The most common interview questions do nothing to reveal who’d be the best hire

I just came across this post on HubSpot about ‘The 10 Most Common Interview Questions — And How To Answer Them,’ which is in turn based on March 2015 research from Glassdoor into ‘The 50 Most Common Interview Questions.’ The order of the two lists is a little bit off, so I’m not 100 percent what the ’10 most common’ really are, but I’m going to use Glassdoor’s ranking for this exercise.

Before we get going, let’s admit this upfront: the hiring process, as mostly constructed, is fairly flawed. To wit:

Let’s move onto the questions.

What are your strengths?

This should be a good question because a candidate should ideally discuss adaptability (if business models are always changing, don’t we need that?), curiosity (ditto), and the like. Instead, I’d imagine most people talk about their hard-driving, results-driven, success mindset, or better yet — their ‘critical thinking’ skills. I had a convo with Bill Jensen yesterday. (Google him.) We talked about how, after Davos this year, some committee released a list of ‘core job skills for 2020.’ No. 1 was ‘critical thinking.’ I laughed out loud. Almost no job is designed around ‘critical thinking’ anymore. Jobs are designed around tasks, or deliverables. ‘Strategy’ and ‘critical thinking’ are supposed to be reserved for the top dogs, the big brass, the senior executives — but they’re typically down in the weeds line-editing Facebook posts because they’re terrified of being seen as incompetent around bigger-picture issues. I’ve worked for 13 years, had about six jobs, worked for two Fortune 500 companies, worked for a lauded non-profit, etc. I’m a decently smart person. I can count the times I’ve ‘critically thought’ about something on two hands. This question is just a softball primer to get a candidate warmed up; I’d assume most interviewers are barely listening at this stage. Probably mentally composing some shopping lists, or covertly swiping on Tinder.

What are your weaknesses?

We all should know by now that this is the most bull question in history. Everyone just flips it back into a strength. “Well, Tom, I’m just such a perfectionist.” (** Gags on bile in stomach **) As candidates, we have to do this — workplaces are never contextually good at discussing failure, so we assume that if we bring up legitimate failures, we’ll be put in the Reject Pile. (We likely will.) The amazing thing about work, and how people get hired for work, is that people fail all the time at jobs. They miss deliverables, they take 4-hour lunches and passive-aggressively say something up the chain when they return, and they spend half the day on Facebook. We all know this sh*t happens, even as people rush around screaming about how busy they are. So we’re all weak. We all have failure points. If we discussed those upfront, wouldn’t that be good? Bonus points here: smart people tend to understand and appreciate failure more, so this question being real (which it isn’t) might get some legit intelligence in the door.

Why are you interested in working for this company?

“I need a f*cking paycheck” isn’t an acceptable answer here — although that’s most people want to say, along with “My current boss is basically Hitler in a suit” — so they create some pie-in-the-sky garbage about how great the “culture” or “products” are. True story here: I had an interview with 3M in like, October of 2012 I think. I had a fever and I knew I had no chance of getting this job, so I decided to go for broke on this question. They asked it — they always ask it — and I said the Post-It Note (which 3M produces) had changed society for the better, and was maybe a top-50 invention of all-time. In my mind, that’s an over-dramatic answer, but it’s not a bad one per se. They looked at me like I was speaking a mix of Greek and Chinese, paused for three seconds, and went to another question. I tried to be real and funny, and I basically got smacked down and ignored. That’s why this Q means nothing; it’s just essentially an invitation for you to blow smoke up their ass — and if you don’t hit that target, you ain’t getting that job.

Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

Well, obviously:

This is up there with ‘most bullsh*t question of all-time.’ It means nothing. Do you know how often companies shift business models or chase new revenue targets? Some do it every quarter. Who cares where you see yourself in five years? The company might not exist in five years. How does this question prove anything about you except your ability to invent some bullsh*t about how career-focused you are? “Let me tell you, Sam, if I have a child I will ignore that thing and be heads-down on some spreadsheets that you’ve thrown over my cubicle wall without context. I will do that for you, Sam.” You’re not even guaranteed tomorrow as a human being. Job interviews are supposed to be about your skills and what you could bring to a role. Five years? Meh. Flip side question: if you turned this back on an interviewer and asked about how promotions and advancement work, they’d probably be like the Kool-Aid Guy and smash through the wall running away. General rule of life I have: if something cannot go two ways on a street, it’s probably bad for you and good for the other person. I just summarized interviews in one sentence.

Why do you want to leave your current company?

“My boss is a f*cking wanker!” (pause) “Oh, is that not what you were looking for?” This one is hard for me at present because I recently got fired and all that (see next question), so I have to scramble and invent like Cam Newtown (topical reference!) on this bad boy. In reality, 1 in 4 people in America look for a new job every single day. Everybody’s chasing greener grass to some extent — and if they’re not, it’s less to do with happiness and more to do with laziness. (Or the assumption that no grass is greener.) Again, though, this question proves nothing about the qualifications of a candidate. All it does is serve as a cover-your-ass for HR or the hiring manager to see if this person has been fired or is generally a loose cannon. In reality, there’s no such thing as a bad employee. There’s just people with a set of skills put into the wrong fit. That’s all. So stop trying to ferret out ‘the real deal’ on a candidate and have an organic convo with them. It can work.

Can you explain this gap in employment?

Ah, the good ol’ job-hopping stigma. Phrased another way: if your dad is rich, you can travel in your 20s and have some gaps. If your dad is middle class or lower, you best be in a cubicle at 22 or recruiters gon’ be asking you about it 4-eva! Basically, this is another cover-your-ass question to see if you’ve been fired/laid-off and why. It’s also the apex of corporate executive talk-out-both-sides-of-your-mouth bullsh*t. Execs are always saying they want smart, curious, adaptable people with life experiences. You know how you get life experiences? You go seek them out. It ain’t about being heads down on a Google Doc at age 22 screaming “U KNOW IT, BOSS!” at every conceivable turn. So if your organization wants that, then you need to explain to HR and hiring managers that it’s OK to see some “traditional red flags” and overlook them for best fit. Here’s a punchline for you: what do friendship, hiring, real estate, and sex all have in common? All about fit. ** Cymbal ** Tip your waiters.

What can you offer else that someone else cannot?

“I’m a Type-A go-getter, Charlie, a real gadabout with success written all over him!” (** Punches self in face, screams about injustice **) I guess this question is supposed to let the candidate compare themselves to other candidates, but I’ve never seen a job sitch where you know the other candidates, so … how could I compare myself to air? All I’m going to do here — or really, all any reasonable person would do — is throw a bunch of bullsh*t platitudes around about myself and hope that they sound better than whatever the other person said about him/herself. I have absolutely no idea how this would teach a person who is the better choice, though.

What are three things your former manager would like you to improve on?

Bleh. Another cover-your-ass question. This is supposed to be a staple of ‘behavioral interviewing,’ whereby you get a candidate to really understand their flaws and elaborate on them. In reality, behavioral interviewing set HR back about 35 years. It’s a meaningless practice that’s often not even practiced very well. Here’s the deal: most people will say 1 half-negative thing then 2 positive things in answer to this question. It accomplishes nothing. It’s arguing weakness as strength. You know another word for that? Rationalization. You know what happens to people who rationalize all the time? They do bad sh*t, call it good sh*t, and try to keep pushing forward. Phrased another way: the CEO mentality! I just explained the job search process in one sentence again. In reality, though, you probably had a manager who barely knew your strengths and couldn’t be bothered to respect or motivate you. Same deal as above: let’s say you flip this question and start talking about what you want in a manager. The hiring manager or HR person would instantly reject you. Again, we call ‘job interviews’ something like ‘a conversation!’ or ‘a two-way street!’ and rather, they’re just cover-your-ass bullsh*t at every turn.

Are you willing to relocate?

“We ain’t paying for it, tho!”

Are you willing to travel?

“We’ll pay for this, but there won’t be a ton of ROI and you’ll see your kids grow up on Skype!”

OK. So how do we make it better?

This is my question, so that I can stop the grousing above and get down to brass tacks. I wrote a post back in October on “The No. 1 interview question of the future.” The basic logic is this:

  • Tell us about a problem
  • Tell us how you fixed it
  • Tell us how you used data/metrics to know you were fixing it
  • Tell us how all the parts fit together

Every — every — company is chasing Big Data and metrics/analytics as an advantage right now, even if probably 50 percent or more of them have no idea what to do with it. So, ideally you want to find people who ‘get’ or ‘understand’ data, yea? Well, let’s apply that at a personal level:

Those bullet points are my arc — and listen, I’m by no means an ideal employee or anything. But I see some of the flaws in the traditional job interview/hiring process system, and I’d love to fix them.

What else have you seen, and how could we make it better?


My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

Arrange a Conversation 


Article by channel:

Read more articles tagged: Featured