The must-ask questions for every potential employee interview

It may be blunt, but you need to ask people what they are good at, what they want, and their selfish reason for wanting to work with you

The best way to work with someone is when you know what motivates them. Too often, companies and HR departments assume that is money. While many studies have debunked that, citing things like time off and flexible work conditions as more important than a salary bump, those features refer to employee engagement and retention. These are fundamentally surface-level things that will keep someone working hard and keep them around long enough to get value from your salary investment.

I prefer to go a bit deeper than surface level motivation. To get there requires a comfort with asking blunt questions on your side and some self-awareness on the candidate’s side. The result, though, can be magical: an intrinsically motivated team that needs guidance, not a carrot, to do their work and do it well.

In my experience interviewing a couple hundred candidates myself and dozens of HR professionals who have decades of experience interviewing thousands of candidates between them, I’ve discovered the three questions that, when asked in the right order and with the right words, help bring to light:

  1. A candidate’s self-awareness
  2. What intrinsically motivates them
  3. Win-win external motivation levers

Question 1: Where does this job fit in your career path?

Asking this question makes a few things really clear. For one, you show awareness that you don’t expect the candidate to stay at your company for the rest of their career. The second thing is that you give the candidate the opportunity to be up-front, honest, and genuine. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about them as a person.

How to ask

This one doesn’t need much sugar coating or changing. The only advice is to say it in the way you say it, “um’s” and “ah’s” included. Speak naturally when you ask this one – otherwise it may seem scripted and the candidate will be less likely to be honest.

When to ask

This can be added at almost any point during the interview, except perhaps not as the first question. It can be fairly raw and personal, depending on the person’s story and journey, so coming out of the gate with this question may put people off (and you won’t get the insight you’re looking for).

Question 2: What are you good at?

It’s a fairly blunt question, especially in the context of a job interview where you’re literally assessing if they would be good for your role and company.

But here’s the difference: this question is about them and about how they see themselves. It’s also very direct and thus difficult to misunderstand.

How to ask

If you’re uncomfortable asking the question so directly or feel you may alienate the candidate, explain the context a bit more. For example:

“Either in the context of this job or more high level in your life and experience, what are you good at? I don’t ask to make you defend yourself, I genuinely want to know something you know you are good at.”

However, the question must remain blunt as that will show you someone’s self-awareness and, to some extent, their self confidence. Asking the question this way all but requires the candidate to stand up for themself. You’ll quickly uncover if they are someone who gets defensive when they perceive they are being questioned. You may also learn something about them that you didn’t know before.

When to ask

Ask this question about half way through the interview or conversation. It’s usually brought up when there’s a conversation about the company as a whole or the more holistic view of the job. That way, you don’t ask it with the implication that they have to respond with job-specific skills.