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Asking potential employees how they handled specific situations will allow interviewers to better gauge how people conduct themselves in the workplace. (Comstock/Getty Images)
Asking potential employees how they handled specific situations will allow interviewers to better gauge how people conduct themselves in the workplace. (Comstock/Getty Images)

Ask a Career Coach

How can I elicit more thoughtful answers from job candidates? Add to ...

The Question:

I’m a retail manager, and I often do interviews to hire our store’s seasonal staff. The problem is, I get the same canned answers from people all the time.

When I ask: “If a customer asked you about a product or service that you don’t know anything about, how would you handle it?” I’d say 19 times out of 20, I get an answer like: “I would seek out a manager to help look after the customer.” If I ask what they’d be doing during that time, they tell me they’d help another customer. But I’m looking for people who will take the initiative and turn the situation into a learning opportunity. Sure, ask the manager, but then stick by them to learn about the product so, next time, you can handle it on your own. It’s very rare that I get that answer.

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Is there anything I can do to ask the question in a different way, or ask better questions to avoid getting those generic answers?

The Answer:

You are not getting the information you would like because you are not asking for the right information. The answers you are getting are generalizations of how someone may deal with a situation. You should be looking for specific examples, derived from real-life examples. This is called behaviour-descriptive interviewing and it is used by many organizations to get a feel of how a potential employee behaves in certain situations.

First, determine the competency or trait you are looking for in an employee. Each answer should come complete with the situation, tactic, action and result (STAR). For example, if you are looking for someone who is polite and courteous, you may want to ask: “Tell me about the nicest compliment you received.” When the scenario is described, pay attention to how the employee describes his or her behaviour. How was the compliment received? What did the person do to build on the compliment, and so on? Try to get lots of rich information from the potential employee by asking for specific details.

Other helpful questions for retail jobs may be: “Tell me about a time when you helped a co-worker solve a problem or learn something new,” which would speak to how the employee co-operates with others, or “Tell me about a time when you have demonstrated excellent customer service.” You might want to ask: “Tell me about a time when you had to learn a new job skill quickly,” or “Tell me about a time when a customer did not know what they wanted and you helped them?”

One of my favourites is “Tell me about a time you disagreed with your supervisor. How did you handle it?”

These are all questions that force the potential employee to recall specific instances when their behaviour has determined the outcome. It will give you a good picture of how this person conducts himself or herself in the workplace. Once you get these valuable details, it will help you decide who would best fit with your team.

Eileen Dooley is a certified coach and lead consultant for McRae Inc. in Calgary.

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