The Two Big Questions at a Job Interview

You greet the job applicant in the lobby: "Did you have any trouble finding us?" you ask.

You're the interviewer, and you've got two questions—this isn't one of them. This is a filler.

Filler questions break the ice. But we also use them when we're desperately unsure about:

  1. What we really need to learn (e.g. before you interview anyone, you need to learn what, exactly, is required to do the job and fit into the organization).
  2. How to find out (you need to translate those requirements into a sequence of good questions).

"Tell me about yourself," you ask the applicant.

Leland Bobbe | Stone | Getty Images

That's a classic opener, and a basic sequence: you start broad, then go narrow. You could also go from past to present, or from positive (applicant's strength) to negative (weakness).

What's underneath your opener—and many other interview questions—is one of your two Big Questions: "Why should we hire you?"

The applicant, if he's skilled, will ask questions to figure out what you're looking for.

Applicant: "Well, I could talk about my marketing background, my leadership experience, or my last triathlon. Where should I start?"

Here, he's asked a smart counter-question. He gives you some options, plus some fast, bulleted info.

You: "Let's talk marketing. Any experience with social media?"

Applicant: "Yes! To launch our new office machine—a combo fax, copier and microwave oven—we made a series of You Tube videos called 'Indestructible.'"

So far, so good. Unfortunately, our applicant is about to get worse.

You: "Suppose your boss were sitting here. What kind of constructive feedback might she give you?"

Here's the other Big Question you're fishing for: "Why shouldn't we hire you?"

Applicant: "Well, she'd say I'm too aggressive."

You: "In what way?"

When someone uses abstractions, like "aggressive," don't pretend you understand. Ask for specific examples.

Applicant: "For the You Tube campaign, 'Indestructible,' my concept was to first spill coffee on the machine, then drop it on the floor, then hurl it out a window, and then take a sledgehammer and try to bludgeon the thing to death . . ."

You: "Ok. We'll get back to you."

Tip: Whether you're meeting a client, coaching an employee, or interviewing a job applicant, figure out what you really need to learn—and then, how to ask.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (, Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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