January 24, 2019 4:20 PM   Subscribe

I just found out this morning the person we're hiring soon to do my old job will directly report to me (whee!) and I'm responsible for interviewing three people on Monday. I've never interviewed anyone before. Help me not suck.

The role is one of those good old office admin catchall things. It's the kind of thing almost anyone can do at a base level, but will only be done well by a particular sort of person. We're in a transitional space as a company right now and it needs to be done WELL. I don't have the bandwidth for lots of handholding.

Obviously as the person who has been in the role I'm hiring for I'm in the best position to judge if they're qualified to do those tasks. I'm not too concerned about the technical, can-this-person-meet-our-needs aspect of the interview, but I'm definitely open to advice on how to ask those questions non-boringly.

What I'm really interested to hear is advice on interviewing styles, and questions that will help me gauge a person's personality and capacity for what can't translate on paper.

I thought about it at lunch, and I'm considering asking a question like: "You're organizing a picnic this Saturday at the park. Walk me through your planning steps."

My hope is that a question like this will let me see how proactive the person is about anticipating needs and if they're comfortable taking the initiative or if they need lots of guidance and reassurance. Is this question totally lame? Is there a better way to ask this?

What I definitely don't want to do is be that asshole who asks stupid gotcha questions that make candidates uncomfortable or put them on their guard. I also don't want to ask boring crap questions that they'd regurgitate a planned answer for.

posted by phunniemee to Work & Money (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Concentrate on behavioral based interview questions, rather than hypothetical. So instead of “what would you do in x situation?” go for “your resume/cover letter/last question/whatever talked about x project. Walk me through the planning steps you used to do it.” (Just google behavioral interview for more info.

And make sure you know what’s legal to ask/talk about! It’s really easy to veer into illegal territory, even when you think you’re just being friendly.

And skip any question that doesn’t test a skill. What kind of car they would be or tree is their fav tells you nothing about if they can do the job.
posted by greermahoney at 4:32 PM on January 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Whoops. Hit post too soon. Questions about how they handled difficult situations will give you ideas about their personality. Concentrate questions on how they worked with their last team, what types of projects they did together. Look for a good working relationship they’ve had in the past. That’s the best predictor of how they’ll work with you in the future.
posted by greermahoney at 4:39 PM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

“Tell me about a time when [desirable skill, quality, or process]” gets you a better response than a hypothetical (where everything would go perfectly.)
posted by kapers at 4:42 PM on January 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Your proposed question sounds great. When I design interview questions I generally think:

What skills or attributes does someone need to do this job?

What questions can I ask that will assess whether they have these skills or attributes?

It sounds like you are already thinking about things this way.

You should also think about time management: how long you will have with the candidate, and if there are other skills they need that will not be assessed by asking that particular question. I don't think you'd be able to fill an hour long interview slot with questions about picnic planning (unless your hypothetical work picnic turns into like a 5,000-person extravaganza). You may want to prepare some follow-up questions (like, if you want to see if they can handle change/emergencies, you could ask something like "the day of the picnic there is a freak thunderstorm, what do you do?") as well, as well as additional unrelated questions. Hinting is ok, but don't overly steer. Give them a legitimate chance to think before jumping in with hints. That said, you may need to steer a little with a big open ended question -- they might dive into an aspect of it you don't expect, coming up with party games or whatever, and if what you really want to hear about instead is how they'd figure out what people want out of the picnic, you might need to nudge them that way. ("OK, but before you figure out where to buy the food, what steps would you need to complete first?")

Not asking a "boring" question is not important -- entertaining the candidate is not an important goal of the interview process -- but what is important is that the question actually assess a skill. It sounds like when you are saying that you want to avoid "boring" questions, you really mean you don't want to ask a *generic* question. That is a great goal. Specific, concrete questions almost always tell you more about the candidate than a generic question.

Other tips:
If you can, take notes on a laptop during the interview, especially if you are not the person with the end hire / no hire authority. Having a clear indication of what happened is really important in convincing people that your recommendation is right.

Not clear whether multiple people will be interviewing this candidate or if it's just you, but if it's multiple people, make sure you co-ordinate so you don't all end up asking the same question.
posted by phoenixy at 4:50 PM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, behavioral questions have always been more useful to me than hypotheticals. Interviewing is hard, especially on short notice. Here are a few question types I've used in the past:

1. Intro to you, the role they're interviewing for, the organization in general followed by something like "So, tell me about your qualifications and your interest in this role."

2. Explain how you would establish work priorities and communicate those to clients/supervisors amidst conflicting deadlines and a high volume of competing demands.

3. How do you deal with difficult situations and interpersonal interactions. If a conflict comes up, what are your steps to resolving it?

4. What's your ideal work style and what do you look for in a manager?

Those are general framework questions - I'd suggest using examples related to the role itself wherever possible, and try to make it a personable conversation rather than just a Q&A. When I'm interviewing candidates I'm always listening for their thought process and problem-solving approach, rather than specific job knowledge (which will need to be trained in most cases).

Good luck - interviews are always awkward for all parties, but I think you'll find that there will be an obvious front-runner after you have a chance to interact with some candidates.
posted by owls at 4:52 PM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

To me, asking someone at a job interview to walk you through how they’d plan a picnic IS kind of a gotcha question, since it is naturally going to throw them off a little and make them think about stuff they definitely didn’t prepare for. There’s no prize for coming up with creative or unusual questions and almost no one enjoys trying to answer them.

I recently had to interview people for a similar admin-heavy entry-levelish role, and for that kind of gig I think it’s really valuable to just ask them to articulate why they are interested in the position. Remember that you are setting the tone for this interaction and if you want, you’re totally capable of setting them at ease. To me, a good, productive interview feels like you’re having a nice conversation. My parting advice is that interviews are surprisingly exhausting and it’s easy to burn out, it’s better for everyone if you space them out and avoid scheduling back to back.
posted by cakelite at 5:01 PM on January 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I realise this is counter to mainstream job interview thinking and I don't work in HR. BUT I would be and have been excellent in the role you describe. I'm also, despite not insignificant effort on my part, pretty terrible at behaviour-based interview questions. someone who is good at them has devised (even if they're true there is a certain amount of creativity involved) and memorised 6-8 situations that display aspects of things the hirer is likely to ask about (comms skills, handling difficult people, initiative, etc.) and can explain those in a conversational and engaging way, giving themselves credit for all the good things that happened. this is not necessarily one of the skills that you're looking for. I do get jobs from interviews if they include at least one or two questions like this one I got when interviewing for office manager at a radio station: "what would you do if you're handling a large amount of cash and someone comes and tells you there is an urgent problem with the broadcasting equipment?" everything about my response to that question - how quickly I answer, how comfortably I answer, whether I assess the most important elements of the situation correctly, whether I respond to those elements in a manner appropriate to your workplace - will tell you whether I am able to think on my feet and a good fit for your organisation and the role.
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 5:02 PM on January 24, 2019 [10 favorites]

I would certainly talk to the people in my work who had experience in this area and ask them for guidance. I would especially make sure that I ran my questions by HR first, maybe did an entire mock interview with the HR person as the subject, if they can spare the time. You want to make sure that the questions you're asking are fair and legal, and that's not always intuitively an obvious thing.

You don't say if you are going to be the only person conducting the interview? At most jobs I've interviewed for there were at least two interviewers in the room with me—generally the person who would be my direct supervisor, plus their direct supervisor or an HR person. I think you'd be on firm ground in saying that you'd feel most comfortable if you had some support from someone at the company who was experienced at conducting interviews.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:42 PM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

The problem with your picnic question is that some research has found that people sometimes use very different thought processes about home vs work situations. You could ask about an office picnic though!
posted by slidell at 5:43 PM on January 24, 2019

Best answer: Counterintuitive suggestion: don't interview them. Instead, allow them to interview you. The last question in an interview, traditionally, is "what questions do you have for me?" Try asking that question first. In most positions, but especially ones like this with ever-changing responsibilities, the most helpful characteristics are natural curiosity, a willingness to ask for help, and the ability to act on advice you've received. Letting them ask you questions will help determine if the candidate possesses those characteristics. There are three possibilities: 1. They ask you really insightful questions that prove they've researched the company and the position, and give the impression of competence. (This is the preferred outcome.) 2. They have trouble thinking of questions, which reflects badly on their preparedness, but they ask for help, and when you provide a little point of entry, they catch on and drill deeper. (This is still a pretty good thing, especially if none of the candidates fall in group 1.) 3. They can't think of anything to ask, so they stumble around like an idiot, thereby proving they are not qualified. IMO, this gives more clarity than any question you could ask them.

I also like asking "boring" questions for a similar reason. Everyone should expect to be asked what they liked about their last job and what their biggest weakness is. If they don't have a rehearsed, coherent answer, it's a sign of under-preparation.

In terms of fit and personality, asking what they liked and disliked about previous jobs should give you an idea of what kind of environment they prefer, which you can then compare to your own company's environment.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:47 PM on January 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You are also in a good position to help a candidate figure out if the job doesn't appeal to them. This avoids the situation where the candidate gets hired because they're well-qualified, but they leave within a year because the job involves some major downsides that weren't clear when they were hired.

So, if there's someone who's difficult to work with that they'll have to work with, center your "how would you deal with...?" questions on that person's quirks. If there's a need to improvise in stressful situations without access to a higher-up's approval right away, or there could be late-notice extended hours, whatever it may be (as long as you're not stepping out of bounds per the job description and HR requirements), it's important to communicate not only the glowing version of what the job involves, but also a realistic idea of what the worst days on that job might be like. You may see a huge difference between candidates who say with fear in their eyes, "I would do the best I could and just try to stay strong," compared to candidates who appreciate your honesty and display real confidence: "well, yes, some days are like that, but I've handled worse."
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 7:03 PM on January 24, 2019

Preparing answers to behavior based interview questions is an excellent example of anticipating needs proactively. I'm not sure why you're shrugging them off. Having experience handling other office problems is a really good predictor of ability to do so in the future. I would find it unprofessional if an interviewer asked me how I'd plan a picnic unless event planning were a big part of the job. (I was an administrative assistant and have helped hire administrative assistants.)

Is there HR you can talk to? Who picked these three people and how? I'm a little concerned you're being thrown in the deep end here. Ask A Manager has good advice on interviewing if you don't have other guidance available.
posted by momus_window at 8:24 PM on January 24, 2019

Best answer: I have done many different adminny jobs and interviews in the past few years and could probably PM you some questions I've been asked recently or remembered as good, if you're interested.

I think your picnic question is a decent start but a) I would encourage them to take a minute or two to brainstorm on paper, because otherwise they'll feel like they have to start talking within 20 seconds, and no one thinks through a plan that fast; b) I agree that I'd switch it to something like 'how would you plan Super Big Company Event'

It's the kind of thing almost anyone can do at a base level, but will only be done well by a particular sort of person.

If you haven't already, it might help to detail this more thoroughly - what kind of person? What adjectives, skills, traits do they have? How would you want them to respond to the most crappy, stressful situations you had to do on the job? What kind of "tell me about a time when you ____" would get at the details you just listed?

My hope is that a question like this will let me see how proactive the person is about anticipating needs and if they're comfortable taking the initiative or if they need lots of guidance and reassurance.

So for a measure like this, I would ask something like "tell me about a project that was much bigger/longer/different than you expected. How did you get through and how did you have to change your approach along the way?"
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:39 PM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Your picnic question would leave me totally flustered in an interview situation, to be honest. You don't want to panic these poor people! But as suggested above, hypotheticals about the job would be great.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:36 PM on January 24, 2019

I usually start by asking them why they want the job. This is a good settler question as any mediocre to better candidate knows why they applied so it should be easy for them to start answering. I’m looking for an answer that makes it clear why they would be a great candidate (do they understand what the job involves, do they bring up relevant skills or experience). At more senior levels I expect them to realise this, but at a junior level I scaffold with things like what would you bring to the job, what are your selling points.

I always go through the list of things I want then to do in the job and use behavioural or sometimes hypothetical question to try to establish whether they can do these things. I also always have a separate test. For roles I interview writing ability is essential and (we have found) easy to claim in an interview without actually being able to do well. So I set a writing test that is job-specific eg for a press officer, draft a press release based on these bullet points.
posted by plonkee at 11:12 PM on January 24, 2019

If you can, take notes on a laptop during the interview, especially if you are not the person with the end hire / no hire authority.

I really strongly disagree with this. Write up your debriefing notes immediately after you conclude the interview; but in the room you need to be engaged with the candidate, not with your laptop screen.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:14 PM on January 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

Just a tip: the biggest error people new to hiring make is to hire the people who are most like them. Be mindful of your own unconscious bias.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:42 AM on January 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here are three questions I've used in the past, to suss out more about how a person might deal with internal issues, plus the usual open-ended follow-up:

- Please describe an instance where you were required to administer a policy that you did not agree with. How did you deal with the situation?

- Please describe a difficult situation with a co-worker that in hindsight you would have dealt with differently. Thinking back, what would you have done differently?

- Please describe why you are interested in this job and why you are the best candidate for this position. Describe any other experience you would like us to consider.

- Hand the interviewee the questions on paper (but get the paper back to reuse and save paper or whatnot), so you can read them and they can read along, then also refer to the questions, which is particularly if there are any multi-part questions.

- Print the questions out for yourself with enough space for you to write notes during the interview. If you're interviewing a bunch of people, or interviewing in a team, you can also make a scoring template or structure (1-5, up/down on each question, or whatever you want to use), to make sure the feedback can be compared apples-to-apples.

- And if you're doing a bunch of interviews, try to stay in the same frame of mind for all of them, because as an interviewee, I've heard it's better to take the last available time, to be the most fresh in the minds of your interviewers.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:27 AM on January 25, 2019

I'd suggest against, "please explain why you are the best candidate for this position," unless the role really demands an ambitious extrovert. The person who can clearly articulate, "why I am awesome" is not necessarily the one who's best at figuring out what other people need, and making sure they have the appropriate resources or help to make that happen.

Asking about "biggest weakness" will tell you exactly one thing: Did they realize this is a common interview question and prepare for it? Admittedly, if they didn't, that's a red flag, but it's not likely you'll actually get useful info about the person's weak spots - instead, you'll get a short description of a "weakness" thats actually a strength for the job in question.

Example: If I were interviewing for a general-office-help role, I'd answer, "I tend to get too caught up in details; previous managers have had to remind me not to include all the options or specific parts numbers when I ask supplies questions; I'm working on coming up with more general descriptions so I don't overwhelm people." At no point would I say, "Oh, I spend a serious amount of time on Metafilter when I'm not in the middle of something."

You might ask, "what's not on your resume that makes you a good fit for this type of job?" Resumes don't have an easy spot for "I'm the one all my friends call when they're trying to organize an event."

Keep in mind that there's a good chance your interviewees are terrified and desperate; they want to tell you whatever gets them the job. Don't hold that, in itself, against them. Don't give extra consideration to the one who seems comfortable and relaxed because she doesn't actually need a job right now; how badly they need a job has no direct connection to how well they'd do at this one.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:01 PM on January 25, 2019

Best answer: I had this same thing happen last year where I felt like my interviewing skills needed some serious brushing up on. I made a template on word and listed all the questions with space for me to make notes under them as we go. I also met with the HR department supervisor to ask for tips. Some of the best questions I have gotten and used were:

Tell me about a time that you disagreed with a coworker. How did you resolve this issue?
(This helped find some attitude or "get along" issues more clearly)

Tell me about the best supervisor you ever had, and tell me about the worst supervisor you ever had.
(This helped me find lazy people the best - or also helped me know what they were looking for in a supervisor.)

Tell me about a time where there was a big change in a prior work place. What was the change and how did you adapt to it?

Everyone had a trigger. What is something I could do that would upset you?

Hope these helped!
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 7:53 AM on January 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

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