Bottom Line Secrets - Shrewd Hiring Tips
Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 11:48AM
Mark Goulston in Business, Change, Leadership, Management, business, employment, hiring, management Well for All Businesses 

reprinted from, June 1, 1999, Bottom Line Secrets

by Dr. Mark Goulston

Large corporations can afford elaborate screening tests to weed out dishonest and incompetent job applicants. But you can often screen candidates even more effectively — and cheaply — by asking the right questions in the right setting.

Today that’s crucial because the job market is very tight — and that makes employers more anxious than usual to get qualified applicants to come on board. Many companies are tempted to gloss over the details of the hiring process just to make a hire. That can easily backfire.


Start the screening process by holding a brief interview in your office to ask routine questions and verify employment dates. Then take the applicant on a tour of the company, and as you walk around, casually ask the rest of the interview questions. Candidates won’t realize it, but that’s where the real interview begins.

Advantage:  As you walk around and chat about various aspects of the company and the job, applicants are lulled into a sense of security.With their guard down, they often give truthful answers to questions they were prepared to dodge in the inter-view setting they had anticipated.


Phrase questions in a way that makes candidates pause and think for at least a few seconds. In that time, you can elicit important information from their behavior when answering the questions, not just the substance of the answers.

“Projective” questions are a type of verbal inkblot that interviewees can interpret in many ways. By listening to their interpretation, you can learn things about applicants that wouldn’t come out in answers to straight yes-or-no questions. The most revealing questions…

* What shouldn’t I know about you? 

Look for candidates who are willing to point out flaws, even though they may display some discomfort in doing so. That type of candor demonstrates self-awareness and honesty.

Example:  “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I can become irritable when I’m working hard on a project and others are slacking off.” An applicant with those high standards might not work out in some team environments, but he/she could excel at jobs that require persistence and dedication.

* If I were to ask your former supervisors about your greatest strengths, what would they say? 

On one level, the question is a quick honesty check because you can compare the answer with what former supervisors may have said when you phoned for background checks.

But the way candidates answer tells you even more. If they grope for answers or speak in generalities, chances are good that they’re hiding negative information.

* If I were to ask your former bosses about your greatest weaknesses, what would they say? 

Compare the way applicants answer this question and the previous one. If candidates are specific about their strengths but vague about their weaknesses, they may be engaged in a deception.

* It’s human nature to accentuate positive points — and play down the negative ones. So — can you tell me which traits you’re trying to play up? 

The majority of applicants are strong in either professional competence or people skills — but not in both. Answers to this question often let you know which category a particular candidate fits into.

A highly skilled applicant, for instance, may say that he accentuated his competencies. That’s often an indication that his aptitude for getting along with others is not the greatest. Without being questioned in this way, however, candidates might never acknowledge such a weakness.

The information you elicit helps develop follow-up questions that can tell you what type of a position, if any, an applicant is best suited for at your company.

Example:  How do you keep your less-than-perfect people skills from getting in the way of success?

Candidates who are honest about their weaknesses and have figured out ways to compensate for them are much more likely to become valued employees, whether they’re sales reps who lack technical skills or technicians with poor people skills.

* Describe a likely problem the candidate may face on the job — and ask how he would solve it. Then ask how he would “feel” in solving it that way.

If a candidate were reading his answers from a prepared script, the story could quickly unravel when asked this question. That’s because questions about feelings are curve balls.

Obliged to discuss a subject for which they weren’t prepared, applicants may inadvertently reveal some unflattering truths.

It’s also difficult to make up consistent stories about what you do as well as about how you feel when you’re doing it.

* In a work situation, how do you decide when you’re in over your head?

Candidates who have difficulty answering may be the type of employees who try to conceal problems rather than seek help.

Look instead for applicants who answer easily and, even better, cite examples of when they realized they couldn’t handle a situation themselves. They’re the type of candidate who spots problems quickly, reports them and gets help in correcting them.

* Tell me some things you learned in your last job.

Then ask how the applicant would apply those skills to new situations you describe.

These are especially appropriate questions for a walking-around interview because the new situations can relate to company activities you see on the walk. Chances are good that a candidate is less than truthful if he names several skills that he learned but can’t think of ways to apply them.

Moreover, in a traditional interview setting, the applicant may be able to adapt a script that he’s memorized. That’s unlikely in an unanticipated setting.


When candidates look down to think of an answer, they’re more likely to be lying than when they look up.

And be wary about candidates who fidget or squirm when you ask questions, because they could be hiding something serious.

Caution: While rules of thumb are useful, avoid reading too much into an applicant’s nervousness. For all you know, he may have had a car accident on the way to the interview.

A more reliable indicator of untruthfulness is inconsistent body language — nervousness when answering some questions but poise when responding to others.

Don’t hesitate to ask a fidgeting candidate if he feels uncomfortable. A straightforward response can be a good indication that the applicant is honest and self-assured, despite the stress of what may be a temporary personal problem.


 ALSO: Verify, Then Hire

Article originally appeared on Heartfelt Leadership (
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