what are the best questions to ask in a job interview, as either the interviewer or the candidate?

We’ve got two questions about interview questions, from different sides of the interview table. First, an interviewer asks:

I’ve hired for junior-level positions before, but for the first time, I need to interview candidates for a manager role. What questions should I be asking candidates at this level?

When interviewing candidates for any role, the overarching key is to get beneath the superficial and truly probe a candidate’s fit for the role. With candidates for management roles, you’re particularly looking for a drive toward getting results – people who understand what it takes to get things done, who will make hard decisions and find ways past roadblocks, and who have the smarts and interpersonal skills to influence and motivate others.

Here are five questions that will help you suss out those traits.

1. “What has your biggest achievement been at (current or recent company)? What results there that you produced are you most proud of?”
You’re looking here for someone with a track record ofbuilding something, or making things happen, or taking a project successfully from A to B (where B is bigger and better than A). Beware candidates who talk in hypotheticals about what they could achieve rather than being able to tell you what they actually have achieved.

2. “Tell me about a goal you or your team had that you didn’t meet.”
By getting the candidate talking about how a time when things didn’t go well, you’ll learn about how much insight she has into why some projects don’t succeed, how much responsibility she takes when something goes wrong, and whether she learns from failure. You should also watch here for humility: Does the candidate take responsibility for what went wrong, or does she blame others?

3. “Tell me about a time when ….”
The best way to predict how candidates will act in the future is to find out how they’ve actually acted in the past. So rather than asking questions that focus on hypothetical situations, like how a candidate thinksshe would handle a particular situation, instead probe into how they’ve really acted in the past, by asking about a time when they had to manage a struggling performer, set goals for a new area of work, resolve a problem on their team, or any of the other work they’ll need to perform in the role you’re hiring for.

4. “That’s interesting. Tell me more about that.”
Too often, interviewers ask a question, hear an answer, and then move on. But you’ll learn far more if you focus on depth over breadth in your questions – getting into the details of a few experiences rather than covering each and every job listed on a resume. For instance, you might ask to hear about one of the candidate’s most important projects and how she managed it from start to finish. From there, you might ask follow-up questions like: What was the initial vision for the project? What happened?
How did you ensure that happened? What was the biggest challenge? How did you deal with that? Why did you choose that route? What lessons did you take away?

Interview like this, and you should get a much greater understanding of how your candidates really operate.

5. “Tell me about a difficult personnel decision you’ve had to make.”
Rigorous people practices are critical for building a team of talented staffers who can perform at a high level. Ask the candidate to walk you through a people problem she faced, what her thought process was, and how she ultimately handled it. Listen here for signs that she holds her staff to a high bar while being fair and compassionate, and that she’s willing to make tough decisions.

Next, a job candidate asks this:

I was recently interviewed for a job, and when the interviewer asked me what questions I had for her, I didn’t know what to ask. Most of what I was wondering about had been covered earlier in the conversation. Is it OK to not ask questions at all in that situation? And if not, what are the best questions to ask?

1. What are the biggest challenges the person in this position will face?
This question shows that you don’t have blinders on in the excitement about a new job; you recognize that every job has difficult elements and that you’re being thoughtful about what it will take to succeed in the position.

2. What would a successful first year in the position look like?
This question shows that you’re thinking in the same terms that the hiring manager does — about what the new hire will need to excel. You’ll also sound like someone who isn’t seeking to simply do the bare minimum, but rather to truly achieve in the role.

3. How will the success of the person in this position be measured?
This question might sound similar to the previous one, but it will give you more insight into what the hiring manager values most. You might discover that while the job description emphasizes skill A or responsibility B, the manager actually cares most about skill C or responsibility D.

4. How would you describe the culture here? What type of people tend to really thrive, and what types don’t do as well?
If the culture is formal and highly structured and you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment, or if it’s an aggressive, competitive environment and you are more low-key and reserved, this job might not be an ideal fit for you. And you want to find this out before you take the job, not after you’re already working there.

5. Thinking back to the people who you’ve seen in this role previously, what’s the difference between a good performance and a great one?
Interviewers love this question, because it signals that you’re someone who cares not just about doing an okay or even good job, but about being truly great. It’s hard not to adore the candidate who asks this.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Kevin*

    If you are interviewing and can ask a technical question that involves what the position deals with, it has the potential to really impress your interviews (at least for me and an entry-level position it did). For example, if you are interviewing for chocolate tea pot maker and ask what type of chocolate they make their tea pots from. Not the best example but I can’t top that using chocolate tea pots at the moment.

    1. Kerry*

      So just to clarify, you mean that as someone being interviewed for a job, that question could impress your interviewer. Correct?

      1. Kevin*


        I was being interviewed and I asked a question related to the position. It was something someone in the position would deal with and not a general “what does success look like?” They responded with “wow good question.”

  2. Jared*

    I think questions about a company’s culture is definitely a must no matter what side of the table you’re on. That can mean the difference between a short term and long term employee.

  3. Brett*

    I had a candidate recently ask question #4 in an interview. It was actually a very good question to ask because our culture is unique; not being scared off by the answer is a good sign in a candidate for us.

  4. Felicia*

    I always ask #5 in every single interview, because i think how they answer that is revealing. I will definitely start asking #4 because my last job had a horrible culture of stress and fear. I don’t think they would have admitted that, but there could be many red flags.

  5. MR*

    I asked the last question in an interview about three weeks ago. It was an eye-opener for the interviewer and it definitely caught him off-guard. I think he was impressed and I recommend others ask that question in future interviews.

  6. voluptuousfire*

    Definitely used #5 in interviews. Most people rather liked the question. It did throw some interviewers though. If it threw them, I knew I didn’t want to work for them.

    One thing I ended up doing was creating a form for myself for job interviews with about a dozen general-ish questions (which included #4 and #5) and left a few blank spots for other questions as they came up. It really helped me organize my interviews and having my questions prepared so thoroughly shows I meant business.

  7. Anon*

    One more tip for applicants: if you’re asked a question that asks you to talk about specific past experiences, don’t answer with hypotheticals! When I hire, I ask a lot of questions that begin “Tell me about a time…” and I’ve found that many candidates who are strong on paper really struggle to provide concrete real-life examples, even after additional prompting.

    1. Shelbt Theis*

      Yes, yes, emphatically yes! An interviewer who chooses behavioral interviewing does so because they distinctly value hearing real world experiences over hypotheticals. Most candidates know how they should react in a given situation and can respond with a good hypothetical; however, often, what one should do in a given situation is not what they end up doing when it’s real life. I have had several memorable instances where prompting a specific example after being given a hypothetical has proven this-people do not always behave in real life as they like to think they would.

  8. Pararetail*

    In my last interview about two weeks ago (got the job!), I asked a combo of #1 and #2 and then a general, “What are the qualities you look for in a candidate for this position?” I’d worked for the company before and made it clear in my answers that I remembered the corporate beliefs/goals/etc, so I felt comfortable asking more general questions. I had two interviewers, and they both lit up and sat up straighter when I asked my first question. The interview lasted another 20 minutes, with *them* answering *my* questions and giving some incredible advice and pointers on how to succeed.

    Point: *always* ask at least one question, and if your interviewer(s) seem engaged, have a second ready to ask, even if you think they’ve already answered it. (That’s what I did. I said, “I think you’ve already answered this–it was going to be blah blah blah,” and off they went.) It’s a great way to cement your interest in the company and a good way to gauge how well you interviewed. And if you have a panel interview, it’s a great way to see how the co-workers interact; mine were of equal level but from different locations and clearly had a healthy, friendly rapport–and were on the same page on how to do things. I didn’t see any part of that while they were taking turns asking me canned, corporate questions. That would have been an unfortunate opportunity to miss.

  9. Vicki*

    Three of my favorite questions as a candidate are:
    * Please describe this position in your own words.
    * If I got the job and we would work together, what might that interaction be like?
    * What question should I ask that I haven’t asked?

    The third above is my favorite question when I’m interviewing someone.

  10. McGuest*

    I always ask about company culture (#4) when I’m interviewing.

    I’ve learned the hard way that “We work hard, but we play hard” is code for “We will overwork you so much that you will be driven to drink.”

    If it’s not readily apparent, I ask about the management style of the person immediately over me. If they are an extreme workaholic, a micromanager, or are described as “fiery” then I am probably not going to be a good fit.

  11. Crystal*

    What skills or experiences are you looking for that may not be on my resume?

    This is a great way to learn what you may need to improve on or help prove to the hiring manager that you are the best person for the job.

  12. cwes1492*

    I completely agree with AAM’s advice on whether a job applicant should ask questions of an interviewer if those questions had already been covered. I recently interviewed a guy for an open position that received a lot of applications. He had no questions for me. Zero. He said it was because they’d been answered during the course of our conversation, but to me it seemed like he hadn’t put any thought or prep into the interview, and we ended up going with another candidate who seemed to have taken a more thoughtful approach.

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