Interviews are confusing. They are also critical to business success. And if you’re a startup with a small business, even one bad hire can mean that your company goes under. Why? Because it often costs up to twice as much to replace an employee that leaves in the first year, than it does to hire them.
So take that $30K you’re going to offer and flush it down the toilet. Now find another $30K and go do it again. When you hire the wrong people, this is exactly what you’re doing.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it doesn’t have to be terrifying or uncomfortable. This is my response to [questions posed by Mitchell Harper](http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/241524) of Bigcommerce in regard to potential questions to ask when hiring for a small business.
I think that the questions he recommends, particularly for a small business, would result in mostly bad hires.
After five years in Human Resources, recruiting candidates from all over the world, I learned a thing or two about how to resource humans.
It’s important that small businesses and startups make the right hiring choices, instead of the ones that may sink their company.
Harper — while his intentions were good, and the qualities he was trying to surface were good qualities to look for — his questions are poorly chosen.
Instead of choosing questions that help discover a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, the questions are vague and tricky. You’re not trying to hire a person who’s good at interviewing; you’re trying to hire a person who can *do the job* and *fit in with the team.*
Let’s step through each of the qualities you want to find in a candidate, as laid out by Harper, then take a look at how the questions could be improved to make sure you’re finding the best candidate instead of just the ones who can talk their way through an interview.
Superstar Quality #1: Resourcefulness and Problem Solving
The best employees are able to recognize issues and create simple, actionable solutions. This is a must-have quality in a superstar employee.
In Harper’s article, he recommends a vague — and potentially irrelevant — question:
What do you like about our business? How would you change what you don’t like?
This question is too broad, and it requires the candidate to make a guess at what you’re trying to learn. There’s also a big difference between solving a real problem and coming up with a problem (or a new feature) and proposing a solution within the 15 seconds the candidate will have to start their response.
A Better Way to Check a Candidate’s Resourcefulness
At a startup you don’t just do one job — you do ten. Ask something more relevant to the actual role (or roles) the candidate will be filling. For example, if you’re hiring someone to manage social media, ask them something like this:
Tell me about a time when you had to increase traffic using social media. What worked? What didn’t?
The best employees don’t “solve problems fast and on their own,” as Harper claims. The best employees solve problems fast by identifying the correct resources on their team and leveraging them effectively.
Superstars know how to work within a team, not just on their own.
Superstar Quality #2: Dedication to Learning
A great employee is constantly learning and growing; they are able to apply that new knowledge effectively to their role.
Harper’s question is not relevant to the quality you’re actually looking for. Instead, it’s more of a personality question:
Which book are you currently reading?
What books people like to read is irrelevant. And Harper’s suggestion, “If they’re reading a fiction book and haven’t read an educational book for a while, that’s a red flag,” is a bit ridiculous.
I understand the point he’s making. You’re going to learn more reading *Zero to One* than reading *50 Shades of Grey*. But, reading fiction and non-educational books is not a red flag. It’s a matter of taste. A 2013 study by researches at The New School have shown that people who read literary fiction are more empathetic than those that read non-fiction. Empathetic employees are better overall communicators, and therefore stronger leaders and employees.
That sounds like the opposite of a red flag to me.
A Better Way to See if the Candidate is Always Learning
Don’t be devious or vague. Tricking the candidate won’t get you anywhere.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in the last 6 months? How did you learn it?
People also learn by reading blogs, learning new hobbies, keeping up with news in the industry, networking, etc. Ongoing learning and improvement, not book choice, is the crux of the issue.
By asking directly, you will also get an idea of what this person is interested in, how they like to spend their time, and how they learn — all of which are great things to consider when choosing who to hire.
Superstar Quality #3: Creative and Critical Thinking Skills
An employee that will perform well will also be able to work through unfamiliar issues and unexpected problems by assessing the issue and finding creative solutions.
The problem with the original question is that it is badly worded and vague:
Tell me about a problem you were tasked with solving in your current job. How did you fix it?
I once solved a problem at work by having coaching sessions with some of our managers. I was “tasked” with it. I had to go through the manager’s answers, identify common areas of strengths and weaknesses, then work with the manager to identify and solve the identified areas for improvement in their job.
So what? It was part of my job because I was in HR, but is it relevant to the job I’m interviewing for?
A Better Way to Find Creativity and Critical Thinking
Ask questions that are directly related to their role. In addition to understanding their critical thinking skills and creativity, you will also learn more about what this person values.
Tell me about a critical problem you solved in your previous job. Why was it important and how did you fix it?
This answer will tell you a lot about how they deconstruct a problem, if they’re able to reach out for help appropriately, and how good they are at solving issues.
Learning more about what they value is important, too, and will be an important part of picking the right person.
Superstar Quality #4: Culture Fit and Values Aligned with the Company
This quality is largely overlooked in a lot of interviews. Too much importance is given to technical skills, while culture fit and the candidate’s values are ignored. Fortunately, this is slowly starting to change.
In this case, Harper’s question is quite good:
What’s the one thing you’ve accomplished in your career that you’re most proud of?
The only thing that he forgot to ask is, “Why?” And I don’t just mean a simple, surface answer like, “because it was a project I thought I could never finish but I did.” That doesn’t show us much.
A Better Way to See If They Will Be a Culture and Value Fit
Your superstar will burn out and quit pretty quickly if they don’t fit in with your company’s culture and values. Shared values make us feel connected and understood, and feeling connected with others motivates us to do better work because we care about the people involved.
What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career? What about these accomplishments make you so proud?
I agree with Harper that, “This gives you insight into what makes them tick and also lets you assess how they define success.”
However, I disagree with his suggestion that you may have a superstar if they have been, “promoted five times in their previous role during a two-year period.” This would not immediately make me think they were a superstar. Instead, it is a better indicator that they know how to work the system. I have seen incompetent people rise to glory because they’re good self-promoters, and truly brilliant people be passed over for promotion because they kept their heads down and *got shit done*.
The only difference was that one knew how to play the game and the other didn’t. Promotions are not based only on talent — they’re also based on our ability to play the politics, and get our talent in front of the right people at the right times.
Secondly, a promotion is not the only thing that you should worry about. Do you really want to work with someone whose *greatest accomplishment* is getting themselves promoted once every four months? How does that improve the rest of your team? How does that improve your business?
The answer: **it doesn’t.** Being promoted is definitely a good thing — if it’s for the right reasons. But there are other accomplishments that can be equally important. Accomplishments like working on a failing team and helping turn it around, or finding and fixing a problem that no one else saw are less glamorous, but far more indicative of a superstar.
Superstar Quality #5: Being a Team Player
An employee that can lead and inspire a team, but also follow when necessary, is an employee that will be a huge asset. An employee that can identify the proper time and place for both is even better.
The problem with the original question is two-fold:
Have you played any team sports before?
To start with the obvious, not everyone wants to play a sport, so you’ve effectively disqualified someone based on whether or not they like to kick a ball into a goal. Other teams and groups are just as relevant: band, chorus, chess, etc.
Secondly, I played on several teams through high school. We had lots of people on the team… and some of them were dicks. Being on a team does not preclude you from being a shitty team player.
A Better Question to Find out if They Are a Team Player
The goal of this question is to determine if a candidate is capable of working on a team effectively. A better way to phrase this question might be:
Tell me about a team that you’re part of or used to be part of; work, sports, musical, whatever. What did you like most about the team and what was your contribution?
If their only contribution was showing up for a month, getting too busy, and leaving that group, then you can see through past history that they don’t have great follow through. If they told you that they worked on a volunteer group and helped run a food drive, then they can obviously stick with something through the end. An employee that cannot follow through is not a good leader, team player, or employee.
Also, if they automatically complain about everyone and everything on that team, it would be reasonable to conclude that they don’t really like working on teams anyway.
However, I also know people that have volunteered on teams that weren’t set up in a way they felt was effective, and when it was clear they couldn’t change the team, they left. That doesn’t mean they hated teamwork, it meant that they knew how to identify a bad fit.
Pay close attention to the answer, because the difference is subtle if you’re not looking for it. Do they not like working with people, or do they just know what to look for on a good team?
Superstar Quality #6: Constant Personal Growth and Improvement
Much like someone who is interested in learning more about their skills, interests, and industry; a great employee is always trying to grow personally and improve themselves.
However, the original question is too indirect to find out if someone is actively interested in their personal growth:
What do you do for fun?
You aren’t really looking at what they do “for fun.” I lay on the beach and attempt to surf for fun. Sometimes I have a living room dance party. These answers are a part of who I am, but they’d get me disqualified because I didn’t guess that the interviewer has just asked a loaded question.
I don’t read business news, obsess over content marketing, and work on my art “for fun.” I do it because I want to increase my skills in these areas and I want to become a better human.
A Better Question to Find Out if A Candidate is Improving and Bettering Themselves
Don’t use vague words when you’re looking for a specific answer. Just come straight out and ask for what you want to know:
What do you do to make yourself a better person?
If the candidate doesn’t work on self-improvement — you’ll know by their wide-eyed stare — only then can you be sure that they’re not interested in improving themselves.
Superstar Quality #7: Negotiation, Self-Confidence, and Self-Promotion
You want someone who is able to speak confidently to their skill set, believes in themselves, and can communicate that in a strong but friendly way.
Harper’s original question aims to get at the heart of this by telling the candidate:
I’m not sure you’re a fit for the role…
I understand where he’s going with this. He says that this works best if your looking for candidates “with strong personalities that need to push through constantly hearing ‘no,’ such as for sales reps or sales leaders”.
But this question is just mean. You are in a position of power and attempting to manipulate an already emotionally charged situation by catching the candidate off-guard.
A Better Question to See if They Can Negotiate, Self-Promote, and Have Self-Confidence
You can tell them that you’re still going to think about the role after they’ve explained their reasoning. But, remember, you’re trying to appeal to them, too. If you want someone to tell you why you should hire them, then just ask.
Tell me why I should hire you.
You’ll get the same response from those candidates who would try to overcome the objection, but without the power trip.
If someone told me I wasn’t a good fit after a list of questions from a *Teen Vogue* personality test — “What was the last book you read,” and “What do you do for fun?” — I would agree that I wasn’t the right fit… because I would see that they have no idea what they’re even looking for.
Things to Remember
I’m not a psychologist — and neither are you. So don’t try to play one. However, I have hired many successful employees in my career.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is this: Don’t ask vague questions.
Be direct so that you can get a specific answer from the candidate. Playing a twisted game of 21 Questions won’t get you the right person.
Just a couple bad hires within a year can sink your business. Save yourself the pain by asking relevant questions and hiring right the first time.
After all, you don’t want to have to do *another* round of interviews, do you?
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