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Interview Questions That Really Work

Google recently learned that overly clever questions in job interviews don't tell you much about applicants. So what does? Try a few of these ideas.
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Google recently made headlines--but not for the usual reasons. In case you missed it: The company is giving up on asking job interviewees infamously difficult brain teasers. The decision is something that any entrepreneur should pay attention to, because it's based on principles that should govern any recruitment process.

High tech companies have long had the reputation for trying to trip the unwary during interviews. Some of the questions used at Google, aside from the purely technical ones, could have made your eyes cross:

  • How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?
  • How many piano tuners are there in the entire world?
  • Why are manhole covers round?

They're clever, no? So why did Google drop them? Because, as Google senior vice president of people operations Laszlo Bock said, "They don't predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart."

There was another major problem that Bock didn't mention in his interview with the New York Times. A number of websites had begun collecting the questions and providing answers.

Hiring processes at companies are full of myth and supposition. Of all the activities in a business, hiring is likely one of the least frequently performed, unless a company is going through a period of rapid growth or has high turnover. In the former case, the company is suddenly in the throes of hiring without having had the time to learn how to do it well. In the latter case, the company is either hiring the wrong people or has a dysfunctional atmosphere that drives people away, in which case hiring is unlikely to be sound.

Try Twists, Not Teasers

As with any part of business, interviewing potential employees needs to support particular goals. Trying to sound smart, as happened in Google, or following such "standard" fare as asking candidates where they want to be in five years, serves up answers that candidates can prepare for.

Instead, consider some twists on interview questions that might help. Chris Smith and Chris Stephenson, co-founders of the management-consulting firm ARRYVE, suggest some alternatives on the Harvard Business Review blog network.

Rather than asking where people want to be in five years, ask them where they don't want to be, because they are unlikely to have a canned answer prepared. A combination of the standard "How would you rate your performance at your last job?" followed by "How will your manager rate you when we call?" also throws people out of a comfort zone. Don't ask what someone's weakness are; instead, ask why you shouldn't hire them.

The post is worth reading for more ideas. You can mix up the types of questions, let someone answer at length and then interrupt, alternate a joke with a probing question. The more that you can upend a planned presentation, the more likely you will have an insight into someone's character and see something that will help you make a smart decision.

Last updated: Jun 27, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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