That Initial Question

Once the ice has been broken and you've had a chance to explore common areas of your careers and/or lives, it's time to kick off that ever-important initial interviewing question. Unfortunately, here's where employers sometimes go wrong. Ask too general a question, and you could easily get thrown off track, or worse, you could be burdened with uncomfortable information that you probably shouldn't know about as a hiring manager.

The key question to avoid is, ''So tell me all about yourself!'' That's because it's simply too broad an invitation to share information that's not relevant to the interview. Besides, where would you expect a candidate to start? From his current career backward or from his education forward? Worse, you could end up with information that you really don't want to know about: ''Well, I'm a recent cancer survivor, and that's really taught me. . . .''

Remember, if a candidate shares information that you probably shouldn't know about during an interview, the first rule is: Don't write it down anywhere! The second rule is to simply steer the candidate in a different direction by acknowledging ''Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Okay, let's focus a little more on career experience rather than on the personal history during our meeting today. Let me ask you about a particular aspect of your current role at ABC Investments.''

Instead of risking opening a potential can of worms with that broad ''tell me all about yourself'' opener, try something light like this:

''Tell me about your job search up to now. How's it been going and what have your experiences been?''

''So, before we launch too deeply into your experience and background as well as what we're looking for in our next hire, tell me what criteria you're using in selecting your next company or position. What's really important to you?''

''Not to limit you in any way, but besides us, who else is on your radar screen out there? Who would be the two or three other leading companies that you would pursue right now if you could?''

Again, the goal here is to look for common ground. It's perfectly fine for candidates to open up the meeting discussing their overall needs and desires in the job search process. You'll gain some quick insights into their taste in companies, their realistic assessment of themselves in terms of fitting into those companies, and their general experiences as a candidate.

You'll get a completely different impression from someone, for example, who wasn't currently looking to change jobs until hearing about this particular opening at your firm. In that case, this candidate will rise in your eyes because she'll see joining your company as a special opportunity (which is always flattering). In comparison, if candidates can't articulate what criteria they're using in selecting their next company or position or can't really identify a short list of competitors where they'd be proud to work, then the impression may be less favorable. And that initial impression could go a long way in creating a dialogue around the potential fit factor in your company.

If you're dealing with earlier-career candidates who may not have much experience under their belts or with a general workforce that's more job oriented rather than career-oriented, try one of the following openers instead:

''So let me ask you the most important question before we begin: Do you enjoy interviewing, or would you rather stick needles in your eye?''

''Most surveys will tell you that there are only two things that people hate more than interviewing—dying and paying taxes. Does that describe you fairly well, or do you actually enjoy interviewing a bit more than that?''

Likewise, you might try something like this for managerial candidates to put them at ease:

Let me switch roles with you before we begin. When you hire people at your own company, what do you generally look for in terms of their backgrounds, experience, and overall style? And what do you like or dislike about interviewing from my side of the desk?''

A little humor or switched role-playing can go a long way in putting people at ease, and most candidates will certainly appreciate your goodwill gesture.

 
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