How much do outside influences play a role in this individual's job performance?
Why Ask This Question?
This query lends itself best to administrative support workers who are often younger, less experienced, and less balanced in their lives and careers than their more senior counterparts. Just because immaturity is a part of growing up doesn't mean that you have to bear the burden of the individual's coming of age. Work is a significant rite of passage in a person's life, but that empathetic notion aside, you don't want to be caught in the middle when someone is in the process of deciding what role work should play relative to personal life.
You've no doubt heard of an otherwise successful hire being derailed by boyfriend or girlfriend problems. Or maybe everything's going great, but 9:00 a.m. seems to come earlier every morning for a new hire preoccupied with too many nocturnal alliances. If your company's hiring strategy is to employ very early career people who have minimal experience and salary requirements, then grab onto this query and employ it religiously.
Analyzing the Response
How honest will past employers be regarding a subordinate's extracurricular activities? It depends on the past supervisor and the nature of the problems vis-a-vis their impact on job performance. And that's very important to keep in mind. Just as in an interview, you don't want to know about personal problems outside the office that have no bearing on the individual's job performance. That's an invasion of privacy and may well end up compromising mechanisms for employee protection contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and other employee rights safeguards. Make no bones about sharing with a reference contact that you want only job-related information. If unrelated information is unintentionally volunteered, keep it in perspective and, by all means, don't write it down.
One final point here: Historical problems are not necessarily clear indicators of an individual's future work performance. People change by learning from their mistakes. So the individual with the tardy problem because of late-night soirees might have graduated from school or relocated away from old friends. The man who couldn't seem to locate a stable apartment and consistently needed to leave work early to apartment-hunt might indeed have established some roots. And the woman who was preoccupied with incoming calls all day from her mother who was having serious troubles with the IRS may have resolved those issues by now.
In all fairness to yourself and the candidate, therefore, delve more deeply into the resolution of any problems. Ask past employers whether they're aware of the problem being resolved. In some cases, you might even want to call the candidate yourself and ask about the status of those issues. In that case, you'll be establishing a relationship based on open communications and simultaneously setting your future performance expectations in one fell swoop.
Would you consider this individual more of a task-oriented or a project-oriented worker?
Why Ask This Question?
Task orientation lends itself more to the clerical-level job opening, where work instructions are dictated from above and followed rigidly. Project orientation involves much more freedom, independent decision making, and discretion to reach targeted goals. The work mode that you desire simply depends on the amount of autonomy you want the individual to exercise in the overall decision-making process.
Analyzing the Response
Past bosses typically respond to this question very subjectively. If the past worker exercised a fair amount of discretion on the job and was capable of moving from point A to point C while delegating someone else to tie up the loose ends at point B, he will be categorized as a project-oriented individual. Note, however, that even if the person holds the title of executive secretary or administrative assistant (titles you would expect to be more project-oriented), he may be categorized as a task-oriented worker by his previous employer. Why? Because titles don't necessarily depict assertiveness, independence, or project-management orientation. Don't forget that this is a highly subjective definition.
Some administrative support employees come from environments that strongly discourage independent decision making. Thus, they are conditioned to obtain waves of sign-offs from their supervisors before venturing into even common activities. When this is the case—even though the employee is acting according to company mandates—this individual will still be described as task-oriented. This doesn't mean that he couldn't handle project work independently; it's simply that the person wasn't given the opportunity to exercise much discretion.
Why is this significant? If you feel you've interviewed someone whose title should correspond with more of a project orientation, and the supervisor classifies this candidate as task-oriented, it's probably worth your while to question the employer about her company's expectations and how she defines task versus project orientation. The extra clarification could explain the former supervisor's subjective interpretation.