my style of interviewing, but built across many years of interviewing top professionals in the industry combined with international standards of interview training.
You should ask additional questions depending on how the interview goes, but to have a fair and consistent assessment of every candidate, you will need to have a standardised interview question list as a base.
You can decide to word these differently, or to take less direct approaches to finding the answers to these questions, but I believe it’s important to ask them.
But first, understand the candidates’ interview mindset
One thing to understand when going into these interviews is to assume that the candidate will be trained to be their best self during the interview. This means that they will already know how to sell themselves well, and perhaps hide any weaknesses they may have. This is okay. In fact, it’s good.
What if it was the reverse, and the candidate didn’t bother preparing their best self for the interview? That is also a sign of how they will approach their work – lazy, unprepared and not in their best self.
Therefore, don’t have issues that candidates will prepare for their interviews and will have answers planned. What you do need, however, is to learn how to uncover the “real” them, to uncover the real reasons why they made certain decisions in their career, so you can assess if they are the right hire for you.
“A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.”
J P Morgan
What follows are the questions I typically ask every candidate, along with what goes through my mind as I ask them. And here’s the first question I use to kickstart almost every interview:
1) Tell me your story, from your education until where you are today
While many employers prefer a more general “Tell me about yourself” question, I find that question to be a bit too open, and often an unfair way to assess a candidate. Some have trained well to give a concise, work related answer, and many often do not. Asking this question would favour those that have prepared for this question well, yet it doesn’t help you uncover whether they are the best person to perform the job.
I believe a better question is to follow through what’s on their CV, right from the beginning, which is their education. I typically start at university level, which can give you some insights on someone’s personality.
2) Why did you choose to major in this degree?
Whether you ask this question depends on the seniority of the candidate. You may not want to ask someone interviewing for a VP role why they decided to study Business 20 years ago (then again, that’s up to you). But typically for junior talent, this question is very relevant.
Assuming you ask this question, you can get insights on a candidate’s decision making process. Did they choose something because their parents told them to? Did they choose it out of passion? And if they could choose again, would they have chosen the same subject?
3) Why did you choose to join this company?
For every job that they choose to join, ask them why. This again, gives you insights about what motivates the candidate, and their thought process. At the same time, you can also pick up any red flags about a candidate’s personality through this question.
Weak answers may include:
“I joined because I was headhunted to join them”
Yes, but why? Just because you were headhunted doesn’t mean you have to join them. Dig deeper.
“I just wanted to try something new”
This is a potential sign that this candidate lacks drive and focus. You will rarely find an ambitious person choosing a new job (which impacts their long term career) as though they were choosing a weekend activity.
“They offered me more money”
This may or may not be a weak answer, because we all have to accept that people work for money, bills need to be paid too. If they say they joined for a higher salary, the next question you should ask is what was their previous salary, and what is their new one. If you find the increment to be significant (what you consider significant is up to you) and can understand why a candidate would move for such an increment, that’s acceptable. However, if you find the amount to be insignificant (say 10% higher), you would have to worry that this candidate would leave you for very little money in future.
Also, if you’re interviewing for a sales role, hiring someone that is driven by money may be a good thing. Just make sure they play well in a team.
4) Why did you leave the previous company
For every new job, ask them why they left their previous one. Again, here you are looking for clues about their decision making process and what motivates them. Their answers to this question also gives you some insight on whether they will be difficult to manage.
As a rule of thumb, if they consistently complain about or blame every employer they leave, this person is likely to have an attitude problem. Similar to question 3 above, test to see if you find the answers to be weak, and then dig deeper to uncover their true reasons.
5) Tell me about your work here at X company
This open question will give you an indication of whether they have the skills required to fill your position.
Some candidates avoid specifics by focusing on general results, such “My job is to sell XXX products to our clients. Our clients include company A, B, C, D etc”. This doesn’t really help you understand if they have the right skills for the job. How do they sell? Are they cold calling (therefore are skilled in phone sales)? Do they just respond to customer inquiries (therefore more customer service style of sales)?
If they avoid specifics, ask them to describe what their typical day is like, from the time they enter the office, until the time they leave it. Understanding what a candidate is actually doing on a daily basis will help you assess their actual skills
On a side note, I generally recommend giving a written case study instead that is relevant to the role the candidate is applying for. Present a common problem that the person in the role will typically have to face, and then ask the candidate how they would solve it. Give them a couple of days to complete the case study. This is a much better way to assess skill, but is also a great way to test how interested the candidate is in joining your company. After all, if they are not that keen, they either won’t complete the case study, or do a poor job completing it. Don’t waste time on candidates like this.
6) If we decide to organise training for our employees, what training would you like to have?
Not suggesting you have training, but isn’t this such a clever question to learn about a candidate’s weakness?
Every candidate will have a ready answer prepared for the over-used question “Tell me about your weaknesses”. But this indirect question lets you learn more about what they wish they can improve, and it focuses on their work skills, rather than personality.
And just because they have indirectly revealed their “weakness” to you, it does not have to be a problem. Just fairly consider if this weakness is something acceptable to you for the role they are interviewing for.
7) What brings you here today, why are you looking to move on from your current job?
Here’s where you bring it all together. After asking them why they left and join every previous job that they’ve had, you already have built an image of what motivates this person and their decision making process.
Now see if their answer to this question is consistent with that image that you’ve build in your mind.
Weak answers would include:
“I’m just exploring” – (What goes through my mind) Sure, but what triggered you to want to explore?
“It’s been X amount of time, I think it’s time for me to look out” – (What goes through my mind) Sure, but if you’re happy and progressing, why move for the sake of moving? What’s the underlying reason? Also, if you join us, will you be leaving us “just because it’s time”? This makes it hard for me to invest in developing you and building your career.
8) Apart from this job that you are currently interviewing for, what are you looking for generally as a next job?
I love this question as it almost always catches candidates slightly off-guard, as they are now put in a position to reveal what other jobs they are currently interviewing for and also surprised at how you can accept that they are interviewing elsewhere (some employers still have the mentality that if you want a job in my company, you should only be interviewing with me, and we all know that is actually very unrealistic).
Here you will learn if they are truly focused on a particular job or whether they are exploring very broadly. I have interviewed candidates who have admitted to me that they are interviewing for sales roles, marketing roles, admin roles or pretty much any role they can land an interview with. Whether or not you find this acceptable depends largely on the candidate’s experience level (if they are a fresh graduate, I suppose it’s common to explore), and whether this matters to you.
This is not an exhaustive list of questions, and often, depending on the answers the candidate gives, I frequently tend to focus on certain aspects of their career. And you may feel you have better questions that are more relevant to your style of interview.
Some will also notice that many of the interview questions I like to ask seems to focus on a candidates’ motivation and decision making process, and this relates back to my personal belief that a candidates’ attitude is what matters. Understanding what they care about also helps me understand how I can attract them to join the company if I find them to be the right candidate. This may not be your own belief, and you may want to focus your interview questions on other aspects of the candidate.
I recommend employers personalise the interview questions they prefer asking during an interview.
But what is most important is for employers to ensure that every interviewer is given and trained to ask a standardised set of interview questions you believe is important, with some sense of what good and bad answers are, to ensure consistency in screening talent.