a great question to ask your interviewer

On a phone interview today, when I asked the candidate what questions she had for me, she asked me this:

Thinking back to people who have been in this position previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great?

This is the sort of question that melts an interviewer’s heart. I’m still mentally beaming at her. Add it to your list!

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Evil HR Lady

    Can you please remind me of this the next time I have a job interview? That's an excellent question.

  2. Rowan Manahan

    I love that question too – as an interviewer, it shows me that the candidate has really given some thought to the process and is thinking beyond the interview and visualising doing the job. As an inetrviewee (or advisor to interviewees) it tells me whether the interviewer knows what she/he is looking for.

    A disappointingly large number of interviewers say, "Um, that's a really good question" but can't really answer it …

  3. Paul Hebert

    A variation on that theme – I've asked what would cause failure in the position. What would failure look like. Just like the great question in the post it makes the interviewer think about the negatives (which of course you don't have) and it allows the applicant to assess if they think they can do the job.

    Great question!

  4. Unemployed Gal

    Great question! (I added it to my list.) I’d been using the more hypothetical “How would you describe your ideal candidate for this position?” and “What are the standards of success for this position?” You’d be surprised how often I’d get a vague non-answer about regional sales goals and customer service. One hiring manager actually admitted that he had “never thought about it.” You’ve never thought about your definition for success? Umm, no thanks…

    I think your question is better, because it lets the manager rave about her favorite former employee. The interviewee can see how well he measures up to the manager’s standards, and if they share the same standards. If the manager raves about how her favorite former employee was a golf buddy who always brought donuts, that tells you that being the boss’s BFF is more important than competence and profitability.

    I would follow up by asking why that awesome employee left the position. This will give you clues for your own career path with this employer. Was she promoted for her excellence, or did she quit because she was underpaid? Thinking an employee is great and rewarding her are two different things.

  5. KJ

    I'm always curious after AAM posts great advice: What do hiring managers that read this blog think when applicants use AAM's advice?

    What I mean is, I use a lot of AAM's advice in terms of interview questions, resume help, etc, and I plan on asking this question from now on. On the chance that the interviewer reads this blog, is it going to seem insincere?

    Obviously I have no way of knowing if they read this or not, so I'm still going to ask the question. I'm just curious as to how it comes off to managers.

  6. Anonymous

    My favorite question as an interviewee is "what was the last emergency you had to deal with?" Though I've yet to get an actual answer to it. I suspect people don't trust that I actually want an honest answer to it.

  7. Bohemedude's Page

    I advise my clients to ask the "Power Question." It goes like this:
    Given my work experience and qualifications, what might be a concern with hiring me? The question does two things. First, it shows you are open to constructive criticism. Second, it gives you the opportunity to address any concerns or to clarify something that was possibly misunderstood in the interview.

    Jerome Imhoff
    The Resume Shop, INK

  8. Anonymous

    I've started using this in all my interviews…the interviewer today REALLY liked it! And it provided me some good insight about what to make sure I'm doing correctly, if I get the job (which I really hope I do!). So thanks a bunch, your blog has really helped me.

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  10. John Coxon

    Great question, asked within the framework of Appreciative Inquiry http://www.appreciativeinquiry.net.au/aidev/ This is a framework we employ when working with managers oursevles and have been showing managers how to use. I had not thought in the past about how to use AI type questions during an interview for a job and its made me return to the AI framework and have a further look at how it might be used. Well done.

    For those without time to research, the Appreciative Inquiry framework is based upon the acrynom HOPE – Hearing Other Peoples Experiences. It’s a story telling framework incorporating stages of discovery, desire, design and destiny, where people frame and ask questions that matter.

    It is essentially a framework to guide and facilitate good conversations.

  11. Nicolette

    What a great question !!!!!! I ‘ll be sure to use this one – it’s very thought provoking for both the interviewer and interviewee alike

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  13. Jeff

    But what if your position is new, and no one has ever worked in it before?

    Instead of just changing “were” to “will be”, my approach to the question was, “From your perspective, what made you decide that this position was necessary and worth creating?”

    I got the job. The VP of the company mentors me.

  14. JMC

    I once asked an interviewer (within my company; actually even with a department on the same floor):

    “As a supervisor, what skills would you hope the person occupying this position would gain or refine?” and followed that up with, “What sort of advancement would you expect for this person?”

    Both questions were gleaned from issues I have with my current position (my job is nothing like the position description, found out that it’s essentially a dead-end unless I transfer elsewhere), and the interviewer actually had really good answers which told me a lot about what type of supervisor she would be.

    I ended up withdrawing my name after having an honest conversation with my supervisor and his boss about problems I was having in my position, but I still see this interviewer on a regular basis and we chit-chat a decent amount. After withdrawing my name, she looked me up to find out why (I initially left a voicemail) and while she was happy that I was able to work things out where I’m at (she admitted she was envious when she saw where I currently work!) she was disappointed as I was one of their top candidates. She even commented that those questions were ones that she had never been asked before, but she really liked them because they indicated that I would show initiative to try new things and a desire to excel.

  15. Finance Student

    I’m still in college, but I actually used this question when I was interviewing for a summer internship – and I got the job!

  16. Lina Souid

    Thinking back to people who have been in this position previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great?

    I haven’t used this yet. But I’ll try it tomorrow and tell you how it goes. I see its appeal because it distinguishes you as someone who strives for greatness, not just being adequate. My major problem in the past is after I ask the practical questions I run out of time and can’t get to the Magic Question. One person only gave me five minutes and that only gave me an opportunity to ask two questions because their answers were a bit long.

    What do you guys think? Should I ask the Magic Question first and then the practical questions?

  17. Anonymous

    I’ve been interviewing for months (currently employed but recently relocated) and have had many interviews – sometimes even a 3rd interview – and I still hadn’t gotten a job offer. Until I used this MAGIC QUESTION during my interview a few weeks ago! Both my first interviewer and second interviewer that day commented what a fantastic question it was, and one even stopped himself in the middle of his answer to comment how impressed he was that I asked it. I got the job less than a week later! USE IT!!!

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  19. Mike

    Oh my . . . I may be the black sheep here.

    I feel like at the end of an interview that is going well and they ask, “What questions do you have,” it’s such a hogwash of formailty and ritual. Really, we have 5 more minutes before your next interview, you’re watching the clock, you’ve heard enough, you know I’ve read the many blogs and articles that say ask three good questions. So what does this really do? What if I’m all the GOOD things at the job but not the GREAT? Do you think I’m going to say, “Thanks for that info. It seems I would only be good at this job and not great.”

    I know there’s the argument about the questions showing more about how you think and form questions, but come on. Everytime I ask questions, good questions, the hiring managers say, “That’s a good question. I don’t know, I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Well, gee, why should I be prepared with questions and answers when they aren’t?

    Obviously bitter here, won’t deny it.

    Thoughts and comments appreciated though :)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I don’t know what kind of jobs you’re applying for, but any good employer (and I’d argue, any good candidate) wants to make sure that the candidate has their questions answered. I’d be really wary about hiring someone who wasn’t thinking through the job enough to have questions for me.

      1. Mike

        True, yes.

        I got hired as a temp for the local energy company; aside from my inital interivew with the staffing agency (which was very elementary), I got the job. They didn’t ask me any additional questions, and they had really no idea what the job was about excpet that it was data entry. With this economy, I couldn’t be wary about taking the job, becuase I need one.

        Recently, I interviewed for a permentant position at the energy company with my boss’s boss. The position is more data entry. Basically the same work I’m doing as a temp. Data entry will always be data entry at the entry level. It will be repetitive, alpha-numeric entry. What questions do I have? Yeah, how long do have to enter numbers before my fingers fall off? Not accetpable right?

        I guess my point is that for these very easy entry level jobs it’s hard to ask genuine questions about the work or the challenges. I’m sure from the hiring manager’s perspective, I’m over simplifying the work, but I assure you I’m not. Type this in, press this button, change this entry, and save. Repeat. And repeat. I have a brain, a degree, and experience. I’ve showed you that in the interview. You already told me what the job functions are. I already temp here. What do you want me to ask that I don’t know? It’s data entry.

        I ended up asking three good questions, actually, but they never fully answered. And I’m not wary of this company as it has a very positive reputation around town. So despite my efforts I feel my questions came across as “He’s gotta bring SOMETHING to the table cuase the articles said so.”

        Hey, I know I’m being a whiny pants here. But I’m also trying to be honest and real about my experience.

        Your blog is REALLY great, so thank you!! (Despite my boldness to come on here and start ranting).

  20. Jeff

    I was in an interview last week, and one of the three interviewers actually asked me “the magic question”!

    After I told him that he stole “my” question I answered it, and when it was my turn to ask questions I still asked him/them the question. Luckily my answer was in the same ballpark as their answer was.

      1. Jeff

        It was fairly similar to the original, something like this:

        “When you think about all that is involved this role, what do you think would be the differences between someone who performs well in the postion and someone whose performance is excellent?”

        1. Jamie

          I would have been so tempted to try to ferret out if they were an AAM reader.

          Give them the side eye and oh so casually drop the phrase “chocolate teapots” into the conversation and see if they react.

          That’s actually a pretty great question from the interviewer side as well – I like that a lot.

  21. EvilInTraining

    I had an interview with a really unique company this morning, and I used this question. Not only is it a great question, but for this particular opportunity it was perfect, as they’re losing someone they really worship to a move out of state. The man I met with got a big smile on his face when I asked it, and I think it really set me apart from the other candidates. Second interview forthcoming! Thanks for sharing this!

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