Interview Questions I Ask Every Candidate

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.

Conclusion

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.

Birth of Danielle Toh An Ya

The doctor arrived exactly at 6am. This is our first child. How will the delivery go? Will my wife be in a lot of pain?

“Alright, push”, the doctor calmly said, “just one more push!”. I was nervous. Is there something I can do?

“What time is it?”, asked the doctor.

“It’s 6.03am”, said the nurse.

Then suddenly we heard crying. The cries of a baby. Our baby Danielle was here! Wait, what? 3 minutes?

She only cried for a short while, and as they cleaned and wrapped her up, I stood there beside her, looking at her. She looked calm, curious and probably wondering what is going on. And then something magical happened.

She looked at me and smiled.

We are blessed to welcome Danielle Toh An Ya to this world and into our hearts.

 

toh chun ho

In Loving Memory of Toh Chun Ho, 1955 to 2017

Every man’s story is different, and this is a story about a boy from Muar who started with a simple life and went on the have an adventure of a lifetime. He was the son of a taxi driver, and spent most of his childhood collecting stamps and reading books. He loved reading stories of big adventures and beautiful journeys. But the boy from Muar wouldn’t have guessed that he would have quite the story of his own.

He landed himself a scholarship to go to Kuala Lumpur to do his degree in Universiti Malaya, and in Kuala Lumpur, he met a girl from Ipoh. They fell in love, got married and started a family with two boys.

He loved his wife, and did everything he could for her, always patient and trying his best to be a good husband. He tried so hard to be a good father to his sons and did what he could to be close to them. His elder son became an Arsenal fan, and suddenly, he was an Arsenal fan. The younger son got into tennis at school, and until today, he has become a big tennis fan too.

When asked what was his advice for raising kids, he would say “I’ll bring them to the playground. Because every child only has a few years when they are truly care-free. Don’t take their childhood away”.

He lived his life giving to his family and taking very little for himself. Because he wanted them to be happy, and to live a better life than perhaps he ever could.

But six years ago, he had a heart attack, and that reminded him of his mortality. So he decided that he should try to see the world more. Together with his wife, they’ve walked the streets of New York, London and Paris. They experienced the snow storms in Japan, bathed in the sun in Maldives, cruised through the seas of Russia. They swam around the islands of Phuket, rode bicycles in Perth and hustled in the night markets of Taipei.

He was happy. In the past few years, not only has he seen the world, he’s watched his sons mature and was very proud of them. The younger son was doing well in his job in Paris, and his elder son had started a business that was getting popular. Whenever he spoke about his family, he spoke with pride.

Sometimes he would remind himself how much time had passed since he had the heart attack, because it always felt like he was on rented time. He knew he would have missed all of this had that heart attack claimed him six years ago.

Then on 28th May 2017, life brings you back full circle. While sitting on his sofa at home, watching his elder son’s favourite team Arsenal win the FA Cup, his story came to an end. As he sat there, he passed away peacefully alone.

What an adventure. An adventure that a simple boy from Muar, sitting there collecting stamps and reading his favourite book, would not have thought he would have. It was a beautiful journey that deserves to be celebrated.

Thank you for everything you have given to us. We always thought that one day we would have the chance to take care of you the way you took care of us, but you probably wanted us to remember you at your best.

We love you papa, with all our hearts.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Marcus Aurelius

derek toh politics at work

How to write job descriptions on job portals to attract talent

There’s a bit of confusion about how job descriptions should be written when you are advertising your jobs.

Most employers believe that in order to avoid an irrelevant candidate applying to their jobs, a job description should be an extensive document that captures ALL the roles and responsibilities of the job, along with a detailed list of every experience that the candidate should have before applying.

So if a candidate is irrelevant to the job, they will spend time reading this lengthy, detailed job description, realise they are not suitable, and then decide not the apply. And the candidate that fits the job will read the description and think “this is the perfect job for me!”, and apply to the job. Pretty sound logic right?

Not really.

Lengthy, overly-extensive job descriptions do not prevent a spammer from applying to your jobs (because they don’t really read the job descriptions anyway!), and in fact, causes a potentially good candidate to not apply to your job because of one of the following reasons:

  • The job description was just focused on the job, and didn’t really answer their question “Why should I apply for this job”
  • The job descriptions describes the “perfect” candidate, and a jobseeker spotted something a responsibility that they may not be experienced in doing. It may be only a small part of the job.

This idea leads to many poor decisions on how the job description should be written employers advertise their jobs. It’s the reason why many job advertisements are written badly, and fail to attract the right candidate to apply to their jobs.

It’s an advertisement to help you attract the right candidate to apply to your job. Therefore, stop thinking about this as a job description and start thinking about this as a job “advertisement”.

That’s it. It’s not a contract of responsibilities, you can sign that later when you actually hire the candidate. But when you first post that job vacancy, you need to be SELLING to the candidate, not keeping them out. Don’t think putting a long list of requirements is going to keep the bad candidates out, because the bad candidates probably don’t read your descriptions anyway, so you will get their CV regardless.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines that will have you craft an effective job description:

1) Keep it short

If you can’t capture what the role is about in three or four bullet points, you may not fully understand the job, in which case the candidate isn’t going to either. Less is more. Split it up into clearly identifiable sections, as a suggestion:

– Who we are (maximum 3 sentences, with information on what your business is about , the location and who they will be working with)

– Key responsibilities (maximum 5 bullet points, ideally 4)

– Requirements (maximum 5 bullet points, ideally 4)

2) Write from the jobseekers’ point of view

When describing the job, communicate from a jobseekers’ point of view, focusing on what they will find interesting. For example, if you are hiring an accountant, stating “you will be working closely with and learning from our company’s leaders to achieve our financial goals”, sounds much more interesting than “to submit the annual report by the required deadline, and to demonstrate good stakeholder management skills”.

3) Use simple language

Unless absolutely necessary, you should use simple language to describe what the role is about. Using big words only make the writer feel smart, and in most cases, does not actually help you filter out poor candidates anyway (remember: spammers don’t read job descriptions, you will only end up keeping a good person out). Your goal is to attract as many good applications as possible, even if they are not the perfect fit. So why scare applicants away with complicated language?

4) Inject some personality about your company

Write in a way that showcases who you are as a company. Don’t be boring. Tell a short story about your company and its’ vision, it’s people, or maybe just write the job description in a style that reflects the personality of your company.

I once saw a job description for a sales role that read “Your goal is to make money for the company so we can pay everyone and don’t have to eat maggi goreng everyday”. You could tell immediately that this company has a sense of humour, and may make a connection straight away.

Stuck? Here’s a simple trick

The key thing is stop thinking about a job description which you are posting on a job portal, as a contract of responsibilities. Instead, start thinking of it as a job “advertisement” i.e. you are using this to attract as many good applications as you can (don’t get distracted by the spammers, tell will apply to you job whichever way you write your job description).

If you are stuck in terms of how you would write a job description, try this. Ask the hiring manager “Why would a high quality candidate, that is already be employed elsewhere, be interested in this job?”. Be honest, and once you can answer this question, you can craft your job posting message around the answer.

 

What to do when there are office politics

Office politics. Too often, people watch others get rewarded due to relationships rather than results, and those that feel they are “real talent” get sidelined because they don’t understand the politics game. It may frustrate you when you feel you or your friends are more deserving of these rewards.

“That guy is such a yes man, always sucking up to the boss.”

“He’s such a politician, never know what he says when talking to management.”

There’s this negative connotation about office politics. If someone is labeled a “politician”, the idea is that this person cannot be trusted. He or she is two-faced. Backstabs. Spends more time on relationships than on actually doing the work.

For people who resent this, they tend to behave in the opposite way, refusing to spend time outside of work with their managers. Believing that the work is enough to get them through. Resenting any form of relationship building with their bosses as a form of “selling out” on their principles. Quietly complaining to their close colleagues about how unfair things are, effectively, making them involved in office politics as well.

Why office politics exist, and it’s not because there are bad people

But the reality is, in large groups of people, office politics will be there and it will matter. How do you get buy-in from the team?

Not everyone necessarily responds to logic. Some value relationships over logic, whether it’s because of their natural personality or because no one is really sure what needs to be done anyway. So feels safer to take care of everyone’s feelings in case something goes wrong, in which case “we all made this decision together”.

People who resent office politics tend refuse to spend time building relationships, seeing it as “selling out” on their principles

People often have to make decisions based on imperfect information, whether they are your manager or colleague. Because of this, their trust levels with different people in the organisation influence how they make decisions, taking into account the interest of the people in their inner circle. It’s less risky when you can get buy in from your inner circle with so much uncertainty.

Understand that this is the reality. Understand that if you want to progress in your organisation, your ability to work with others is important, and many people rely on their feelings rather than logic when it comes to making decisions. Your brand and relationships with others matter.

And I’m talking about achieving a business goal, not a personal selfish goals. Being able to persuade others to make the right decisions and take action is an important skill, and relationships play a role in getting this done.

Wait, so we should have office politics?

Depends on what type of office politics.

People who believe they can get ahead in their careers by using relationships to hurt others are misguided and any competent leader or manager can and should spot this behaviour from a mile away.

Even though I’ve talked about how politics will exist when large groups of people are working together towards a goal, the type of politics that is malicious will damage the company’s culture and affect the company’s ability to make the best decisions.

Passive aggressive personalities that spend more time gossiping within their groups that hurt others. Those that are too afraid to confront, and backstab instead. Or those that focus on trying to get you to do worse, rather than focus on trying to do better themselves to get ahead.

People who believe they can get ahead in their careers by using relationships to hurt others are misguided

When this becomes the prominent culture in the organisation, good talent start to leave, and poor talent start to get rewarded, ultimately leading to businesses failing in the long run.

This is because good talent will soon realise that getting ahead is all about getting the boss to like you (which is what they don’t waste a lot of time on), rather than delivering results (which is what they are good at). They will get frustrated at the type of decisions being made which appear illogical.

So how do we reduce or eliminate politics at work?

The leaders role in managing office politics

This is where good leadership comes in. It takes a strong leader with the will to look pass their own emotions and relationships with others, and instead assess issues objectively using data and logic.

We all know this is not easy, because leaders are human beings too, capable of making mistakes, not having the confidence to damage important relationships, carry the same insecurities as any normal person, and in some cases, got to where they are because of their own relationships rather than actual results.

It take a strong leader with the will to look pass their own emotions and assess issues objectively using data and logic

Having said that, it’s not an excuse to try to judge others based on perception rather than actual results.

If you’re a leader, whenever you feel positively or negatively about someone in the company, stop and look at their actual performance, rather than how they make you feel. Is your feeling justified and is it fair?

Leaders should create a culture of transparency at work

Google is well-known for it’s culture, but employers often brush this off as an expensive luxury, referring mainly to the perks that Google offers employeees (such as free food) rather than looking at what makes their culture great. These often cost nothing.

For example, in the name of transparency, employees at Google are discouraged from complaining about other employees via email. In a popular book “Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock, Google’s HR Leader, Bock writes about the first time he experienced Google’s commitment to transparency at work:

“The way we solve the ‘backstabbing’ problem, for example, is that if you write a nasty email about someone, you shouldn’t be surprised if they are added to the email thread… I remember the first time I complained about somebody in an email and my manager promptly copied that person, which forced us to quickly resolve the issue. It was a stark lesson in the importance of having direct conversations with colleagues!”

Even when it comes to sharing of information, the company “defaults to openness” by allowing all employees access to information about what is happening at the company.

This is a stark contrast to what most other companies actually practice, which is to share information only as required, keeping most information at the top, and not bothering to explain decisions by just referring it to a decision made by management. If you don’t have all the information, you have no choice but to trust management.

When a leader says “just trust me because you don’t know everything, it’s a management decision”, it creates a culture where leaders become lazy at thinking through their decisions. This lack of objectivity and accountability creates an environment where negative forms of politics will thrive.

When a leader says “just trust me because you don’t know everything, it’s a management decision”, it creates a culture where leaders become lazy at thinking through their decisions.

What we can all do to stop negative office politics

Work hard and deliver results, that’s always the most important thing. Embrace the fact that office politics will exist when large groups of people are working together, just hope it’s not the malicious or negative type.

If you’re leader, and you sense your subordinate prefers spending time building relationships with you rather than on the actual effort of achieving results, remind them always that they will be measured on their results. If a colleague starts to gossip, show them that you are disinterested. Remember, allowing these things to happen on your watch could be just as bad as participating yourself.

And always encourage everyone to be transparent and speak with candor.

If you’re in an environment where you feel people are using politics for the wrong reasons, and your leadership is not doing anything to discourage this, always politely challenge and ask questions. Ask your leaders why certain decisions were made. Keep everyone accountable, regardless whether they are your leader or your colleague, to make objective decisions based on logic rather than emotions.

And if you risk damaging your career because you might upset your boss… well, do you really want to be in an environment like that anyway?

“Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.”

— Marshall Berman

derek toh malaysian fresh graduate

Malaysian Fresh Graduates Have Attitude Problems?

Here’s an interesting article that’s been going around social media recently about why many Malaysian fresh graduates remain unemployed. It seems, we can all basically sum it up to them having attitude problems. In fact, the article breaks this down into several key reasons:

  • Unrealistic salary expectations – RM3.5k to RM6.5k
  • Poor communications skills
  • Dreaming too big (it seems, if you are from a “small” university you should work with a small company)

Understandably, employers who agree with this are furiously sharing this article on social media, along with expressing their own frustrations with their experience of hiring Malaysian fresh graduates.

But many of the fresh graduates that I have interviewed or hired did not actually show such “bad attitudes”, therefore I am a bit confused. As a startup, our salaries are fairly modest. Yet we’ve hired many quality Malaysian fresh graduates. They are matured and capable. Their communication skills are good, their attitude is decent, and they certainly could work in any multi-national company, yet they are working in a small startup (are they dreaming too small?). Continue reading →

recruit malaysia

Recruit using Linkedin for FREE

Linkedin is a great way to recruit and approach passive candidates. Yet some employers tell me that they haven’t had any success or that response rates are poor. As someone that has successfully recruited passive candidates via Linkedin without the paid recruiter account (i.e. I’ve been doing it for FREE!), I believe it’s all about using the right technique to approach these candidates and this makes a big difference in how successful you are.

Here are 3 of my top tips to help you be successful when you recruit via Linkedin:

Continue reading →