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From spotted timberwolves to moving Mount Fuji: The art and wit of job interviews

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January 22, 2024
By Todd Humber

Photo: M Einero/peopleimages.com/Adobe Stock

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Conducting a job interview is always more art than science, but there are some guardrails that can be put in place to ensure HR and the hiring manager get the information they need to make the best decision, according to Evert Akkerman.

He likes to start off the conversation by delving into what attracted the candidate to apply for the job.

“I always include questions like, ‘What prompted you to apply?’ and ‘What did you like about the job posting?’ It’s a great way to gauge people’s motivation,” said Akkerman, an HR consultant and founder of Newmarket, Ont.-based XNL HR & Communications.


It can help determine if the person is just randomly applying for jobs at will or if they’re truly interested in the organization and passionate about the role, he said.

After that, he likes to turn to the job posting and the job description for inspiration to tailor the questions to get the information he needs. He will use a simple Excel sheet to track and score the candidates on experience, education, and particular skills.

“If some of it is missing, I ask questions about it,” he said. “Let’s say it’s a health and safety job. Do you do toolbox meetings with your direct reports in the morning? And sometimes you’ll find that people do have that experience. They just didn’t realize it was missing from their resumé or they just weren’t sure how important it was.”

Probing for any gaps in the resumé or in the skills needed to do the job can uncover strengths and weaknesses.

Evert Akkerman

Questions to ask management hires

An important question to ask, particularly when hiring for management positions, is around their experience with performance management, said Akkerman.

“Do they actually meet with their direct reports one on one?” he said. Do they run coaching sessions, do they help remove roadblocks and what have they done in terms of developing their teams?

“I find in many organizations people in supervisory positions can’t be bothered to do performance reviews or actually meet with their staff,” said Akkerman. “People are your most important asset — it’s your human capital. So why not make that effort?”

Offbeat interview questions

Akkerman is not a fan of some of the “out there” interview questions that are used by some organizations to assess a candidate’s problem-solving skills.

It includes things like, “How would you move Mount Fuji” or “How many square feet of pizza are eaten in Canada each year?” These types of questions don’t necessarily have correct answers but can be used to probe how candidates approach tasks.

He always lets candidates know that the questions aren’t designed to throw them for a loop or to be curveballs.

“We’re here to establish a basis for trust,” said Akkerman. “You have to be the right candidate for the company, but the company also has to be the right work environment for you. We have nothing to gain by irritating you or trying to see if we can get you stressed out.”

Asking those kinds of questions is a bit of a “power trip” in his opinion, and it doesn’t really give any truly useful information to HR or the hiring manager.

Instead, take the conversation to more of a grassroots level and ask the candidate for concrete examples of how they’ve simplified a process that resulting in cost savings or a story about the time they went above and beyond for a customer.

“I find those common questions — and answers — much more predictive,” said Akkerman.

Ask about performance reviews

Another tactic that yields useful information is asking candidates to talk about how other people view them.

“You’ve probably had performance reviews and coaching sessions over the years. What have people said about you and your work? What kind of feedback have you gotten?” he said.

The advantage to that line of questioning is that it’s nearly impossible to make up answers on the fly, he said.

“I think it’s a fair question. It sort of makes people have to step out of their own shoes. How did other people perceive them? And I typically find those answers really good,” said Akkerman. “That’s the really good information that helps me out in the selection process.”

Questions to avoid

There are plenty of prohibited grounds that need a wide berth, including questions on family status, religion, and disability. But beyond being prohibited by law, those questions don’t yield anything useful anyway, he said.

“There is no predictive value there,” said Akkerman.

One trap to avoid is that the candidates often volunteer and bring up prohibited information on their own.

“They volunteer their age, they volunteer whether or not they have kids,” he said. In those cases, you have to interrupt.

“It’s not relevant, I don’t need to know, I don’t want to know, let’s move on to the next question,” he said. “We’ve invited you for this interview based on the skills that you listed on your resumé. That’s what piqued our interest and that’s where I’ll focus my questions.”

Another one that irks him is, “If you could be an animal for a day, what would you be?”

“Being a spotted timberwolf for a day doesn’t mean they’d be great as a receptionist, accountant, or VP sales,” said Akkerman.

He also avoids asking people what they think their weaknesses are, because they usually come armed with canned answers.

“Plus, you hire people based on their strengths. I don’t need to know what their weaknesses are,” he said. “Also, I like interviews to be a two-way street. Why does the recruiter get to ask about a candidate’s weaknesses? It would only be fair if the HR person then shared one of their weaknesses with the candidate.”

Closed questions, such as asking if they’re good at multitasking, get along with co-workers, or if they’re good with computers, should also be tossed in the wastebasket, he said.

“The answers are predictable and don’t provide real information.”

Questions from candidates

It’s not only questions from hiring managers and HR that can be pointless, he said. He rhymed off a few questions from candidates that he finds telling — including the common “what does a typical day look like?”

“I find it too passive. It depends more on you than us,” he said. Once the orientation process is over, the role is really the person’s to define.

“We’re paying you for your expertise and quality of your judgement to fill your days and decide what your priorities are,” he said.

Crafting the job posting

Diving deeper into the intricacies of crafting an effective job posting, Akkerman stresses its importance as the bedrock of the recruitment process.

“It should also be a marketing piece,” he said, suggesting that a well-crafted job posting not only lists the requirements but also sells the company to potential candidates.

Regarding the number of interviews required in the hiring process, Akkerman recommends a balanced approach. “Typically three sessions,” he said, outlining a process that begins with a screening call and progresses to more in-depth interviews. He emphasizes the need for respect for candidates’ time and the importance of making a decision without unnecessary delays.

Reference checks

Akkerman’s perspective on reference checks is particularly interesting. Once skeptical of their value, he now sees them as critical, provided the right questions are asked.

“It’s a matter of which questions you ask and how you ask those questions,” he said, highlighting the need for listening for nuances and understanding the candidate’s past performance and growth.

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