Words that win: 4 nontraditional job interview questions

Filling a job opening can be tricky if there are several great candidates. You can separate the best from the rest by changing up the usual interview questions.

Nontraditional job interview questions elicit answers that will help you assess candidates on a different level. Next time you’re hiring, try these four interview questions:

1. “Tell me about a time you were treated unfairly at work. How was it resolved?”

This question nudges most candidates outside of their comfort levels. However, true team players who work well with others should be able to explain how being treated “unfairly” actually provided an opportunity to take responsibility and end up with a positive outcome. Candidates who take a victim stance are not what you are looking for.

2. “What’s the most adventurous or risky thing you’ve ever done?”

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While this may seem like a loaded question, it’s actually a good way to identify candidates who enjoy getting the most out of life. Those who lead active lives are most likely to be proactive at work.

3. “If you could be any superhero for a day, who would you be?”

This question can help you see a clear division between great and so-so candidates. The best candidates will be able to logically explain why being a superhero would be beneficial to mankind. And the stronger the powers of the superhero, the more powerful the job candidate sees himself.

4. “What are the first three things you do at work in the morning?”

This is a fun question, but it has a purpose. Since much of the workday requires planning and prioritizing, what a candidate does first thing in the morning is important. The best candidates will generally respond by explaining the use of a calendar system to stay on top of tasks, or by talking about getting the most important things done first as a priority.

Asking nontraditional interview questions allows you to observe a few things about your candidate pool: How comfortable are interviewees with unexpected questions? Can they think on their feet and not panic? Are they creative? Can they roll with the punches and maybe have a bit of fun in a stressful situation?

Those are all good qualities in an employee, and you might not dig deep enough to find these qualities with straightforward, traditional interview questions.

Turn the tables

Once you select the candidate with the qualities you want in your employees, you could find yourself answering a big question from some of those you passed over: Why didn’t you hire me? Think before you reply. You may be tempted to say things like:

  • “Your experience and skills are impressive, but…”
  • “We’ve decided to go in another direction.”
  • “We found a candidate with more specific experience.”

If a rejected job-seeker presses for more information—“What other direction are you taking?” or “What more spe­­cific experience do they have?”—don’t feel you have to answer. Keep your response polite but vague: “I really can’t go into detail about other candidates, but we do appreciate your interviewing with us.”

If a candidate persists, try something like, “Our recruitment process and selection criteria are confidential, so I can’t comment on what did or did not go well in your interview process.”

The more detail you go into, the more potential liability you open up for you and your company. That’s why some HR managers and recruiters refuse to respond to such requests.

However, you should always contact someone you interviewed in person, whether by phone (especially for upper-level or management positions) or email. This allows the candidate to move on without wondering whether the job is still a possibility. Sincerely thank each applicant you interviewed and offer best wishes for the job hunt.

If treated with respect and courtesy, that rejected applicant may refer future employees to you or someday even become one of those employees herself.


Author: Josephine T. Hughes is CEO and founder of Josephine’s Personnel Services in San Jose, Calif.