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4 Questions to Size Up Job Candidates Fast and Cut the B.S.

Want potential hires to show their true selves? Ask them these unusual questions.
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Want to always hire the right people--engaged, productive and loyal folks who will stick around long enough to do good work? It's all about asking the right interview questions, says Patrick Brandt, CEO of Zimbra, an open source collaboration software company that boasts more than 200,000 customers worldwide.

It sounds like simple, obvious advice but the kinds of questions this CEO poses are unconventional and intended to foster a conversation that does away with rehearsed responses. The goal: an honest dialogue about who the person really is so as to ascertain how well his or her values align with company culture.

After a hiring team has determined a candidate has the skills to perform a job well, Brandt himself interviews the person. This is no small commitment considering Zimbra has hired around 70 people in the last five months. Here are the questions he likes to ask.

What was your first job? How old were you? How much did you make? What did you learn from it?

Usually employers want to hear about a candidate's relevant and recent experience but going farther back can be telling.

"You learn a lot about someone's work ethic, maybe the way they grew up [and] lessons they learned," Brandt says. "You get things from 'I was 12 years old and I started a paper route and the reason I did it was because I wanted to buy a guitar' or whatever. So you start to learn a lot about those people's values and background and maybe even their upbringing a little bit."

What book has had the biggest influence on you?

The books people read speak volumes, particularly about how well-rounded they are.

"I've had people say 'I read a lot about the Civil War' and I've had other people say 'I read romance novels every day, all day' and I've had other people say 'I haven't read a book since college when I had to,'" Brandt says, in which case he suggests following up by asking a candidate what he or she does for fun. By doing so he learned a soon-to-be employee was a professional Frisbee player who travels around the world attending throwing competitions.

"I didn't even know that existed," he says.

When was the last time you failed to deliver on a commitment?

With this question Brandt is looking to see that not only can a person empathize with whomever she let down, she readily takes responsibility for doing so.

"If someone says 'never' they're not getting hired because they wouldn't map to our core values," Brandt says. "They're not being honest and transparent because we all do that."

What questions do you have for me?

Brandt says giving people the opportunity to put the CEO on the spot is a good way to make them feel valued.

"One thing that I found fascinating, and it ended up being a very good recruiting tool, is probably 50 percent of the people say 'I just feel so privileged that the CEO took time to do this.' A lot of times it's almost like 'I can't believe the CEO of this company is spending time talking to me and I haven't even joined the company,'" he says. "If building a corporate culture is important to you there's a lot of value in connecting to the employees."

Want more great interview suggestions? My Inc. colleague John Brandon interviewed The New York Times reporter Adam Bryant, who stumbled upon some good interview questions while writing "Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation."

Last updated: Mar 26, 2014




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