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10 Top Interview Questions to Ask Candidates

In Interviews — by Riia O'Donnell

You’ve got your candidates lined up and ready to interview. You’ve recruited smart and you’ve got a wealth of applicants who, on paper, can do the job. Now you just need to figure out which one to hire – easy, right? The interview process will seal the deal, but how do you get better insight into whether they’ll be a good fit or a big mistake?

There are endless interview questions found on the internet, from standard to silly. There are lists of questions NOT to ask (anything that might invade protected status). But nailing the interview from your side of the desk is easier than you think. Ask substantive questions and understand what some of their answers mean to make sure you’re getting the most out of interviews.

The top interview questions address these main areas:

      • Experience
      • Requirements
      • Achievements/Goals
      • The Fine Print


1. Briefly walk me through your background and experience as it relates to our opening.

This first question always reminds me of the Albert Brook’s movie, Defending Your Life, in which he had to explain why he was worthy to get through the Pearly Gates. This person wants to work for your company; they should be ready to tell you why they deserve the job right off the bat.

This also sets the tone for the interview right from the start: They’re going to be doing most of the talking, not you.

What their answers mean:

  • Can give you the Cliff’s Notes version of their career, and it matches their resume: probably legitimate
  • Thoughtfully touch on areas pertinent to your needs: focused and paying attention
  • Completely at a loss: might have a problem thinking on their feet. While that’s not a requisite for every position, it’s a better quality to have than not.

A Career Builder survey found 58 percent of employers found lies on resumes. Candidates who “fudged” their resume can’t recite what’s on it accurately without referring to it. I often told interviewees to put the resume away and just tell me about their career. I’ve cut many interviews short after they couldn’t tell their story without looking at what they’d written down. Red flag!


2. Let’s get specific. Tell me about your job at Company ABC.

This question gives them a chance to provide detailed information about themselves and their skill set. The tone of their narrative will give insight into what type of employee they are. Additionally, you’re looking for them to highlight relevant data or turn irrelevant information into a plus – like a retail clerk applying for a call center representative focusing on their commitment to customer service. Start with their most recent position and work backward through them all.

What their answers mean:

  • Talking with specificity and pride about their work, their company, and their performance: probably a good employee.
  • Putting a good spin on a bad situation: flexible
  • Can’t really give you details/give only minimal information: red flag
  • Complaining about the drudgery they had to endure: red flag

interview tip number 1

3. Did your level of responsibility grow or change while you were at ABC?

You’re checking performance and flexibility. If they started out at the reception desk and rose through the ranks, they’re probably a good employee.

You’re checking performance and flexibility. If they started out at the reception desk and rose through the ranks, they’re probably a good employee.

For some candidates this question isn’t relevant, their duties can’t change: a bus driver isn’t going to be asked to drive a 747. But you might inquire whether they’ve mentored or trained others.

What their answers mean:

  • Yes: someone else has already verified their ability to grow, ask for details
  • Complaining “everybody else got promoted but me!”: problem
  • Don’t know or won’t give a straight answer: might be avoiding admitting they weren’t performing to standard

4. Tell me what you liked best and least about working at ABC.

This helps you find what their passionate about, proudest of, what challenges them, and what they’ll complain about. “Loved caring for people” is a great fit for that home health worker. “Hated dealing with the public” ­– not a good fit for your retail spot.

Even if they’re not working in their field of choice, every candidate should be able to tell you something they do that makes them proud.

What their answers mean:

Best things

  • Interesting/challenging: engaged and committed
  • Loved the variety: flexible
  • Liked new challenges: open for growth
  • It was so easy: may be an underachiever
  • Loved the paycheck: red flag           

Worst things

  • Like the job/people/company, but it’s not my passion: not a bad worst thing. Many candidates have jobs for which they’re overqualified in a challenging economy. The fact that they haven’t given up on their goals is commendable.
  • No opportunity to grow: good sign if you’re looking for someone who will develop on the job. However, if you’re tired of the revolving door that filling this particular spot has become, this candidate might not be a good fit.
  • Frustration with the company: ask for details. If they’re unable to provide the service or work they hope due to management/budget constraints, the candidate may be someone who takes pride in their work. If there’s no good reason for their frustration, they might be difficult to please.

5. Why are you leaving (did you leave) ABC?

Obviously you want to know why they’re available, but as important is how they tell their story.

What their answers mean:

  • Laid off, company is moving or closing: easy to verify, typically has nothing to do with performance.
  • More money may be a legitimate reason for leaving: ask why they’re ready for a bump up the pay scale
  • Taken on a lot more responsibility but haven’t been compensated: a fair reason to leave
  • Their rent went up: might want to rethink this candidate
  • Looking for a new opportunity: might mean they’re stuck in a dead-end job in a dead-end company and they’re looking for more challenges. Or it might mean they don’t get along with others and they want out. Ask for more specifics.
  • Management differences: could mean they work for a horrible boss (we’ve all had them) or they are being pressured to leave because of poor performance/attitude. Press for specific details.
  • Time for a change: the catchphrase of job-jumpers. If they can’t give a legitimate reason, you might be re-filling that spot in a year when malaise sets in for them at your company.
  • Employer bad-mouthing: Yes, there are horrid bosses out there that great employees needn’t tolerate. But there are ways to articulate the need to work for a quality company with a respectful management staff professionally. If they can’t, you may be looking at the newest constant complainer at your company.

interview tip number 2


6. Tell me about using XYZ.

Your position requires XYZ, (coding proficiency, attention to detail, managerial experience, forklift driving, etc.). You’re not looking for “I did that at ABC Company.” Ask how they used whatever “it” was in their work history. What did you code, where did you drive, whom did you oversee? Repeat the question for every one of your required skills

What their answers mean:

  • Can speak fluently and with confidence about how they’ve used the skill/requirement: qualified. Ask if they’ve ever mentored or trained others to gain more information on their level of proficiency.
  • Hedge around the answer: little or no experience.


You may have already touched upon these with their work history, but recap their achievements and ask for career goals to gain insight into their passion and the pride they take in performing.

I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t it better to ask their strengths and weaknesses?” No, and here’s why: 1) Everyone is ready for that question and has a stock answer: “I’m a workaholic,” “I care too much,” blah, blah, blah. 2) Are they really going to admit “I can’t make it to work on time, ever,” is their weakness?

7. Tell me about at least one significant career achievement.

What their answers mean:

  • Hitting or exceeding company goals: achievement-oriented
  • Mastering a skill: growth-oriented
  • Helping others: compassionate, possibly management-material
  • Endless list of accomplishments: if you have to stop them at 15, they might be a bit arrogant.
  • Hit a hole-in-one: While impressive, this probably has little to do with the position unless the candidate is interviewing to be a golf instructor. Answers like these suggest that work is not a priority or they forgot they were interviewing for a job – either way, red flag.

8. What are your career goals?

What their answers mean:

  • Plan to run the place in two years: ambitious
  • No real plan: this is actually pretty common. Most people take a job and hope to get promoted up the ladder for good performance until they retire. For some jobs, that’s just fine; for others, not so much.
  • Retire at 35 to travel the world: might have an optimistic sense of work/life balance – it’s up to you whether or not to burst their bubble

interview tip number 3

The Fine Print

These wrap-up questions are important so make sure to get them in.

9. Do we have your permission to verify your employment eligibility and do employment/background checks?

If your recruitment process hasn’t included a signed application or an electronic signature, make sure to get one before you start calling employers – particularly current ones.

What their answers mean:

  • Yes: they’re probably exactly who they say they are.
  • Everyone but my current employer is fine: their employer doesn’t know they’re looking. If they’ve given you a good reason why, that’s fine.
  • No: unless they can give a really good reason why not (and I can’t think of any), big red flag.

 Caveat: Criminal background checks can be risky. You may seek information if, and only if, the offense is directly relevant to the position. If you are hiring a cash handler, a conviction (not arrest – conviction) for theft may be relevant. If you’re hiring a graphic artist whose access is limited to office supplies, that conviction is not germane. Check local and national statutes of what’s appropriate.

10. Do you have any questions about the job or the company?

This is your last chance for enlightenment.

What their answers mean:

  • Smart questions based on the interview/job/company: attentive
  • When they can start: eager
  • How many days off they’ll get per year, what the pay is, when does the health insurance kick in: major red flags. While everyone needs this information, you’re way too early in the process to start this line of inquiry.
  • What do you like about working here: This is an opportunity to sell your firm. Let them know the company is supportive, diverse, open to creative ideas, etc. – not that your manager is okay with your being late most days of the week.

When interviewing candidates, remember that you’re not only not interested in their personal life, you studiously avoid discussing it. Focus on their work skills and experience and your company’s needs. These top interview questions will help you gain valuable insight into your potential new hire.


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