Five Questions Successful Interviewers Ask Job Candidates


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Job interviews can be awkward for everyone. For interviewers, especially newly-appointed leaders and managers, it can be challenging to ascertain what kind of questions will actually reveal what you need to know about a potential employee; for people being interviewed, nerves can be overwhelming and make it difficult for your potential future employer to get to know you.  These factors make it all the more important for hiring managers to learn to ask the right questions during an interview to make sure a candidate will fit into their workplace. 

Of course, there’s no one perfect question to ask when you’re hiring someone new, but asking good questions, beyond the typical, “so tell me about yourself,” requires preparation, understanding why you’re asking the question, and displaying compassion for the person you’re interviewing. We chatted with coffee industry experts—and one professional recruiter—about the questions they ask during interviews, and what it can reveal about a potential candidate. 

What’s a difficult situation you’ve encountered at work, and how did you deal with it?

Broad, open-ended questions allow candidates room to share their ideas and experiences.  Asking how someone deals with problems is a classic interview question for a reason—it can reveal not just how someone operates under pressure, but how they might handle difficult situations in the future. 

Coffee consultant Bryan T. Choi said that while he was a manager at Copa Vida, asking this question “gives me insight into how that person reacts to a situation gone wrong.” How they answer can help an interviewer see if a candidate will shut down or take proactive steps to solve problems. Difficult situations can be complex, and asking this helps an interviewer assess a candidate’s ability and willingness to find a resolution in the face of adversity, even if the outcome wasn’t successful. 

This is a question that has no one correct answer, but listening closely to how an applicant responds will tell an interviewer a lot. “It helps me figure out how they handle problems,” says Brittany Sims, a coffee writer (and occasional Fresh Cup contributor) and barista who has managed multiple coffee shops. 

Sims said they’re not looking for a prescriptive answer and believes multiple responses are valid, from feeling like they have “a clear head [to respond] or if they are quick to call a manager, rather than handle an issue that is beyond them.” The only bad answer, according to Sims, is “if they just talk about how weird it was and didn’t really find a solution.” 

Some questions transcend industries. Jackie Jones, director of talent acquisition at Intercept Pharmaceuticals, interviews roughly 400-500 candidates per year and hires 35-40 people annually. She recommends asking at least one question where a candidate explains why they made a particular choice or to take you through their thought process as they come up with a solution. “This will tell you about how people problem solve and how they think about their role in the workplace,” she says. 

How do you take care of yourself outside of work?

Marissa Childers, founder of Tanbrown Coffee in Atlanta, Georgia, used to manage coffee shops and frequently interviewed candidates to fill job openings. They recommend asking candidates about their lives outside of work. Far from being invasive, this both tells you a bit about a potential candidate and signals to them that the company recognizes that they are more than an employee. “Work is only part of who you are,” Childers said. 

But this question can also tell interviewers information to help cultivate a healthy work culture. “The well-being of a person can make or break team dynamics, especially when working on rigorous teams,” Childers says. 

Similar to questions about difficult situations, there’s no right or wrong answer. Childers said that how a candidate answered this question “showed me how people were with boundaries and showed what made people happy,” which helped them make hiring decisions.  

New team members can alter work dynamics, and the interview is the time to start assessing what a new person brings to the team beyond their coffee skillset. 

What feedback have you received that was really tough to hear? What did you do with that feedback?

Jones recommends this question for two reasons: one, it can help a manager ascertain how a candidate will respond to criticism; two, it can reveal if someone is comfortable processing information and learning new ways to do things. “It’s really telling what internal stories people fall back on. It shows how they see what they’ve done and how they see their own growth.” 

But feedback isn’t all about the recipient, and an insightful follow-up question can be to ask candidates how they best receive feedback. Giving feedback can be challenging in its own right, but receiving it, especially when it’s critical, can be enough to throw someone’s entire day off. Some people prefer to hear criticism in the moment so they can course correct quickly, and some people prefer having a one-on-one later and having time to reflect on a critique. Knowing how candidates prefer to receive feedback is good for managers to assess whether they can work well together. 

What are some of your hobbies outside of work? 

Ger O’Donohue, former owner of This Is It, used interviews to get to know people beyond their work styles. During his career opening and managing cafes (as well as a brief stint as a recruiter), he has hired approximately 300 people. He prefers to find out what candidates are passionate about and see how that translates into working in a coffee shop. 

“I try to find the thing they’re most passionate about. I hired one girl once because she was an archer who was ‘exceptionally excited by the power and precision of the bow in my hand.’” Identifying what a candidate is passionate about can help hiring managers connect with candidates and understand their learning styles. For example, the precision required to shoot an arrow lends itself well to the precision required to pour latte art.  

Can you tell me about a time when you had to work with someone with a completely different working style? How did you adapt to working with that person?

Jones thinks this is a particularly beneficial question for teams where cooperation is key—everyone has had experience working with someone they didn’t necessarily work well with. When people have to come together to complete a project in a time-sensitive fashion, like making drinks during a rush, figuring out if people will work together well is vital. “This question helps identify if a candidate is adaptable and if they communicate well,” Jones said. 

“It tells me if they’re self-aware—if they’re able to recognize that they’re clashing with someone and willing to ask ‘how can I improve this situation?’” Of course, not every situation can be solved through proactiveness and self-awareness, but asking candidates to talk out how they deal with challenging situations gives you insight into their problem-solving skills and can open the door to discussion on how conflicts are handled in your business. 

Ideally, interviewers should plan their questions in advance while leaving room for the conversation to progress naturally and for candidates to ask their own questions (think back to the questions outlined above: do you have a protocol for handling conflict amongst staff? How do you support employees working through difficult situations?). Questions can and should reflect the specific role and team that candidate might step into and should demonstrate that you’ve read their resume or looked through their work or school experience. 

And you don’t have to take the suggestions of our experts exactly—Jones recommends tailoring questions to the candidate based on their résumé.  Designing a hypothetical situation can help first-time job seekers  who might not have work experience to look back on. When interviewing someone with more experience, specific questions can be useful to dig into their work experience and see how past experiences have shaped them as an employee. 

Ultimately, an interview is about getting to know a person and assessing how they will fit into a team. Keeping that goal in mind will help interviewers have more effective interviews and be able to make hiring decisions efficiently, thoughtfully, and with compassion and care for the people applying. 

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Valorie Clark

Valorie Clark is a writer and historian based in Los Angeles. She often writes about coffee, travel, social history, and the intersection of all three. When she’s not writing, she’s probably bending to her cat’s every whim.

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