Having trained hiring managers on interviewing skills for two decades, I can tell you an honest truth: Most believe they know the questions to ask to assess a job candidate's fit for the position. The majority of them, however, ask the wrong questions.

While an internet search can point you to a plethora of websites offering good interview questions, there's one specific area of inquiry that you should center your interview around:

Describe a big work accomplishment that you're most proud of in your career.

The why behind the question

As hiring managers, the tendency is to value technical and functional skills first while placing a person's character on the back burner. Asking the question can certainly be used to dig up competence and skills for the job, but in this case, you're listening for clues to tell a story about the candidate's integrity -- the most important qualification of all.

The reason this simple question is so powerful is that, whatever the job candidate chooses as his or her answer, it sets you up for more powerful, follow-up questions to reveal the job candidate's character -- like peeling layers from an onion. Once you hear their big accomplishment, you can now drill down further by asking the following questions.

  • Tell me more about the accomplishment. What makes it stand out?
  • Walk me through the process. How you managed it, and what you, your team, or your company, achieved in the end.
  • Tell me about your role, and the team members involved.
  • Why were you chosen for this particular project/task?
  • What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
  • How did you overcome these challenges? What did you do?
  • Describe the environment you were in.
  • What were some of the biggest mistakes you made?
  • What parts of the project/task did you truly enjoy or not enjoy?
  • Give examples of how you led and influenced your peers and colleagues.
  • What growth did you experience as a person?
  • What lessons did you learn along the way?
  • What you would do differently if you could do it again?

What to listen for

You may be wondering, what am I listening for, exactly, when asking these questions? Take a look at them again. Do you notice a pattern? A person with a high degree of character and integrity will display honesty, emotional intelligence, leadership, humility, resilience, and the ability to work in a team setting and get along with people. Every one of those questions hits the mark and should draw out the hallmarks of a strong character.  

This line of questioning is especially important if the organization operates by its values and protecting the culture is a top priority. It can tell a hiring manager everything he or she needs to know about a job candidate's true culture fit. While the initial question sets the table, the real magic is in the details of your follow-up questions. This is what great interviewing is all about -- asking key questions to get to the root of someone's character. 

Why does it matter?

Interviewing for character will sift out job candidates who've mastered the art of embellishing their qualifications, fabricating stories, and flat-out lying. Not interviewing for character is especially risky during periods of change, transition, or high turnover, where hiring managers become desperate to fill positions and rush to judgment by overlooking unwanted behaviors and toxic personalities.

Billionaire Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, once gave sound hiring advice:

You're looking for three things, generally, in a person: intelligence, energy, and integrity. And if they don't have the last one, don't even bother with the first two. 

As Buffett asserts, character is a non-negotiable when it comes to hiring responsible workers with a clear conscience. It's what makes it hard to question a future employee's decisions and motives. Count on it.