Eight great job interview questions for applicants

It’s been a while since I wrote an essay about “penetrating questions” for job seekers to ask on interviews.  For reference, the prior ones in the series are Ask, Ask 2, Ask 3, Ask 4, Ask 5, Ask 6, and Ask 7.  (Ask and Ask 3 were actually republished here on Neil Patrick’s site; this one was written exclusively for him!)

As an aside, one of the questions from Ask 7 was about inviting five dinner guests from history.  I decided to answer it, publicly, myself in an essay.  I’d thought it was a worthy intellectual exercise.

I often get ideas for these questions from other peoples’ essays.  The essay The Interview Secret HR Doesn't Want You To Know... by J.T. O’Donnell, founder of WorkItDaily, sparked a thought for another question… or two or three.  I hope these prove useful to you in your interviews.

What on my resume caught your eye?

This is a question, to be asked of the hiring manager only, that gets to the heart of why you’re in their office.  It forces them to identify something overwhelmingly-positive about you, and puts you in a good frame in their mind (on the flip side of things, if they have no clue, that’s not a good sign!).  And whatever they name gives you specific things to focus on, because that gives you an opening to:

And that, , applies to which problem you have… ?

You’re making them do the work for you.  They’ve just – presumably – named one of the key strengths that they saw in your background.  Now you’ve opened the door to their explicitly naming one of the challenges they have and how your background meshes with it.  Not only can you now address that problem specifically, by getting them to tie your strength to their problem, you help get them to see you in the position.

What last made you laugh at work?

This is a culture question.  Nobody expects work to be a comedy or social club, but it is a place where you spend a significant portion of your waking hours.  The answer doesn’t need to be detailed or elicit a specific joke they remember hearing, but if they really have to think hard about the last time they laughed as a result of something – e.g., “Well, the other day my co-worker and I were ribbing each other about…” – then that’s a potential warning sign that there’s no real joy on the part of people working there.  Even worse if they flat-out can’t think of a single instance.

Am I the first person you’ve brought in for this position?

Very often hiring managers don’t really know, precisely, what they want when they first write the job description; they have a vision, but visions don’t always comport with what’s actually available.  And it’s very typical that as interviews go along tweaks to that vision they have are made.  Gleaning some idea of where you are in the sequence can help you understand the possibility that the real wants and needs have deviated from the published ones.

Can you describe the last time you had to help a subordinate get through a roadblock?  And can you describe, generally, what the issue was?

It is inevitable that projects will run into roadblocks.  Some of these can be gotten through with persistence on the part of the individual person.  Others can require managerial “pull” to get something loose.  A good manager will be willing to help a subordinate get through these – after, of course, the individual has tried without success.  And if an issue happened once, generally, it’s likely to happen again if it involves a different group or function, so forewarned is forearmed about a potential difficulty you might face.

Could you walk me through your day yesterday?

This should be aimed at a potential coworker.  It gives you, at least in a one-day snapshop, what a day might be like.  Also, watch facial expressions – positive or negative?  And do they attempt to gloss over the question?  People who are enthusiastic about the work and the environment will happy to talk about things at length.  People who are not, won’t.

(An example: I asked a similar question, “What’s your typical day like?” to a potential coworker during an interview.  Their answer was revealing: “Oh, I usually get here about 7 AM, …, and I leave about 7 PM… and sometimes I come in on the weekends to catch up!”  My unvoiced thought was “You’re pushing 60 a week at work, and you need to catch up on the weekends?  And this is OK with you?”  

Later, talking to a recruiter, I learned that this company has such a reputation for squeezing workers for immense hours of casual OT that people would tell this recruiter NO THANK YOU when she named the company whose job she was pitching!  One actually said “I’d rather be homeless than work for this company”.  The recruiter ended up not accepting any more contracts from the company.)

What is a typical day like for one of the group?

This is a compare-and-contrast question to the above, to be asked of the hiring manager.  What happens versus what do they think happens?  It’s also an awareness question, i.e., how connected to the group is the manager?  Are they aloof?  Connected?  A “helicopter boss”?  The answer can give some clues.

I hope these, and my former thoughts in Ask 1 – 7, help you not only land a good job by asking great questions, but gain insights into places that, when you hear the answers, you decide you will pass on working there.

© 2017, David Hunt, PE
David Hunt is a Mechanical Engineer looking for a full time position north of Boston, MA in the USA.  He is seeking a job, ideally in the medical device or defense industries, as a:
  •          Design Engineer (with a strength in plastics, but that’s not all he can do)
  •          New Product Introduction Engineer (e.g., DFMA)
  •          Cost Reduction Engineer
  •          Manufacturing / Process Engineer
And do check out his portfolio.

What no-one tells us about the jobs crisis

By Neil Patrick

Your vote won't help solve the jobs crisis - as long as politicians pull on the wrong levers.

Three big things have happened in my life in the last few months.

First, I finished writing my book, Careermageddon with Dr. Marcia LaReau of Forward Motion Careers. What started as a small project to try and create a helpful guidebook for people frustrated about their work opportunities, grew and grew as we uncovered layer upon layer of complexity as we sought to understand the real mechanics of the jobs crisis.

Then political events took over.

On Thursday 23 June last year, the EU referendum in the UK returned a result that almost no-one expected. Over 65% of registered voters voted, and the die was cast. Despite 'experts' warning that such a decision would be economic suicide for the UK, large swathes of the UK especially those who felt let down by their political leaders, voted to leave the EU.

The outcome of the US election was no less of a shock to most expert observers. Donald Trump campaigned largely on an anti-globalization platform. Jobs for US citizens and stricter border security were to be high priorities. These policy promises resonated with large numbers of non-metropolitan people in the US, left behind in a globalized economy which delivers immense wealth for a few, and less and less for most who either have a job or those who cannot get one.

The shocks of these two outcomes are still reverberating. I am not going to argue for or against Donald Trump or Brexit. Yes I have my opinions, but the point is they really do not matter.

I’ll say it again. My personal opinions and political beliefs do not matter.

Yet I’m very much in a minority. People on both sides of these arguments are endlessly busy championing their support for their choice, and denigrating those who have the opposite view. Meanwhile, the mainstream media under assault from Mr Trump is railing against fake news, quite oblivious to the fact that they are doing nothing at all to help provide greater understanding of the realities of the jobs crisis. They report ‘news’ (in reality arguments and scandal) but are truly hopeless at conveying insight.

These political outcomes have divided societies in the UK and the US, like none before. The reason it is pointless for me to argue for one political side or the other, is that the thing I care most about is jobs and incomes. Not about winning political debates. And jobs are not primarily made or lost by decisions about immigration, or who wields political power.

The jobs crisis is not fundamentally an outcome of political decisions. Yes Donald Trump is committed to getting jobs back for US workers. Yes the Brexit campaign succeed because many people in Britain felt that unrestrained migration into the UK was creating unbearable pressure on our nation. They believed (contrary to much evidence), that immigrants were ‘taking our jobs’ and altering the fabric of our society for the worse.

But the real drivers of falling incomes, long-term unemployment, and social unrest are nothing to do with immigration, or the UK’s membership of the EU, or who is in the White House.

We have a jobs crisis because the world is undergoing changes so immense that policy makers have no reliable models they can turn to with confidence that tell them what to do.

Pulling the traditional monetary levers of interest rates and money supply have proved completely incapable of reigniting sustainable economic growth. They have failed in the Eurozone, failed in Japan, failed in the UK and failed in the United States.

And that is because the changes going on are deep and structural. They are so deeply rooted that even the most sophisticated economic forecasting models and policy levers are completely inadequate to represent and remedy the complexity of what's happening and worse what will happen. They just don’t work in times like these.

In January this year, in an almost unheard of admission of failure, none other than Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England was forced to admit that the Bank’s economic forecasting models just didn’t work when a change as great as the Brexit vote occurred. These models work reasonably well in period of slow and gradual change. They fail completely when changes are large and rapid.

He went even further as I reported here. He admitted that up to half of all jobs in the UK would be eliminated by technology in the coming years.

The real drivers of job creation and destruction are what Marcia and I describe in detail in our book. We call them The Six Engines of Change. They are:

  • Globalization and offshoring 
  • Technology, artificial intelligence and robotics 
  • Disruptive business models 
  • Education and the speed of institutional change 
  • Demographics and the aging population 
  • Fiscal policy 

Firms are able to control their decisions about the first three of these. And they will make decisions based on their raison d’etre. I.e. they will do whatever makes the most money.

Government can do little other than play around the edges of these things unless we wish to submit to a centralized and totalitarian state. On the other hand, education, demographics and fiscal policy are areas where government policy can achieve greater leverage.

Yet none of these are a silver bullet which can reignite economic growth. They are blunt instruments as the central bankers would say. They impact slowly. Which is not helpful when people are struggling to make ends meet week in week out.

In a world which is changing faster than ever before, and where more and more people are feeling that their governments have failed them, we should not be surprised that politicians who promise sweeping change are able to win more votes than those who can only promise more of the same.

We can only hope that instead of playing to the gallery, they grasp the real fundamentals of what is happening and implement policies which truly reflect these complex realities of the 21st century world.

I really cannot predict what is going to happen next, but I have nagging feeling that real change is going to be harder to deliver than we’d all like.

The last remaining human skill

If you read this blog (or even if you don't, but are conscious of the jobs destruction that is happening because of technology), you'll know that if we are to stay ahead of the curve, we humans have to figure out what we can do better than machines.

And that list is being eroded daily. But there are some things which people do really well, and which machines still really suck at.

For all the social media and automated messaging filling the world, by definition, machines cannot substitute for REAL human to human relationships. I call this H2H.

This idea is not new. Dale Carnegie recognized it way back in 1936.

And this might just be the last thing that we can all rely on if we are to survive the tech tsunami. 

I broached this hypothesis with my friend and fellow blogger, Ted Bauer, and he provided his take on this. Turns out that Ted not only agrees, but can evidence how his relationships impact on his own prospects almost daily.

When we are presented with technological tools to do things, humans have a tendency to over-delegate to machines. There are examples everywhere of this. HR people who let ATS software take priority over individual personal judgements. Auto messages which fill our notifications boxes on social media. Bank loans which are assessed not by people but by systems-based algorithms.

We must come to our senses. Let technology do what it's good at. But never surrender or abdicate to it.

So this week, I have delegated my blogging work not to a machine, but a real person in Dallas called Ted Bauer.

PS If you are interested in HR, the future of work, marketing or business strategy, Ted's blog, The Context of Things is a simply brilliant place to get the grey matter working.

Neil was nice enough to do a guest post for me, and then I fell down like an idiot on doing a guest post in return for him. Better late than never, I suppose!

I had been connected with Neil on Twitter and other platforms for a while -- probably over a year at that point -- when we finally met up via Skype a few weeks ago. It struck me as an interesting time for a couple of different reasons. Let me run through a few quickly, and hopefully in a very limited self-promotional way. (I’ll try, at least.)

In that one day, I had three Skype calls -- one with Neil (in England), one with a blogger in Germany, and one with an Australian who lives in Stockholm. (Neil was, of course, the coolest.)

Now, none of these things have turned into stone cold cash yet, and the eternal capitalist (i.e. the class currently ruling America) might scoff and say, “Pfft, that’s not business.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to defining what exactly “business” is: Before I started doing freelance, I was working for this B2B travel consortium company. It was largely a tire fire, as any company over about 250 employees has the potential to be. But I got to attend a few trade shows, and I saw a lot of people from different areas of the world -- hotel managers, cruise line sales directors, etc. -- do the double cheek kiss and talk about “their friends in Calcutta” and the like. Even though I didn’t really like this job, and eventually got laid off from it, it was one of the times I most directly saw the idea of business being truly global.

Sorry, not even close.

The thing that always bothered me about those trade shows, though, was that the same “our friends in Calcutta” people would talk about how travel was “a relationship business.” I used to think to myself: isn’t everything a relationship business, especially now? I mean, working in financial management is a financial job -- but if you ain’t managing relationships therein, I doubt you’ll last super long in such a job. Right?

I may be a little bit jaded (I probably am), but the way I look at business writ large in 2017 is this: I think we’ve had years of executives pining for (i.e. demanding) growth. That growth has come, often, in the form of new revenue streams. When you create (i.e. “force”) a new revenue stream into an already-existing ecosystem, you create a lot of choice overload for the end users. This is why we seemingly have 144 different types of coffee, whereas 20-25 years ago, we maybe had 10.

As every vertical seemingly has 951 different options now, I feel like relationships are, indeed, more important than ever. People may make choices on price (that’ll never go away totally) in some price ranges and industries, but with so much noise and so many half-assed products that executives demanded to get their growth, people want something they can trust. The trust comes from the relationships you build with people at other companies, their sales principals, etc.

I’m not saying anything patently new here. I’m pretty sure that the Egyptians understood relationships drove business and transactions. And I’m pretty sure their overlords wanted some growth too.

But this is what struck me about my triple Skype day: first off, I’m a lowly blogger sitting in north Texas, in my living room with an oversized dog. And yet, I’m making connections and building relationships with people all over the world (no one in Calcutta just yet). In the weeks since we’ve Skyped, I’ve made new LinkedIn connections via Neil, and I may meet up with someone in this area who connected with him first. Now, again, are these things all paying opportunities? No. But might they be? Or might they offer the Gladwellian/Stanford University “weak ties” principle that builds something out? Of course.

So if a lowly, stained-undershirt-wearing blogger such as myself can build these relationships through social media and the tech tools of our day, I feel that could be a broader lesson here. All business is about relationships, and relationships will transcend time and space. Nurture ‘em, grow ‘em, focus on ‘em, and you may just have a predictable revenue stream on your hands without introducing the 19th new version of your hammer.

Neil and I may be a ways off on the double cheek kiss part of our relationship, although I do look forward to meeting in person eventually. But until then, two laptops, a few Twitter accounts, some LinkedIn messages, and more will continue to show me that we truly are all living in a relationship-driving, utterly-global business world.