The Most Surprising and Most Telling Interview Question You Should Always Ask

Businessman taking oath

Every experienced interviewer knows not to “lead the witness” with questions such as, “Did you improve your work habits after being so disorganized in that job?” or “After learning that you confused people with rapid change, did you slow down and communicate with more people after that?” Any interviewee can sense that the interviewer is softy, “hoping” to make the candidate feel better with the softball question. So, the candidate is thinking, “Sure, dude, I’ll make you feel good by saying YES, I sure did fix that weaker point, even if in reality I continue to show that weakness.” The result of leading the witness with positively worded questions is frequently a costly mis-hire in terms of money wasted and your time wasted.

So here is the exception and this is important: When you are in doubt as to whether the candidate has fixed a weakness, toward the end of the interview “LEAD THE WITNESS” WITH A NEGATIVELY WORDED QUESTION. For example:

“C’mon Pat, you can admit it, you’re still an afternoon person, right? I should understand that if you come to work for me, I should not expect you to be on your A-game in the morning, right?”

“Pat, as you’ve described successes and mistakes in your current job, it seems that you are still the ball of fire you’ve always been, but still a bit of a hip shooter who at times should slow down, get more opinions, and consider more options, right?”

“You have said how much you want to please managers but you’ve taken on so much that some projects missed deadlines and budgets. Your wanting to please bosses is a plus but can me a minus too, and I’m guessing you’ve continued to take on too much in your current job, right?”

There are two reasons to do this:

  1.  Your conclusion that a shortcoming still exists is verified — BY THE CANDIDATE!
  2.  Your conclusion is wrong … so asking the question is fair to the candidate. Instead of MAYBE arriving at a wrong conclusion, you give the candidate a chance to correct your mistaken opinion. For example, “No, Brad, I’m not a hip shooter any more. When you talk to my manager you’ll hear that I really do talk to more people, consider more opinions, and anticipate outcomes very well…but my decisions are still pretty quick because I just work longer hours.”

I’ve personally submitted to clients 6,500 reports on my assessments of candidates.  Let me tell you, clients always want to REALLY, REALLY understand the negatives in a candidate, and nothing is more convincing and credible than when I share notes in which the CANDIDATE admitted NOT having overcome weaker points.

Years ago I was profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in an article in which I recommended that a major brokerage firm hire someone who had been dishonest. The negatively worded question helped contribute to a huge success for the manager and for the company…after he had been rejected and rejected and rejected by companies. He convinced me he had done a rare “integrity transplant”, insisted that my client talk with EVERY boss since he’d been fired, and said every one of them would rate him 10 (on a 10-point scale) in integrity. Toward the end of the interview I used the technique: “Joe (fictitious name), clearly you became a much more honest person, but I suspect at times you’ve inched into the grey area, right?” Joes: “No, never!” He exclaimed. “In my industry there is black, white, and grey, but in the past 10 years I’ve been 100% in the white!” I recommended him, his bosses did confirm that he had been 100% honest, and he rose to Chairman and CEO. After he left a CEO led the company into grey/black and the company was fined billions.

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