The obvious interview questions most people don’t ask.

I watch companies waste time and money in their interview processes.  The waste comes in the form of real dollars, opportunity cost, frustration from hiring managers about talking to unqualified candidates and having their time needlessly lost just to name a few.

Those things are easily preventable if you ask some simple questions and have some very frank discussions early in your interview process. 

Here is a story to illustrate how to do it wrong….

I have a client who only calls when they are at the end of their rope (something I appreciate).  Well, they called. 

They had two immediate needs for a highly-specialized profile. The candidates they needed are hard to find and are rarely unemployed. Lucky for this client, I have worked in their space for 15 years and knew several people who fit the described profile. I expected that I would have candidates quickly and I did. Within three days, I had talked with five strong candidates; three were not available or not interested, two were. I was excited to call the client to let them know. 

When I called my client just a few days after the initial call to kick off the search, I was informed that they already had four “great” candidates (pretty impressive for so recently being at the end of their rope). In exchange for my efforts, they told me that if they couldn’t land any of their candidates, they would “definitely want to talk to my candidates.” They would update me in a couple weeks.

Fast forward to that update. They had conducted multiple phone interviews with all four candidates and had flown in not one, not two, not three but all four to meet with company executives. Two were immediately eliminated from consideration. The other two were both going to be made offers. However, the client told me that they didn’t expect either to accept the offer because there are circumstances with their current employers and neither could leave. They were also not certain either candidate would actually accept the financial terms of the offers they would be given.


  • First, two should have never been flown in. The candidates who were quickly eliminated in the face-to-face interviews should have been eliminated at the phone interview phase.
  • Second, the other two should have never been flown in without knowing about their ability and willingness to leave their current, respective employers.
  • Third, assuming they would leave, the money should have been qualified in advance of the face-to-face interview ever being arranged or taking place.
  • Last, and perhaps most importantly, someone (maybe several someones) didn’t do their job, were afraid to do it well or enjoy wasting time and money.

Nutshell- they failed to qualify the candidates well and the result was no hire, thousands of lost dollars, countless hours of time wasted. 

The problem is that most candidates are only “qualified” on a single dimension, the “I think he/she can do the job” dimension. 

Things like: has the person worked with the right companies, had the right titles, had the right responsibilities and/or done the right kind of work are all easy to answer and identify. Those are the things that get the candidate into the process and for most companies, it is unfortunately where the qualifying stops.

Candidates need to be continually qualified not just on their seeming ability to do the job but on multiple other dimensions as well.

Here are obvious questions that most people fail to ask in the interview process:

  1. After every interview, even the initial phone interview, the candidate needs to be asked this question, “Based on what you have learned in this conversation, are you interested in this job?” and the all-important follow-up question, “Why?”
  2. Before the first interview, you need to talk about money. This is not a negotiation, but the compensation range needs to be discussed.  Something simple like, “Our salary range of $140k-$160k for this position. If this continues to go well, would you accept a salary in that range?” Then shut up and listen. 
  3. Ask: “How many companies are you interviewing with?” You want to know what your competition looks like and if you really want to do yourself a favor, ask where you rank in that interview stack (and explore what would improve your position in that stack). If the odds are against you, put your ego in your hip pocket and go after the candidate that will love you back!
  4. Ask, “Why is this opportunity better than what you have today?” They better have a great answer. If they don’t, move on. 
  5. Ask what really matters to the candidate. This is critically important, especially for the candidate that has been recruited and has not come to you because he/she is unemployed or miserable. People want to join companies where it is a reciprocal relationship- where they give their time and expertise to a company and in return get paid, yes, but also get to learn, grow or expand their skills or experience and ultimately their career. People want to matter, and they want to work where they feel like they will. Simply asking them what is important to them at the beginning of an interview process is a simple, subtle and profoundly powerful way to demonstrate to a candidate that they do matter. Do not underestimate the power of this question.

When you start making that connection with people in your interview process that illustrates ‘you matter’, you win!

About the Author

Doug Johnson is the president of Valor Partners, an executive search firm that specializes in working with software companies to find executive leaders and to build high-caliber sales and marketing teams.  Doug also specializes in working to advance women in tech as well as the companies interested in creating more gender-balanced organizations.  He can be reached at or 540-492-4250.

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