Helen Tupper: Three questions you shouldn’t ask in job interviews

When interviewing job candidates we often resort to clichéd questions that elicit the wrong information or favour the wrong person. Try some more considered alternatives.

CMO questions

I spend a lot of time thinking and engaging with others about the changing shape of work and the skills we can all invest in now so that we can continue to be successful, fulfilled and make a positive impact through our work. Sometimes I see things within organisations and the working environment that jar with the way work is evolving.

Flexible working policies are one such example, with nine out of 10 people seeking flexible work but only one in 10 jobs with a pro rata salary of at least £20,000 advertising it, according to research this year by recruitment portal Timewise.

One of the other ways in which the disconnect between the work people are seeking today and the work that has existed to date shows up is in job interviews. Here, traditional thinking about the world of work is most exposed and visible in outdated questions that tie us into old patterns.

Often this is because we find ourselves interviewing for team members alongside our day-to-day roles. We haven’t got the time to sit down and create thoughtful questions, so we use standard ones that are provided to us or we have experienced personally. Some of these questions, though, are limiting our ability to identify talent that can grow with our business and people that have agility to adapt and move around.

There are three question traps in particular that are worth paying attention. You should consider alternatives that may better support you in finding talent that works for you now and in the future.

1. What is your career plan?

This might also sound like ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ or ‘what is the job you want to do after this?’. These questions lead people to think about their career in a linear path where they can predict each move they intend to make. This is unrealistic in today’s ‘squiggly’ careers.

Five years ago, roles like ‘cloud architect’ or ‘blockchain developer’ didn’t exist and it’s predicted that a third of the jobs that children in school today will go into don’t exist yet. This is in part due to technology creating new roles, but technology also plays a part in breaking down geographical boundaries, thus enabling people to do jobs remotely that they may not previously have been able to apply for.

Some questions are limiting our ability to identify talent that can grow with our business, and people with agility to adapt.

All of this change creates a wide range of different career possibilities for people to explore, and lets them see how their knowledge and strengths can be applied to create value in different contexts. It can still be useful to understand how people are thinking about their future, so it’s valid territory to explore when you are making an investment in someone. But rather than limiting them to a linear plan, ask them instead about their career possibilities.

Try questions like ‘what possible routes can you see your career evolving into in the future?’ or ‘what are the different roles beyond this one that interest you and why?’. They open up the conversation and will give you more insightful responses, rather than limiting thinking and risking candidates telling you what they think you might want to hear.

2. What is your biggest weakness?

The reason most people will want to ask this question is not to limit business risk but to test a candidate’s self-awareness and ability to learn and improve. However, it generally leads to trite answers that don’t help you to understand a person’s potential or value to the organisation.

We’re all time-poor and we need people who can make a positive impact on our organisation, particularly as they are likely to be moving around more frequently in roles. Therefore, using interview time to explore what people are great at is far more valuable for hiring decisions.

Research by Gallup found that people who use their strengths at work are six times more likely to be engaged and less likely to experience stress and anxiety. Recruiting people who are aware of their strengths and how to apply them to create impact is your secret sauce as a manager in delivering value back to your organisation.

Questions like ‘when are you at your best at work?’ and ‘how does what you’re great at create positive outcomes for your organisation?’ still give you the insight into a candidate’s self-awareness but also help you to gain a view of their unique and positive contribution to your business.

3. Why are you the best person for this job?

Asking this question opens up two potential challenges. The first is that it gives an advantage to people who are confident in communicating their talents vis-à-vis their peers and may not be a comfortable conversation for more introverted candidates, who might struggle to answer despite having great potential for the role.

A simple refresh of the questions we are asking in interviews can open up new sources of talent.

The second challenge is that this question may attract people who are expert and specialist in one field but don’t have the ability or agility to move around the organisation as change occurs. Research has shown that people who consider themselves to be expert are more likely to have a fixed mindset about their need to develop and learn. It’s called the ‘earned dogmatism‘ effect and it can create a stagnating resource investment in your business.

If you know from the outset that you need to recruit for a strong individual contributor or for specific subject matter expertise, this question may be valid, but this is increasingly not the case for our changing working context changes. Instead, asking ‘how can you bring value to this company?’ or ‘how do you help other people to be successful through your work?’ can identify someone who is confident in their abilities in service of the organisation and their peers.

A simple refresh of the questions we are asking in interviews can help to open up new sources of talent, creating more diverse teams and higher levels of individual engagement. Taking time to challenge the established questions in the short term is time well spent in the long term.

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