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Job interviewing 101 -- 6 essential questions to ask every candidate

December 5, 2011

by Amy Levin Epstein

Interviewing for a job can be tough. Especially in a tight economy, the experience might fall somewhere on the stress scale nestled between a root canal and an IRS audit. However, being on the other side and conducting interviews isn't easy. Choosing the right person is a great investment not only for your company but for your own career. On the other hand, hiring a lemon will make your CEO think that you might also be one.

You have a short amount of time to gather important information from this person, so you want to make each question count. Here are six to ask every single candidate you interview:

What's important for you in a job?

Much of a job interview is about you vetting the candidate -- they've already shown their interest in you by applying for the position. But the interview is an opportunity for them to determine if the company is a good cultural fit for them, says Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of Client Services at Keystone Associates, a career consulting firm. "For instance 'Do you want to work for an organization that gives back to the community, one that allows flexibility in your work schedule or being able to voice your opinion without fear of retribution,'" notes Mattson. If your organization fits well with their values, the candidate may be more successful there than others.

How do you handle working with a difficult colleague?

Asking about tough but common work situations -- when someone takes credit for your ideas, for instance -- is crucial, says human resources executive consultant Sandra Matthiessen. It's fine to discuss successes, but talking about stress situations that happen in any office (including yours) can be more revealing. How will this person roll with the punches?

How will you add value within 30-60-90 days?

Be specific about how they will make your team or company better. A great prospect will have researched your company and determined how they can use their existing skills to improve your organization in a concrete way. "With so much competition in the job market, I am surprised more interviewers are not asking [this question]," says Mattson.

Tell me about your last great idea...

If the position you're filling requires creativity, you need to know how they've demonstrated that skill, preferably without having their hand held. "This question allows the candidate to sell themselves and their ideas. It also shows what kind of drive or ambition they had in previous positions and helps you get a sense of their problem-solving skills on the job," says Heather R. Huhman, founder and president of Come Recommended and author of Lies, Damned Lies & Internships.

If you were put into a compromising situation at work, where would you turn?

You don't have to be Herman Cain to know that allegations of harassment can derail a career (not to mention a campaign). "In asking this question, I'm looking to see that the candidate can address these kinds of dilemmas and find the appropriate support and guidance to solve them," says Ken Martin, GM and senior partner at the staffing firm Winter, Wyman.

Tell me about your last mistake...

Nobody is perfect -- and this employee isn't. We all make mistakes at work, but how we handle them can mean the difference between a bad day and a bad year. "This can be a great indicator of how they'll react in real situations and whether or not they're a good fit for the open position. For instance, if their answer shows that they make mistakes when they're under the gun, they likely won't work best in a deadline-driven environment," says Huhman.

Start with these six insightful questions and you'll be that much closer to knowing if this candidate will work for you and your organization.