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A Quick Guide to Effective Interviewing


One common thing we hear from Pool members is that their employees are their greatest assets. Since public entities aren’t bent on making a profit, your success is often measured in efficiency. That means that every member of your staff is even more important than they would be at a for-profit private enterprise. You rely on their intelligence to keep your district efficient. You rely on their expertise to keep your operation innovative. Your rely on their passion to maintain the high level of service you provide your community.

As much as you rely on your staff, they come and go. That makes finding high quality talent and winnowing applicant pools to find the very best all the more important.

In our last article about combating turnover, we talked about finding the right person, and how refining your hiring process can help you to build a stronger team. In this piece, we will go over the types of questions you can ask in a job interview and how some questions can get you into trouble.

Job interviews are important, and perhaps the most important, way to determine if a candidate is qualified for a given position. For good or bad, it is widely known that many people overstate their skills and qualifications on their resume. For example, doing something a couple of times does not make you an expert. But to many job seekers, familiarity can seem to be a justification for exaggerating expertise.

Modern hiring etiquette often adds to this confusion. It can be hard to cut past the formality of email or phone messages to truly determine if a person is a qualified fit for your team. This means some well qualified candidates may not seem their best through these formalities, while some poor fits may shine.

With the numerous competing concerns of personality, professionalism, and qualification floating around, there are numerous types of questions you can ask to help inform your decision.

Competency Questions

With this type of question, the goal is to determine just how much the candidate knows and whether or not the things on their resume are true. Many people “fluff” their resumes, making it difficult to determine whether they actually meet every requirement. Just because, for example, a person has used a certain type of software in the past, it does not mean that they have done the full range of activities with it that you may require.

This will be especially true for highly specific positions such as engineers or technicians. To that end, make sure you are asking for the candidate to describe their competency and to be specific about their accomplishments. It might be a good idea to have someone present during the interview who would know when an answer is a smokescreen. Often times managers and HR professionals aren’t the best judges of that type of answer.

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The candidate should be able to say what they did, how they did it, and why that process was or wasn’t the most effective. If you still can’t tell, you could even try asking them to rate their skills on a numerical scale, allowing them some wiggle room to disclose the limitations of their ability.

When asking these types of questions, be sure to phrase your questions carefully. Use complete, full sentences, and never presume that a candidate knows your usage of industry terminology or similar jargon and acronyms. Give the candidate the benefit of a clear, thoughtful question to which they can give the kind of response you are looking for.

Credential Questions

Credential questions simply seek to vet the stated credentials a candidate walked in with. These often include questions about academic performance (grades, honors, etc.) or other accomplishments. They also include queries regarding how long the candidate was with a previous employer and if appropriate, why that time was so brief. These are very valid questions which could be illustrative of both positive attributes and red flags.

Experience Questions

With these questions, you want to flesh out what exactly the candidate’s experiences entailed either in the professional or academic history they have listed on a job application or resume. For example, this is a good way to determine what exactly they mean by using terms like “supervisor” or “manager.”

If you were hiring someone for a leadership role, you would want to know what exactly they ‘managed’ and what that entailed. How many people did they supervise? Did they write reviews? Did they have the authority to hire or fire? This type of question will be good at identifying hidden skills a candidate may not have thought to mention on his or her own, or to flesh out areas that are exaggerated on their resume.

Behavioral Questions

This common type of question asks the candidate how they handled situations in the past, such as working with difficult people, handling a deadline crunch, or how they might handle those or other scenarios in the future. This will help you gauge how well the candidate may handle some of the more demanding aspects of the position in question, and whether or not their reaction is something that would be successful at your district.

Some of these questions are based on behavior, such as asking a candidate how they would respond to a difficult situation such as a negative interaction with a coworker or being unable to meet a deadline. These questions force the candidate to think on their feet and quickly produce an answer that is professional and polished. When you are assessing their answer, unless they are an internal candidate, be aware that they do not know your district’s particular policies or procedures. Their answer might not be on point for your current practices, but it should represent a sense of professional decorum.

Some employers utilize elaborate tests to help determine good fits on the basis of personality. Tests such as the Birkman Method, a 298-question personality assessment, are designed to determine leadership skills, extroversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, honesty and conflict resolution.

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Another popular tool is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which measures extroversion, intuition, judgement, perception, and thought versus feeling. These sorts of tests have risen and fallen in popularity numerous times, and often these rises coincide with a new algorithm or technology that are seen as particularly insightful, at least for a time.

Puzzle Questions

These types of questions have surged in popularity in recent years and are famously asked at companies like Google. These include questions such as long division arithmetic problems or trivia topics such as “Why are manholes round?”

While in these cases there actually are right answers, (manholes are round because this is the only shape that would prevent the cover from falling through at any angle), they are asked to see how fast a candidate can calculate the response or think creatively. The value of these questions has been hotly debated for a while, but as the interviewer you can decide their value, and their fairness, for yourself.

Self-Reflection Questions

These questions are the ones many candidates will dread the most. They involve asking the candidate for internal honesty by asking them to assess their own skills and accomplishments. A few common examples include:

  • What was your greatest accomplishment at your previous job?
  • If you could do one thing differently at your last job, what would that be?
  • What is your biggest weakness when it comes to qualification for this position?
  • Tell me about a time you made a terrible mistake at work (or school) and how you handled the aftermath?

In the last example, think about how the candidate answers. You’d be looking for someone who insists on accepting ownership of his or her mistakes and is prepared to learn from it and move forward, without excuses.

Personality Questions

Some interviewers choose to ask random, sometimes silly, questions in order to see how the candidate responds to an unexpected situation. These often include things such as “What type of animal do you most associate yourself with?” or “What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?” These questions almost certainly have no bearing on the position, but they do force the candidate to think quickly and to change modes on a dime. Lastly, they may also provide a bit of levity to lighten the mood and help an otherwise nervous candidate relax.

Extracurricular Questions

Many interviewers choose to ask questions about hobbies, favorite books, or other non-career topics for a variety of reasons. In some cases, if you were hiring for a creative role, you might want to know what kinds of things they are passionate about. For more technical roles, you might be interested in what sort of publications they read.

You might also simply be curious about the person sitting in front of you and want to know more about them. Regardless of your motive, be sure not to allow their response bias you if they share something that provides collateral information. For example, if you asked a person which was the last book they read and they answer that they dutifully read The Holy Qur’an every night. It is not difficult to imagine how that information might bias or seem to bias a process.

“Illegal” Questions

In the last example, a casual question got a pretty loaded response. This is much more common than you might anticipate. If you asked a candidate about their hobbies, what if they chose to share that they go to a specific church or volunteer for a specific political party? Asking that question isn’t illegal, but you could do illegal things with the answer by allowing it to bias you for or against that candidate.

There are numerous laws that seek to prevent potential employers from using bias—either implicitly or explicitly—in their hiring decisions. These laws seek to protect people on the basis of protected class. Since these are federal laws, only very small districts are exempt from them, and even then that doesn’t mean an accusation cannot be made. The accusation alone can be very damaging to both the district and the manager’s reputation, so it is best to avoid the situation entirely. These can make a lot of potential questions you can ask in a job interview dangerous beyond those open-ended ones about hobbies.

These limitations do not apply simply to the job interview, but rather to the entire pre-employment process, including the application, job posting, and other interactions leading up to the first day of work.

Sometimes there are questions that seek information and seem okay to ask about, such as a candidate’s availability, but can be asked in a precarious way. For example, it’s ill-advised to ask if a person has children or plans to have children.

Asking that in and of itself isn’t illegal, but by asking this, you are exposing yourself to claims of hiring discrimination. It would be better, in this instance, to ask if the candidate can commit to whatever hours or workloads the position requires. That’s the only thing that is truly pertinent to that question. If the candidate volunteers information about their family, that’s fine, but be careful not to let it color your reaction or your decisions.

In a similar example, you might want to ask if a candidate is legally authorized to work in the United States and might want to ask if he or she is a US citizen, or ask what country he or she were born in. This brings up bias that could be applied to the person’s nationality or ethnicity. To sidestep this, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests adding this wording to your job application:“In compliance with federal law, all persons hired will be required to verify identity and eligibility to work in the United States and to complete the required employment eligibility verification form upon hire.”

This lets the candidates know that regardless of their citizenship status, they must be able to produce documents that prove they can legally work in the United States. For certain foreigners, that means a work visa and other information. For citizens, that means documents will be recorded on the I-9 form such as a Social Security Card or a driver’s license. Even then, acquiring those documents is only done after the person is hired.

In truth, the only truly and fully ‘illegal’ interview questions have to do with disabilities, but there are caveats to that. It’s okay to ask about physical, language, or skill requirements as long as they relate directly to the job. Once again as with other questions, like those about children or race, it isn’t the question that’s bad, it’s what you do with the answer that could expose you to liability.
Some of the laws that govern discrimination, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, only apply to employers with more than fifteen employees. Even if some of those laws do not apply to you, that doesn’t mean you want the bad publicity or trouble of a discrimination claim simply because a manager phrased a question poorly.

For more information about interview questions or for guidance, contact us about HR consultations or to access the CSD Pool’s HR Helpline. Additionally, our online Training Centers have several interviewing courses available that can help from both a legal and a recruiting perspective.

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