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The two big questions at a job interview

Posted by Paul Hellman  February 18, 2011 11:00 AM

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You greet the job applicant in the lobby: "Did you have any trouble finding us?" you ask.

You're the interviewer, and you've got two questions - this isn't one of them. This is a filler.

Filler questions break the ice.

But we also use them when we're desperate. Sometimes with a problem - any problem - we don't know what we need to learn, or, if we do know, we're unsure how to learn it.

Consider the problem of hiring the right person:

1) What do you need to learn about the applicant? That depends on what's required to do this particular job and fit into this particular organization.

2) How will you learn it? What are the best questions?

"Tell me about yourself," you ask the applicant.

That's a classic opener: you start broad (without telegraphing your intent), then later you drill down.

What's underneath your opener - and many other questions - is one of your two Big Questions: "Why should we hire you?"

The applicant, if skilled, will ask questions to figure out what you're looking for. Then he will answer your big question.

Applicant: "Well, I could talk about my marketing background, my leadership experience, or my last triathlon. Where should I start?"

Here, the he has asked a smart counter-question. He gives you some options, plus some fast, bulleted info.

You: "Let's talk marketing. Any experience with social media?"

Is social media experience a must-have? What, exactly, are you looking for? Why?

Applicant: "Yes! To launch our new office machine - a combo fax, copier, and microwave oven - we made a series of You Tube videos called 'Indestructible.'"

So far, the applicant is doing OK. Unfortunately, he's about to get worse.

You: "Suppose your boss were sitting here. What kind of constructive feedback might she give you?"

Here's the other Big Question you're fishing for: "Why shouldn't we hire you?"

Applicant: "Well, she'd say I'm too aggressive."

You: "In what way?"

When someone uses abstractions, like "aggressive," don't pretend you understand. Ask for specific examples.

Applicant: "For the You Tube campaign, 'Indestructible,' my concept was to first spill coffee on the machine, then drop it on the floor, then hurl it out a window, and then take a sledgehammer and try to bludgeon the thing to death . . ."

You: "OK. We'll get back to you."

Tip: Whether you're meeting a client, coaching an employee, or interviewing a job applicant, figure out what you really need to learn - and then, how to ask.

Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Meet the Jobs Docs

Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.

Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.

Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.

Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.

Tracy Cashman is Senior Vice President and Partner of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.

Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.

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