9 best questions to ask a job applicant

Your ideal candidate strides confidently into the room wearing a neatly pressed suit, offers a firm handshake, and tells you everything you want to hear. You ask a few generic questions, snag some talking points from their resume, and decide that they’re a perfect fit — or are they?

Within the first year and a half of starting a new job, a shocking 46 percent of people will fail to fit in or meet expectations. During the job interview, managers may have had a sense that something was off, but they were too harried or overly focused on what was on the resume and not enough on the candidate’s subtle behavioral cues.

To avoid this scenario, it’s important to ask a job applicant the right questions. Knowing their technical competencies — like the software programs they know how to use and the experience they have in their field — isn’t enough. Hiring managers need to dig deeper to avoid potential problems. Here are nine interview questions that can help.

Behavioral questions

While asking about a candidate’s experience and hard skills helps you get clarity on what they can actually do, it’s their answers to behavioral questions that will tell you if they’re a good fit for the organization. Here are six behavioral situations to present a job applicant:

  1. Tell me about a time when you were able to successfully persuade someone to see things from your point of view.
  2. Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a lot of stress and how you were able to cope with it.
  3. Describe a time when you had to make a judgment call and why you made the decision you did.
  4. Give me an example of a goal you’ve set and how you were able to achieve it.
  5. Tell me about a time when you had to follow policies that you didn’t agree with and how you handled it.
  6. Describe a time when you disagreed with your boss or a coworker and how you dealt with the situation.

The answers a candidate gives will be a preview of how they might act as your employee. For example, if you know the department they’re going to work in is a high-stress environment and the candidate has difficulty coping, they’re probably not a good fit for the position.

If the answers they give to these questions seem a little thin, don’t be afraid to probe further. Ask them why they made the choices they did or what their specific part was in the situation. And keep in mind that non-answers may also be red flags.

Situational questions

Another way to learn more about a candidate is to present hypotheticals and ask them to draw upon their own experience to answer the questions or solve the problem. This shows you how the candidate would react in a similar situation. Here are some sample scenarios you could ask a candidate to consider:

  • You’re the IT director in a 500-employee company, and you’re constantly struggling to stay above water and answer all the help desk requests. Your CIO tells you that IT needs to bring more strategic value to the organization. How do you respond?
  • You hear that someone from your previous company is in the running for a job in the finance department, but you’ve also heard from your former coworkers that the company fired the candidate for embezzlement. The company didn’t file criminal charges, though. What would you do?
  • You’re a customer service employee at an appliance repair company. An angry customer calls to report that a technician tracked mud all over her new floors. How do you handle this situation?

How the job applicant answers these questions can alert you to any potential red flags. For example, if your company values honesty and transparency and the candidate wouldn’t mention anything to HR about what they’ve heard about the former coworker, they might not be a good cultural fit.

Resume clarification questions

There’s nothing wrong with asking a candidate to further describe the skills they’ve listed on their resume. In fact, if all they’ve done is put a bullet point stating that they have experience with a particular software program, ask them what kind of work they’ve done with it.

Similarly, if there’s a gap in their employment, asking about that can help you get a better idea of who the candidate is. Depending on how they answer — maybe their employer laid them off  and they used that time to volunteer, or maybe they used that time to care for a relative — you’ll be able to find out what they value and how well it aligns with your organization’s values.

Ask now or regret later

The only way to find out if someone is a good fit is to interview them thoroughly. Questions about their past jobs and strengths only give you a limited picture of who they are and how they conduct themselves.

But if you dive deeper with the questions you ask and get an applicant to describe real or hypothetical situations, you have a much better chance of being able to put your finger on anything that might not feel right about that person — and avoid a potentially bad hire.

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