Bad hiring decisions can cost a company big money, so it pays to fine-tune your interviewing techniques. Many smart managers are developing their own idiosyncratic interview questions tailored specifically to their organization's culture. For example, Jim Sheward, CEO of Fiberlink, a Blue Bell, Pa., Internet consulting company with annual revenues of $10 million, places a lot of stock in his staff's integrity. So his favorite question to ask interviewees is, "What's the biggest career mistake you've made so far?" Sheward looks for reflective candidates who have learned from their errors. "I've found that those who can't think of anything either don't take risks or aren't telling me the truth," he says.

Of course, some questions are just plain practical. Tired of making offers to folks who had already accepted other offers, Eric Schechter, CEO of Great American Events, an event-marketing and merchandising company in Scottsdale, Ariz. that projects 1999 revenues of $3.5 million, asks the following: "Who else are you interviewing with, and how close are you to accepting an offer?"

Here's a sampling of what other small-company owners and managers ask job candidates -- and why.

  • John Discerni, CEO, Physicians Formulary International, a wholesale pharmaceutical company in Phoenix with 1998 revenues of $18 million.
    What he asks: "What's the last book you've read?"
    Why: Discerni says that it's not what they read so much as the amount of time it takes for them to answer the question: If they have to think a long time, they probably aren't that well read.
  • Tony Petrucciani, CEO, Single Source Systems, a systems integration company in Fishers, Ind., with 1998 revenues of $6.5 million.
    What he asks: "Why do they make manhole covers round?"
    Why: "We ask this of potential developers to see if they get flustered, and how they think on their feet," says Petrucciani. (The answer: Because covers of any other simple geometric shape could fall through.)
  • Robert Baden, CEO and president, Rochester Software Associates, a software developer in Rochester, N.Y., with 1998 revenues of $5 million.
    What he asks: "If I stood you next to a skyscraper and gave you a barometer, how could you figure out how tall the building was?"
    Why: The answer: Well, there really isn't one. Baden just wants to see how creative people are. According to company lore, one interviewee responded that he'd find the building's janitor and then offer the janitor the barometer in exchange for information about the building's height.
  • Doug Chapiewsky, CEO and president, CenterPoint Solutions, a software developer in Denver with 1998 revenues of $2.5 million.
    What he asks: "If you had your own company, what would it do?"
    Why: "I want to see if they've got that certain entrepreneurial spirit it takes to succeed in a small software company," he says.
  • Madonna Flanders, employment manager, Community Health and Counseling Services, a mental health and home health services company with more than 1,000 employees, based in Bangor, Maine.
    What she asks: "If I asked your previous coworkers for key words to describe you, what would they say? Then if I leaned close and whispered, 'Now tell me what I'd better watch out for,' what would they say?"
    Why: To find out how in touch candidates are with their strengths and weaknesses. "I also get information that I can check with references when I call," says Flanders.