Hiring IT Staff: Asking the Right Questions

by Johanna Rothman. Originally published in Cutter's Business-IT Alignment E-Mail Advisor, February 2, 2000.

A number of IT alignment issues are related to the difficulties in hiring staff. Let's assume you're in “constant hiring” mode — you continually get resumes, interview people, and decide on whether to hire various candidates. But are you asking questions that get you accurate answers about the candidates?

There are only three kinds of questions: closed, open, and hypothetical. When interviewing candidates, I've found the best approach is to use a combination of closed questions and open-ended behavior-oriented questions.

  • I ask closed-ended questions when I'm after the facts: Where are you working now? What is your salary? Why are you looking for a new job?
  • I ask open-ended behavioral questions when I want to probe for more information: Tell me about your job now. What's fun? What's challenging? What's difficult? Why?
  • I rarely ask hypothetical questions: What would you do in x situation? Let's face it, people figured out how to fake these answers long ago, and even good interviewers almost always “broadcast” the desired answer.

One of my clients is looking for an operations manager in a fast-paced call center. He uses open-ended behavior-oriented questions such as:

  • “How do you currently deal with the requests that come to you in your job?” He's looking for an answer that discusses how to weigh the severity of the problem, how to organize a tracking system, and so on. Then he follows up with, “Give me an example of a request that came in at one priority and you changed the priority. What did you do?” If the candidate is stuck for an answer, my client will wait about 20 seconds, and then say, “The priority can go up or down.” If the candidate hasn't changed priority on a request, he doesn't have the experience to manage in my client's company.
  • “We sometimes deal with difficult people.” (My client says this with a wry grin.) “Tell me about a difficult person you've dealt with in the past month, what was difficult, and what you did.” My client looks for an admittance that some people are difficult, and then listens to hear when the candidate lost patience or how the candidate turned the upset person into someone they could deal with.
  • “How do you know when you have the right staffing level?” My client is looking for people who track the kinds of questions they receive, when the incidents are closed, and how long incidents stay open. Sometimes candidates answer this in a closed way with a brief, factual answer. In that case, my client asks about the talents of the candidate's current staff and what the candidate measures about their work.

Part of what you need to look for in the answers is how the candidate's current job environment is similar to yours and where it's different. If the candidate is managing three people and you're looking for a manager of a 20-person department, listen for how the candidate takes this environment into account, or if the candidate has only one answer for a given problem.

Some interviewers like to ask non-job-oriented questions. I rarely ask those questions because they don't tell me enough about how the candidate will fit in at work. Questions such as “Where do you want to be in five years?” or “If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for” are too hypothetical for me. They don't tell me enough about how the candidate would fit into my environment at work. If I want to know how ambitious a candidate is, I'll ask a question like: “When was the last time you decided you wanted a promotion, and what did you do to get it?” If I want to know what the candidate would change at work, I ask, “What bugs you about your job now, and how have you tried to change it?” If you do ask non-job-oriented questions, make sure you ask everyone the same question, so you can't be accused of discriminating against some of your candidates.

It's essential to ask behavioral questions to extract the information you need from a candidate in an interview. Use those questions to know when you're hiring people who'll fit into your organization and be successful there.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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