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The One Question Every Job Seeker Must Ask in Every Interview

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Can you tell me what the person in this role needs to do in order to be considered successful?

As part of our Performance-based Hiring interviewing and assessment process, we suggest recruiters and hiring managers seek out the answers to four questions during the phone screen before inviting a person onsite for a full interview. These were described in a recent post written for recruiters and are summarized below.

Knowing what companies are looking for can help candidates improve their odds of being invited for an interview. If they get there, they then need to start asking questions of their own to get the job offer. But before all of that they need to ace the phone screen. To get started, for the jobs you’re interested in, think about where you stand on these four factors.

What Recruiters Need to Find Out During the Phone Screen

Is the person in the game? The idea here is to determine if the candidate is a reasonable fit on job scope, experience, industry background and basic skills. Apply a broad filter for this factor to ensure good people who are light on experience or those who possess a different mix of experiences are considered.

Is the candidate an Achiever? An Achiever is a person who is clearly in the top-third of his or her peer group. Some of these indicators include being assigned to handle bigger challenges or projects ahead of those with more experience, getting special recognition for work well done and being promoted more rapidly.

Has the candidate accomplished something comparable to what needs to be done? Recruiters need to understand real job needs by preparing a performance-based job description when taking the assignment. Then they need to find out if the candidate has accomplished something comparable to the most important objective listed by using The Most Important Interview Question of All Time.

Does the candidate fit the situation? Fit has multiple dimensions including the types of companies the person has worked for and excelled at and the role the hiring manager’s style has played. While subjective, lack of situational or cultural fit is often the reason why an otherwise good person underperforms. Here’s a short video describing how this critical assessment can be made.

When there’s a “yes” on these four factors, a recruiter can be quite confident the person is worth presenting to the hiring manager. But this confidence level can soar along with assessment accuracy when this next question is considered:

Does the quality of the questions the candidate asks reflect a true understanding of the job?

I describe how to make this determination in The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, but the idea is that a candidate who understands what it takes to do the job knows exactly the right questions to ask to determine what the job is all about. The strongest candidates use this information to determine if they even want to consider the job, and if they do, what’s required to be successful. From the interviewer’s standpoint, candidates who ask these types of questions are instantly perceived as stronger, more insightful and more discriminating.

Some examples will help understand this questioning process. A great sales rep might want to know about the competition for the product line and the quality of the territory being assigned. A strong controller would want to know about the quality of the systems and financial processes underlying all of the financial reporting. Strong managers want to know about the quality of the team they’d be inheriting and how much support they’d have in rebuilding the team. A top-notch techie would want to know some of the projects he or she would be assigned and the quality of the design tools being used.

Interviewers can determine how well candidates understand real job needs by asking them how they’d go about handling some of the actual job-related challenges they’re likely to face. For example, “How would you build the territory plan in a very competitive market?” Interviewers then need to get into a give and take discussion to see if the candidate knows what needs to be done to accomplish this task.

When candidates ask about real job needs proactively, they set themselves apart from other candidates. Just asking these types of questions demonstrates confidence, insight and ability. When a candidate knows what needs to be done, the person quickly hones in on the right issues by asking the right questions. When a person doesn’t know what needs to be done, they flail about asking generic questions that get them nowhere. Bottom line: if you’re the right candidate, make sure you ask the right questions.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He’s also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn’s Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.