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Three Tough Questions to Ask When You’re Unsure about a Candidate
11th Sep 2015

So, you’re three quarters of the way through a long interview, and something’s not quite right. The candidate stacks up on paper, but there’s a niggling sense that they’re not being authentic in some way.
Maybe they’re putting on a façade for the interview (who doesn’t?) Maybe they’re hiding something. Maybe they’re acting tough but don’t feel they’re actually deserving of the job. 
Or maybe it’s just nerves.
Before you hire this person, you want to get a real sense of the person, and your gut feeling is telling you there’s more to know before you make a decision either way.
Sometimes, the way to jolt someone into an unrehearsed answer is to throw them a ‘curly’ question. There are some fairly harsh versions of these out there, and I don’t at all advocate making the candidate feel small, but sometimes you need a surprising question to make candidates veer ‘off script’ and into more natural and ‘real’ territory.
1. Let’s start with the biggie. Face it, you want to know, and you need to know, the honest answer as to why they left their last job. All the HR advice in the world will have drilled into them ‘don’t speak badly of your last employer’, so if things ended badly then they’re going to be giving you an extremely tightly rehearsed patter with little to no meaning whatsoever. A bland, safe answer like ‘I felt it was time to move on and find a new challenge’ will teach you absolutely nothing of what you need to know.
Even more importantly, if things did end badly they are going to be so nervous about you digging deeper that they’re not going to relax during the whole interview. So ask- and ask fairly early in the interview so you can move forward.

Question: I’d really like to know, in brief, what happened to make you decide to leave your last job. You can trust it won’t leave this room, it’s just so I have a better idea of what drives you and whether you’ll be a good fit for us.

Sure, if they start hissing pure venom about their last company, definitely steer clear. But if they give a fairly rational account of where the professional relationship changed or unravelled, then you probably have a fairly rational candidate on your hands- particularly if they accord themselves some blame and take some valuable experience from it.  You can learn an enormous amount from this question, and get a real sense of the person’s values and what causes them to lose loyalty.  Of course, some people just do move jobs to find a new challenge- but you don’t need to ask this question if you’re not feeling unsure.
2.  You also need to be sure that they’re after this job because they want this job in particular, and genuinely want to work for your company- and not just any job because it pays the bills. There are ways to go about finding this out and testing their intentions.

Question: There might be another opportunity in another department. I know it’s not your field but I think it’s relevant. Would you also be interested in being put forward for that?

This will expose whether the candidate is passionate about the job they’re applying for. Go gently with this one, as it’s a bit dishonest on your part- and you can’t begrudge people for either wanting a job in the first place or wanting to double the chance they’ll get to work with your company.  It just gives you a bit more information about their motivations. I did say these were tough questions didn’t I?
3.  Some people just seem a bit too ‘smooth’, perhaps a little too confident. While genuine confidence is great, you sometimes get the sense that their bravado is a façade- one that is perhaps covering up a lack of genuine aptitude.  With these people, you can easily allow them’ enough rope to hang themselves’ as the saying goes, with a simple two-part question.
Question Part A: Tell me, in detail, an area that you excel in. 
Question Part B: Given that great experience you just told me about, how would you go about dealing with_______ (a particular tricky issue) in our company?
If the person doesn’t have the experience they say they have, a tricky scenario will trip them up in a way that will be immediately obvious to both of you.
To hire well, you have to be a master of reading people’s emotions, and knowing when someone isn’t being upfront. This isn’t about humiliating candidates, and it is about using some tough questions to check that they are talking the talk or walking the walk.  And then you can hire- or wave goodbye- with the confidence of a good decision made.


Best regards,