Most employers are approaching job interviews all wrong, says business consultant Anthony Tjan. To identify the candidates who have substance and not just smarts, here are better questions to ask.
While the number of questions that can be asked on a job interview are infinite, almost all of them fall into one of two categories: questions about competency or questions about character. Competency questions are aimed at establishing a person’s skills, abilities and qualifications; character questions are intended to illuminate their intrinsic values and personality. Even though both types of questions are important, “we’re biased to the competency side,” says Anthony Tjan, a business consultant and CEO of the Cue Ball Group, a Boston-based venture capital firm. “And we’re neglecting important attributes like truth, compassion and wisdom.”
“What are your greatest weaknesses?” is a commonly asked character question, but it’s a bust. The interviewer often feels obliged to ask because the answer, if honest, could be valuable. But in reality, the usual responses — “I’m too detail-oriented,” “I work too hard” and “I care too much” — are rehearsed, predictable and disingenuous. And while candidates are aware that they’re not being helpful or truthful when they make such statements, they’re also afraid to reveal their true flaws.
Companies need to figure out ways to evaluate the character of potential hires. Tjan, who is also the author of the book Good People: The Only Leadership Decision That Really Matters, believes screening for traits like integrity, humility, gratitude and self-awareness are the key to job satisfaction and success. “No elements matter more than people and values for long-term competitive advantage,” he explains. “And they’re critical towards developing the purpose and meaning behind any organization.” So employers should strive to ask questions that can’t be answered with generalities or cliches.
Character question no. 1: “What are the one or two traits from your parents that you most want to ensure you and your kids have for the rest of your life?” The goal is to create a conversation that leads to a revelation, not a rehearsal, says Tjan. This question calls for a bit more thought on the applicant’s end and sheds light on the things they most value. After hearing the person’s initial response, Tjan says you should immediately follow up with “Can you tell me more?” This is essential if you want to elicit an answer with real depth and substance. And while you may be tempted to fill in a person’s silences, “be comfortable with a pregnant pause,” says Tjan. “Being patient and allowing them to share tends to lead to better answers.”
Character question no. 2: “What is 25 times 25?” Tjan wants to see how people react under real-time pressure, and their response can show you how they’ll approach challenging or awkward situations. Do they get defensive, ashamed or even angry? Or are they open-minded and willing to work at the problem? And if a candidate gives up or blurts out the wrong answer, Tjan likes to ask them to approach the question from a different angle: “Imagine instead that you have 25 quarters in your pocket — how much does that add up to?” This isn’t about checking whether someone’s good at mental math, he explains. “It’s about whether they can roll with the embarrassment and discomfort and work with me. When a person is in a job, they’re not always going to be in situations that are in their alley.”
Character question no. 3: “Tell me about three people whose lives you positively changed. What would they say if I called them tomorrow?” Checking references is generally a waste of time, asserts Tjan. Of course, they’ll have been selected and primed to brag about a candidate. Instead, he thinks it’s more informative to find out about the people whom an applicant has personally helped. It doesn’t have to be a coworker; it could be a relative, classmate, neighbor or friend. Organizations need employees who can lift each other up. “And if a candidate can’t think of a single person, I want to understand why,” Tjan says. He credits much of his success to relationships — both as mentor and as mentee — that he’s had in his life. When a person is naturally inclined toward compassionate mentorship, it can have a domino effect in an institution. “I’ve learned that it’s those types of people that cause organizations to be different,” he adds.
Character question no. 4: After an interview, ask yourself (and other team members, if relevant) “Can I imagine taking this person home with me for the holidays?” This may seem overly personal, but “you are trying to develop a relationship with them,” says Tjan. And even though you haven’t spent that much time with the person, you’ll usually have a gut reaction to this question. “When I ask this of colleagues, I get much more visceral yes/no responses than when I go through a competency checklist,” he says.
Character question no. 5: After an interview, ask security or the receptionist: “How was the candidate’s interaction with you?” Be conscious of how people treat strangers — it speaks to whether they act with compassion and openness and view others as equals. Tjan knows about one company where interviewers ask security to delay a candidate for up to 10 minutes to see their reaction. “But I don’t know if I would go that far,” he adds.
Hiring good people goes beyond corporate success. Staffing an organization with people of substance is about more than just improving your retention rate and bottom line, says Tjan. It can have ripple effects as your employees interact in the world, although this impact might be hard to detect and measure. And while the character questions here are intended to be used in job interviews, we’d all benefit from asking: “What role can I play in being a positive influence on others?”