My Favorite Interview Question

by Sharlyn Lauby on May 13, 2010

Years ago I found an interview question that I really liked.  One that told me a lot about candidates.  I forget how I discovered it, but once I did I’ve been using it ever since.  The question is:

Tell me about a time you had to work with someone you did not personally like.

I think one of the reasons it’s a great question is because it uses behavioral interviewing techniques.  People have to reach back into their experience and share a story about dealing with people.  The answer will give you some insight into how they would react if placed in that situation again.

I also believe it’s one of those questions you can’t fake.  Sorry folks, but if anyone tells you “Oh I’m a people person and I get along with everyone.”  They’re lying.  Pure and simple.  We all have to interact with people that might not be on our BFF list.  It’s a part of business and there’s nothing wrong with it.  The important part is how people handle the situation.

The answer to this question can tell you volumes about the type of people the candidate enjoys working with, who they don’t enjoy working with, and how they handle uncomfortable situations.  All great things to know when evaluating how someone will acclimate into your corporate culture.

So tell me…what’s your favorite interview question?

Image courtesy of I Don’t Know, Maybe

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Sharlyn Lauby June 25, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Thanks for adding to the list Carrie. I really like the question. And can see how it gets a better reply than “What motivates you?”

Gina September 9, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Oh this can be such a loaded question. There are some people that will handle this one as gingerly as possible- some red flags there. But then there are those that will lay it all out on the table. These people can be good and bad. The good is that you know they are being honest and they are not holding back. The bad- you may get too much info and have a person that shoots from the hip on every issue. If they are so candid in the interview process- just think how they will be when they are comfortable in their role.

Sharlyn Lauby September 10, 2010 at 8:13 am

Thanks for sharing Gina. Your comment reminded me of a manager I worked with years ago. Nicest, sweetest person ever. Her employees loved her. But OMG, talk about TMI…the stuff she told others…yikes.

Michelle September 14, 2010 at 9:59 am

That is a good question – and like you say, it can really give you an idea of how a person will handle that type of situation in the future (and having a co-worker you don’t necessarily get along with is a pretty common workplace situation). A lot of people will, mistakenly, use this question to vent about their cubicle neighbour that drove them nuts, or about an over-powering boss. How they vent, though, tells you a lot. For example, if they explain the situation, and express that they didn’t necessarily get along with that co-worker but tried to come to an agreement and set aside their differences for the sake of productivity (as opposed to just complaining), then it shows that the candidate has good problem solving skills.

My favourite interview question is: tell me about yourself. It’s not exactly my favourite to answer (I don’t particularly like talking about myself) but I was asked this question in a recent interview, and when I started going on about my education, my work ethic, etc, the interviewer said “Okay, that’s all great. But now tell me about yourself. What do you do for fun, what are your interests, etc.” I thought this was interesting – I had never before been asked those questions in a job interview. It was, I thought, harder to answer than the old version of the question. (I did get the job though!).

Sharlyn Lauby September 15, 2010 at 11:15 am

Thanks for the comment Michelle. I couldn’t help but smile while I was reading this. One time, I asked a candidate the “tell me” question. 90 minutes later … I didn’t have the heart to ask the second question. ha!

iris n. October 18, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Several years ago, I was startled to be questioned at my interview by–”So, tell me about yourself.” …Then, it was quiet. That was all the prompt I received. Now, there were so many things I could have said, if they had asked about my background or experiences or some other objective-type of answers. However, when asked such an open-ended question, I was caught off guard. Thankfully, I was able to quickly jump in by stating a brief introduction about my background, and then talking about the other qualifications/experiences I had, along with also being able to give a few points on what made me a unique individual. I passed the interview with flying colors, but that was one scary moment that I would never forget.

Another question I have been asked is– In this environment, there are many assertive and aggressive individuals, who would not hesitate to step over you. Tell me how you think you will fit in such an environment. This was another interesting question that I will never forget…

Sharlyn Lauby October 18, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Thanks for the comment Iris. I once knew someone who asked the definition of aggressive and assertive during interviews. Felt it told her something about the individual.

Cheelone November 8, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Our IT department — which is a small, very close-knit TEAM of overachievers — likes to ask the following: If you had to choose between receiving an A+ performance rating as an individual or receiving a B- as a member of a team, which one would you choose & why?

Sharlyn Lauby November 8, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Love the question! Thanks for sharing. I’m going to have to “borrow” it sometime…

Judy Lindenberger November 28, 2010 at 8:24 am

Sharlyn, I love that question. The comments here remind me of a time when I interviewed a job candidate and asked her the typical, “Tell me your strengths and weaknesses” question. The candidate gave me a list of strengths and said that she did not have any weaknesses. I told her that she could take her time to to think about it and she came up with nothing. I told her that we all have things we are working on and she still came up with nothing. I asked her to think about performance discussions she had and nothing. She insisted that she had no flaws. I did not hire her, of course, because I was concerned about her self-awareness, humility, and ability to hear feedback, learn and grow.

Kristine Hinrichs March 21, 2011 at 4:45 pm

My favorite question is at the end of the interview “Is there anything that you think that we need to know about you that didn’t come out in our questions?”. I find that it tests the candidate’s ability to summarize what has gone on and does provide them with an opportunity to make that final point. I also like it because it is an unexpected question.

Sharlyn Lauby March 22, 2011 at 9:05 am

Thank you everyone for continuing to add your faves to this post. It’s become a real interview prep guide!

Robert Smith May 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Manufacturing environment here. When workers are absent or are tardy, plant productivity suffers. Hence I ask, “define work ethic and describe yours.”

Sharlyn Lauby May 16, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Thanks for the comment Robert. It reminds me of one I’ve heard before – Tell me what you consider to be “acceptable attendance”. Oh the answers you would get…

Kerry Benik July 12, 2011 at 2:01 pm

There is a link on this page to a great 5 page pdf of behavioral based interview questions with categories of common job requirements and the types of question you might use.

Douglas Andrews August 16, 2011 at 9:18 am

I agree, great question. It also opens the doors for an additional follow up question from the answer you get….”Oh ok, so when xxx occurred what did you do?” or something similar. Follow up questions can really reveal how a candidate can communicate.

Megan August 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm

So, as I’m in the process of interviewing, what is the most tactful way to answer these type of questions. I have had my share of working with very difficult people but in the end it forces you to overcome obstacles within your team. But I’ve always been intrigued to hear what the people behind that question are looking for.

Sharlyn Lauby August 16, 2011 at 2:19 pm

@Douglas – Thanks for the comment. I agree – there are many great follow-up questions.

@Mehan – Here’s what I look for … honesty. I’m not looking for some crazy, wacky disagreement. It doesn’t even have to involve a confrontation. The best answers I’ve heard involve a person having a simple misunderstanding or reading a situation wrong. Little annoying things happen all the time. And we all have quirks that get on other’s nerves.

Hopefully some other HR pros will pile on to give their perspective. Thanks for the question!

Peggy August 19, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I love this question … I always ask something similar ‘talk to me about how, when faced with difficult personalities in the workplace’

Sharlyn Lauby August 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Thanks for the comment Peggy. That’s a nice spin on the question – especially if you need to find someone who has to manage some existing personalities.

Claire August 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Thanks for all the great advice! Currently on the job search, I appreciate reading comments that help me prepare for upcoming interviews.

One of my favorite interview questions relates to the culture of the company and how the candidate will fit: “Describe the work environment or culture in which you are most productive and happy.” This type of question can elicit a response that will allow the interviewer to understand the candidate as well as decipher if they would be a good match for the company.

Thanks, looking forward to learning more!

Sharlyn Lauby August 21, 2011 at 11:54 am

Nice question. Thanks for adding to the conversation Claire!

Pauline November 1, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Tell me about a time when you were under a lot of stress and felt you handled it well.
Tell me about a wime when you were under a lot of stress and felt you did not handle it well.

Sharlyn Lauby November 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Thanks for sharing Pauline!

Rick November 10, 2011 at 9:29 am

Great question! I have conducted interviews where I tell the candidate I am not going to ask any questions and I will base my decisions on the questions they ask me about the position and company. It makes for a very interesting discussion. I really liked your reference to people saying “I’m a people person” which to me said you will never make it as a HR professional.
Rick recently posted..Management Development Review

Cuauhtemoc Gallegos Gonzalez November 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm

If you could choose at this time, What do you most like to do? What do you love more? One can expect the full potential of someone when this person is doing exactly what he loves.

TMM December 6, 2011 at 9:33 am

A couple of questions I almost always ask which often have surprising and insightful answers are:
1) Tell me about something you’ve read or movie/show you’ve seen which had an impact on you , what was the impact and why? (I find out the most interesting character traits by listening to this and it helps me deteremine fit.)
2) If you weren’t an ‘xxx’ (i.e. accountant, manager, engineer, etc.) , what would you be doing instead? (This tells me what their real passion is . It can also point out their motivations because sometimes they just talk about making more money in a different profession).
Also after you’ve asked these questions be sure to sit silently so they can think. Don’t prompt them.

Sharlyn Lauby December 9, 2011 at 6:52 am

@TMM – thanks for the mention about silence. Not used often enough during the interview process.

KNOWHOW Recruitment August 15, 2013 at 11:22 am

I have to say over the past 9 years, we have had some corkers asked to our candidates over the years here a a few not the worst but, they are more of a ‘where are you coming from asking that question’ and ‘how do I answer that’

- Can you tell a joke?
- On a scale of 1 to 10 how happy are you?
- What kind of people do you dislike?
- Which super power do you like to have and why?
- If you saw someone steal a tin of beans in Tesco, would you report it?

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