The Key Question in a Job Interview

Job Interview Hiring the right person for a given job can be a bit of a craps shoot for many business owners — and for some HR managers as well. It seems obvious that the most important things you want to answer are whether they can do the job and whether they fit into your team. But those are not paramount.

Guessing again? Integrity, intelligence, suitability to your “fast-paced environment”, expertise, ambition, work ethic… all are plausible guesses about what the most important factor might be in a potential hire. And certainly, most of these are important factors, but none of them are critical for the interview. I’m assuming, of course, that you aren’t going to make people fill out some inane aptitude test or issue some irrelevant quiz about what kind of tree they’d most like to be.

Think about it: the resume should tell you whether or not they can handle the job, and give you an indication about their personality and how well they’ve applied themself in the past. To these points, the interview may have only a few clarifying questions. The real question I think you want to answer is one that hits most applicants from left field, and seems to be most effective when it isn’t asked directly.

Your task as the interviewer is to find out what each applicant is most likely to do when left to their own devices. For a lower-level job, you need to know the person can stay on-task and show some initiative to get onto the next appropriate task when the first assigned one is completed. For higher-level jobs, the question is more critical, because key people can help shape and direct the company — or misdirect it and take you off-course as you quash some internal struggle.

In a prior business, we devised a few different questions to help ferret out the answer, from discussing interests and trade publications or career goals to what we called “the dream job question.” In the dream job question, we would as informally as possible have the applicant describe their dream job or position. Any answer that resembled the job posting too closely was considered void… the exercise necessarily had to push beyond the current situation and into the career in which they saw themselves, perhaps a few years down the road. If the direction they wanted their career to go was a close enough fit for the company, then they were in contention for the job. If it was too far off, the person wouldn’t be a good hire… eventually they’d want to pull in a different direction, or would end up looking for another job that was a better fit for them.

People in any job that allows them some freedom and flexibility will inevitably trend toward doing what they want to do, regardless of what their actual duties are. Figure out what they actually want to do, and you’ll know if they’re a good fit. And sometimes this requires figuring out the answer before they even know what the answer is.