Interview Cheat Sheet: 5 Essential Questions You Must Ask Job Candidates

A hiring expert reveals the best questions to ask and the answers you should expect.
Interviewer and interviewee
The right interview questions can help you gage qualities from compatibility to professionalism.(Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

It’s not always easy to identify a great hire, but when you are equipped with the best interview questions, you can distinguish dead weight from top talent and find stars to add to your staff.

Margaret Jacoby, author of “Practical Tools to Manage Costly Employee Turnover,” is an expert at evaluating prospective job candidates for small businesses. She suggests adding these five questions to your interview cheat sheet.

1. What improvements can we make to our products/services to be more competitive?

The best job candidates come to interviews with plenty of background knowledge on the business they wish to work for. They should be ready to prove their familiarity with your products and services. Prospective hires who provide thoughtful advice and demonstrate critical-­thinking skills will likely be worthwhile members of the team. As a bonus, you might also be inspired to implement the candidate’s suggestions.

“This question tells you whether or not the candidate knows much about your company and is truly interested in what you do,” Jacoby said. “While you cannot expect an in-depth answer, you want a little proof that they have researched your company and have taken an interest.”

2. What three things in your current job give you the most satisfaction? Why?

This question allows the hiring manager to assess a candidate’s maturity level, professionalism and compatibility. If “lunch” or job perks, such as product discounts, are the first answers that come to mind, that candidate is probably not in the job market for reasons that will benefit your business.

Good candidates will use this question as an opportunity to demonstrate self-­awareness and personal satisfaction from work­-related tasks, such as providing helpful customer service, developing innovative products or hitting sales goals.

“If the candidate can’t answer this, you have a good indication that they may just be looking to leave their current job and not looking for the next step on the career ladder,” Jacoby said. “By providing an opportunity for the candidate to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction, you get a better look into what makes them tick.”

3. How long do you think it will take you to start contributing to our business?

At surface level, this question appears to be a long­-winded way of asking candidates if they are fast learners. There’s a nuance to this interview question, though. It opens discussion about how the interviewee sees their prospective role in your business.

The candidate should demonstrate both an eagerness to contribute in meaningful ways and a realistic attitude toward learning, training and finding their niche on your team. Look for candidates who back up their responses with real­-world examples from previous positions they’ve held.

“The candidate’s response can demonstrate how much they understand the organization and the job for which they have applied,” Jacoby said. “It can reveal how the person views their own skill set and how much previous experiences can contribute to the new position. It also will give you some insight into their initiative and commitment to become a valuable contributor.”

4. How would your personality fit into our workplace?

“Most applicants will have the required education, skills and experience described in your job application,” Jacoby said.

Therefore, hiring managers should capitalize on the chance to evaluate a candidate’s unique personality during the interview. The goal should be to find someone who complements the company culture.

This question allows candidates to share personality highlights, such as patience, leadership, drive and composure under pressure. If you have a low­-energy team in place, for example, perhaps a naturally enthusiastic, upbeat person might make a valuable addition to the staff. Keep an eye out for candidates with personalities that will bring something fresh to the company culture.

“Look for the candidate that expresses enthusiasm for your organization and demonstrates a willingness and desire to join the team,” Jacoby said.

5. Do you have any questions?

At the end of a long interview, hiring managers might forget to ask the candidate if they have any questions. But how a prospective employee answers this question will reveal their values and why they want the job.

“If the candidate has no questions, this could be a sign that they are not really interested in your position or company,” Jacoby says.

A candidate who asks about compensation, benefits, and time off is only interested in what they can get from your company. It’s unlikely they’ll stick around for the long term or contribute in a meaningful way.

Star candidates will use this opportunity to ask for further clarification on topics already discussed in the interview. Particularly great questions from interviewees relate to job challenges, where the company is headed and potential opportunities for growth. Candidates who show confidence asking questions during the interview will be able to obtain the right information to perform optimally on the job.

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