Hiring Engaged Employees: Interview Questions

By Bob Kelleher

The idea for hiring good employees is to craft interview questions that are targeted toward the specific behaviors and traits that are unique to your organization and to the position. Although traits like enthusiasm, patience, selflessness, and optimism may be desired in almost any company, there will be differences in positions’ requirements that require tailored inquiry.

Examples may include a job that requires travel, involves client or customer interaction, includes management of other staff, or requires working remotely.

This table contains a list questions to help point out an individual’s important qualities. Use these as a starting point as you tailor your own questions.

Questions for Determining Behaviors and Traits
To Determine . . . Ask . . .
Ability to learn What kinds of things do you learn quickly? What kinds of things
do you have a harder time picking up?
Adaptability, flexibility Tell me about a situation in which you had to adjust quickly to
changes over which you had no control. What was the impact of the
change on you?
Analytic abilities, honesty What do you know about our company and its services?
Character, values, commitment, goals How would your close work associates describe you? What traits
are you most proud of? What trait best suits you for this job?
Client focus What experiences have you had that demonstrate your commitment
to your client?
Coaching, leadership Tell me about a time when you took someone under your wing and
what you tried to teach him or her.
Communication, accountability Tell me about a time when your active listening skills really
paid off for you — maybe a time when other people missed the
key idea being expressed.
Communication, feedback Tell me about a time when you had to be critical of someone
else. What happened?
Communication, influence Describe the most successful experience you’ve ever had in
persuading someone to do something.
Communication, relationships Give an example of a situation when you were able to
communicate successfully with a person who didn’t like you.
Communication, self-expression, listening skills, tact Are you more skilled at written or verbal communication?
Why?
Communication (written), innovation What is the most challenging report you’ve ever written? What
made it unique? To what audience was it written?
Customer service, analytic abilities, empathy, efficiency What is your process for handling customer complaints?
Decision making, analytic abilities Tell me about the most difficult customer-service experience
you’ve ever had to handle — perhaps an angry or irate
customer. Be specific. What did you do, and what was the
outcome?
Decision making, integrity, realism, common sense Everyone has to bend or break the rules once in a while. Can
you give me an example of how you handled this kind of
situation?
Decision making, problem solving, creativity Give me an example of a problem, issue, or concern that you
handled in a unique, creative way.
Decision making, realism, willingness to learn, accountability,
confidence
Tell me about a time when you made the wrong decision. What
went wrong? What would you do differently knowing what you know
now?
Efficiency, analytic abilities How do you prioritize your work?
Energy, drive, initiative What are some examples of your going beyond your job
requirements? What are you currently doing to improve your overall
performance?
Enthusiasm What achievement are you most proud of?
Frugality Describe a time in which you saved money for your company
and/or client.
General What special characteristics should I consider about you as a
person?
General Give me a quick overview of your current or prior position and
describe the biggest impact or change you made.
General, analytic abilities, creativity Describe your ideal job.
General, analytic abilities, detail oriented Walk me through a typical day in your work life. What is your
favorite part? What is your least favorite part?
General, confidence What has been your greatest accomplishment? Why?
General, confidence, accountability What did you do in your last job to contribute to a positive
work environment?
General, confidence, risk taking, willingness to learn What has been your greatest challenge? Why? How did you handle
it? What did you learn from it?
General, initiative Give me an example of how you did more than what was required
in your job.
Innovation, creativity What approaches could you take to the following problem? (Then
describe the problem for the candidate.)
Management style, philosophy Describe your management style. How would direct reports
describe your philosophy? What’s most important to overall business
success?
Personality, cultural fit Who was the best manager you ever had? Describe that person’s
traits. In which of your past work environments were you happiest?
Why?
Planning, organization Describe how you go about planning and organizing your work and
setting priorities. When can planning get in the way of
results?
Planning, organization, analytic abilities, delegation,
realism
If you left your company today, what would be left undone?
Planning, organization, confidence What did you do in your last job to be effective at
accountability, planning, and organizing?
Problem identification, analytic abilities, problem solving,
relationships, feedback integrity
If you observed someone displaying inappropriate work behavior,
what would you do?
Problem solving, analytic abilities If you were to get this job, how would you go about solving
this typical problem? (Then describe the problem for the
candidate.)
Problem solving, collaboration Give me an example of a problem you faced on the job and tell
me how you solved it.
Problem solving, thinking skills From a technical challenge standpoint, what past experience was
most stimulating? What kinds of problems do you enjoy
tackling?
Professional development, analytic abilities, initiative Is there some technique or technology you want to learn but
haven’t yet? Describe it.
Professional development, confidence, accountability In your last performance appraisal, what was detailed in the
“employee strengths” section?
Professional development, willingness to learn How many training courses have you attended over the last three
years? What were they and what did you learn? What have you
implemented as a result?
Professional development, willingness to learn In your last performance appraisal, what was detailed in the
“developmental needs” section?
Relationships Describe how you’ve collaborated with people outside your
department in the past. What cross-sectional teams have you
participated in during your career and what role did you play on
those teams?
Relationships, communication, collaboration Give an example of when you had to work with someone who was
difficult to get along with. Why was this person difficult? How did
you handle that person?
Results oriented, confidence, realism Give me an example of a goal you didn’t accomplish. What went
wrong.
Results oriented, innovation, initiative Tell me about the goals you set for yourself last year and
whether you achieved those goals.
Results oriented, innovation, planning Tell me about your goals for this coming year and your plans to
achieve them.
Results oriented, confidence, self-respect, enthusiasm Tell me about a project you’re particularly proud of having
been associated with and why.
Risk taking, accountability Describe a time when you weighed the pros and cons of a risk
and why you decided to take it.
Stress management, willingness to learn, innovation Tell me about a situation in which you were under significant
pressure. How did you handle it?
Team leadership, ability to persuade/motivate others What do you see as being the advantages and disadvantages of
working as part of a team? What are the challenges of leading a
team?
Teamwork, collaboration, facilitation Describe your most recent group effort.
Technical abilities, confidence This position requires a variety of skills. Describe your
strengths that are applicable to the position.
Trend of performance over time How has your job or level of contribution changed since you
began working in this field? How would your current manager
describe your performance?

As you develop your questions, also keep these points in mind:

  • Even when detailed information on specific areas is required, keep your questions open ended. The descriptive response elicited by an open-ended question will include specific information. The candidate’s response may even reveal information that you never thought to ask about.

    Closed-ended questions (those that require only a yes or no response) won’t yield a broad, informative response. Plus, open-ended questions can be followed by more specific ones.

  • Don’t ask leading questions. A leading question is a rhetorical question that indicates to the applicant the answer that the interviewer wants to hear. For example, “Don’t you think that getting along with subordinates is absolutely critical to good management?” is a leading question.

  • Don’t ask any questions that are legally off limits. For example, it’s illegal to ask a candidate his or her age, sex, marital status, parental status, health status, race, height, weight, or religion. This is by no means an exhaustive list, however.

    For more information on questions you shouldn’t ask during an interview, check with an HR or legal representative. Bottom line: If you’re worried a question may be inappropriate or unacceptable, don’t ask it!