Since I had no experience at all as an interviewer when I first started interviewing job candidates (and very little as the person being interviewed), I followed the blueprint provided by my company.
Most of the interview questions I was given were boilerplate. (Okay, all of those interview questions were boilerplate.)
And even in those pre-Internet days, everyone had access to some sort of "how to answer the most commonly asked job interview questions" guide, which meant everyone answered questions in roughly the same way.
Which meant those interviews rarely revealed anything of any value -- and definitely didn't help me determine which candidate was the best candidate. (Which is, of course, the point.)
Here are some of the interview questions smart interviewers never ask, and what they ask instead:
1. "What do you expect in terms of salary?"
Common variations: "What did you earn at your previous job?" "Tell me about your salary history."
Aside from the fact this question is illegal in a number of states and cities, it's problematic in a number of other ways.
For example, some interviewers use this question as a way to determine the salary they will offer. After all, if I was willing to pay $60,000 per year and you only expect $50,000, I "win."
Actually, I don't. Sure, I may get you for $50,000. But you'll eventually find out you took a lowball offer, especially if other employees are paid at or near the top of the scale. No employee wants to feel their pay is unfair compared to employees who hold similar positions: Whose work is similar, expectations are similar, targets and deliverables are similar...
Once they find out - as they eventually always do - that you took advantage of their inexperience, or naivete, or basic need to put food on their family's table- they never forget. (I should know. It happened to me.)
Besides: What a prospective employee earned at a previous job has no real bearing on their value to your company. The roles and responsibilities, while seemingly similar, may be dramatically different. Their pay may not reflect the skills and experience they've developed. Or they may not have realized that their previous employer low-balled them.
What to Ask Instead: Before you even start the interview process, decide what the job should pay. Decide what the job is worth to you and your company. (After all, every employee represents an investment that should generate a sufficient return.)
Then, don't ask what an employee made at a previous job. Say what you will pay - and let the potential employees decide if that number works for them.
2. "Tell me a little about yourself."
Common variations: "Tell me what makes you tick." "What's your story?"
"Tell me about yourself" sounds like an inclusive question since it invites the candidate to share details that don't usually appear on a cover letter or resume.
But it's also a lazy question. Between a resume and a quick scan of Google and social media, you should know a reasonable amount about the candidate--enough to ask more specific questions that provide greater insight than their prepared response to such a boilerplate question can provide.
What to Ask Instead: Want to know what makes people tick? Work your way down their resume and ask what they liked about each job, why they left, and why they chose the next job. You'll get a good sense of their interests, goals, and expectations.
Or ask questions that get to the heart of what drives real value in the job. If you need a product manager who can turn a rough idea into a profitable reality, ask behavioral questions that help you evaluate a candidate's leadership and development skills. If you need a customer support specialist, ask behavioral questions that help you evaluate a candidate's ability to communicate, work through issues, show patience, and solve problems.
In short, don't ask candidates to summarize themselves. Ask questions that allow you to dig deeper into the summary their resumes have already provided.
3. "What is your biggest weakness?"
Common variations: "What skill do you most need to develop?" "What is the one thing you most wish you could change about yourself?"
People aren't stupid, which is why no candidate answers this question honestly. Never - and I do mean never - will a candidate respond with something like, "I get along really poorly with other people."
Instead they turn what seems like a weakness into a strength. Like, "I sometimes pay too much attention to detail. But at least that means I never make mistakes."
What to Ask Instead: Use behavioral questions that let you see how a candidate has worked to overcome a weakness.
For example, you could say, "Tell me about a time you disagreed with a team decision. What did you do? How did that turn out?
Or, "Tell me about a time a customer got really angry with you. What did you do? How did that turn out?"
Or, "Tell me about a time you didn't meet expectations. What did you do? How did that turn out?"
And then ask follow-up questions. What the candidate did is important, but what is also important is whether the candidate took responsibility for a problem, an issue, or a mistake. The best candidates freely admit they could have performed better - and actively work to make sure that the next time, they will perform better.
4. "What do you know about our company?"
Common variations: "What do you know about this industry?" "What do you know about our competition?"
Another lazy question. Unless you're an earliest-stage startup, a quick search allows candidates to pretend they understand your business and industry.
What to Ask Instead: "What will you do in the first three months to make the biggest impact on our results?"
Sound like a tough question? It is. But it also reveals what a candidate really knows about your business: What actions really drive results, what actions really make the company grow, what actions really improve customer satisfaction, etc.
A candidate that can answer that question knows how they can make the biggest difference - and wants to be involved in the things that make the biggest difference.
But don't stop there. If a candidate for a sales opening says, "Since your customer base is heavily skewed towards individual users, I will land three enterprise customers," ask how. Ask where. Ask what methods she will use, what connections she will leverage... use the answer to the question as a springboard for a conversation that reveals the strategies, tactics, and skill that support the answer.
Because the best candidates are people who can walk their interview talk.
5. "Why should we hire you?"
Common variations: "What makes you the best candidate for the job?" "What one skill or attribute makes you stand out from every other candidate?"
In effect, this is a "sell me" question: "Tell me why you're the best. Tell me what makes you special. Here's your chance to convince me."
Many interviewers understandably use it as a way to give candidates a chance to discuss anything they want to share that was not covered during the interview.
What to Ask Instead: So why not do that? Say, "Is there anything you would like me to know that we haven't talked about?"
Think about times you interviewed for a job. Did you ever walk out thinking you had totally nailed it, that you had done the absolute best you could, that there was nothing else you wanted to say?
Of course not. Neither do the people you interview. Maybe a great example for aa behavioral question you asked just occurred to them. Maybe they misunderstood a question. Maybe they were nervous and didn't think as quickly on their feet as they would have liked.
Ask the question. Be patient while the candidate thinks. And if they do have something they want to share, don't just passively listen. Whatever candidates decide to share is definitely important to them, so treat it as such. Ask follow-up questions. Probe gently. Turn this part of the interview into a conversation, not an interrogation.
You may find you discover things about the candidate you didn't know.
When you're trying to find the best candidate for the job, isn't that the point?