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9 Specific Questions To Discover Job-Candidate Red Flags

red flag flying on a beach near a pier

I once opened a pizza restaurant. I was a junior in college, and a buddy of mine convinced me we could do it. We could not. But we did learn a few things in the process of building a restaurant (literally, with tools and everything), hiring a staff, and running a business (for the few months that we did). Among the things I learned is that people say the darndest things during an interview.

Sometimes candidates would (intentionally or not) give the impression they didn’t actually want the job, and other times they exposed the worst parts of their personalities in barely disguised ways. Something about our rinky-dink pizza place made them feel so at ease with not getting the job that they gave me a free lesson on all the wrong things to say during an interview.

But getting most people to act that way can be difficult—probably because most businesses aren’t quite as hopeless as “Wooden House Pizza” was. With that in mind, here are 9 questions you can ask that will reveal job-candidate red flags:

Question: Tell me about your current (or previous) boss.

What you’re looking for: Overly negative responses. Some bosses stink; this is hard to debate. But getting overly negative when discussing a boss is often more an indicator of the person being interviewed than the bosses being slandered. Some people seem to think that all bosses are bad, and those people tend to reveal as much to anybody who asks. If somebody badmouths their current or previous boss in an interview, it might be safe to assume they’d dislike their supervisors at your company as well if you give them the job. So maybe don’t.

Question: What do you know about our company?

What you’re looking for: If they’ve bothered to do their homework. If it’s apparent they didn’t investigate your company, be skeptical of why they are applying. Not every candidate is going to know a ton about your business, but if they don’t bother learning anything meaningful about your company beforehand, they might not be very serious about the position. At the very least it shows a lack of preparedness, which opens up a few other concerns.

Question: Tell us about a time you led a work team.

What you’re looking for: What kind of leader they are. Listen carefully to how they describe the situation. Do they remember the team dynamic and all the pieces that went into the project? Or do they just remember what they did? In their story, who is the hero of the story: Themselves or the team? If it’s all about them, that’s probably a bad sign.

Question: How excited are you about being offered this position?

What you’re looking for: Their real level of interest. This one may require a little body language translation and instinct. More likely than not—whether they’re desperate or merely hoping to leverage an offer at their current company—they’ll say something like “very excited.” But if they don’t give a direct answer and begin to talk about how they’re meeting with other companies (etc.), that might be a bad sign. Never pay too much attention to your instincts because they can lead you astray, but don’t totally ignore them when it feels like the candidate just isn’t that into the position.

Question: What is one area you feel you can improve professionally?

What you’re looking for: Honesty. I know, I know. This question is the worst. But it can reveal something about the candidate. Not necessarily in the specifics of their answer, but rather in how honestly they approach it. Think about it. Everyone has a weakness. And while it might not be fair to expect them to reveal their biggest, ugliest weakness, it’s worth observing if they give a weakness. If they give a weakness that isn’t actually a weakness (“I just care too much about getting the job done right”), then at least at some level you know they have an issue with honesty.

Question: What would your current (or previous) employer say you need to improve on professionally?

What you’re looking for: More honesty. Assuming you’ve already mentioned you’ll want references from previous employers, this question can cause an anxiety attack—which is a little mean. But it’s also a very effective way to get a more accurate answer than the previous question. If their answer drastically changes from the previous question—and depending on the specifics of this new answer—you might have some big red flags to deal with.

Question: What one part of the job description would you take out and why?

What you’re looking for: Their fit for the position. Chances are that whatever they choose is something in the job description that they feel less confident in or something they do not want to do. Depending on how important the activity (or activities) is to the position, you can know pretty easily if the candidate is a bad fit.

Question: If we found somebody equally as qualified as you (in every possible way), why should we hire you over them?

What you’re looking for: Arrogance and entitlement. You want people who are confident they’re the right candidate for the job. But if they respond to this answer with incredulity, or if they just assume they should get the job “cause I’m the best” or “because my uncle works here,” it might be a sign that they are arrogant or have an unhealthy sense of entitlement. For the record, the best answer to this question is, “Sounds like you should hire us both.”

Question: What do you remember from your first interview?

What you’re looking for: If they were really listening. This is obviously a question for the second round of interviews. If you ask this question and the candidate seems to have forgotten an exorbitant amount from the previous interview, it means they’ve either got very bad recall or they’re just not that interested in the position—both of which are bad signs.

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