12 Indirect Job Interview Questions and What They Really Reveal

Updated: March 25, 2010

The interview is a classic point of stress for most job seekers, and with good cause. Many firms like asking indirect questions that make it hard to judge what information they're really fishing looking for. Of course, interviewers don't want anyone to know the motivation behind their method of questioning, or else potential job candidates could easily game the system. For this reason, most firms ask slightly different questions and have their own method of interviewing. Today, we explore twelve common indirect questions that employers often ask and the motivation behind them.

"How long have you been looking for a new job?"

A big sign that something is amiss with a potential hire in a normal economic climate is how long he or she has been searching for a job. What potential employers really need to determine is whether there is something wrong with the candidate that other potential employers have picked up on already. Of course, asking the candidate such a thing will not yield an honest answer, so instead, employers ask how long the candidate has been looking for a job. They can interpret the candidate's response and try to gauge how likely it is that other interviewers have picked up on some glaring disqualifier that they have not yet discovered.

"How did you prepare for this interview?"

The more passionate an employee is about a particular organization, the more likely it is that he or she will strive to exceed expectations if they are hired. A good candidate will have read up on the firm, researched the products and services they offer, read a bit about the executives who work there, etc. A bad candidate takes the shotgun at the wall approach. This latter candidate takes walks into any old office building, hoping to get through the interview on personality alone. One way companies separate the two is to ask an indirect question regarding how they prepared for the interview. The candidate who mentions reading up on the organization and demonstrates a working knowledge of the firm's strengths, services and management team is enthusiastic about working for that company and will likely strive to be the best they can be if selected.

"What are your salary requirements for this position?"

No matter how stellar a candidate might be, budgetary capacity often limits who companies can afford to hire. The firm might only have room for a $60,000 annual salary for the position and anyone requiring more than that is out of luck. Beyond a certain point, more qualifications and experience cannot equal a higher salary. This is why it is important to the company to determine if they can afford to hire new applicants. They might also try to determine if they can the right person for less than is budgeted for that position, because money saved equals a bigger bottom line. Of course, no interviewer will ever tell the candidate "we can afford to pay you up to $60,000, but we'd like to hear you say you'll do it for less." Instead, companies will frequently ask the person what their salary requirements are. The number they name will be important when they review the interview results of multiple applicants and make the final hiring decision.

"What kinds of people do you have difficulties working with?"

In today's expanding global economy, it is almost unavoidable that any new hire will be working in some capacity with people from a wide range of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. The last thing companies want to find out is that their new employee is a bigot and treats people differently because of their background. Not only will this cause problems in-house, it can also destroy the firm's credibility and reputation, depending on how high-up a position he or she is assuming. However, it isn't politically correct or at all professional to ask someone if they have a problem with specific groups of people, and even if an interviewer did, the candidate would likely deny it. Instead, many firms try an indirect way of asking the same thing, for example: "What kinds of people do you have difficulties working with?" By asking this question, the interviewer is subconsciously communicating that the candidate must have a problem working with some kinds of people. This method can be very effective in subtly revealing inner prejudices the potential hire might possess. In contrast, a good candidate will likely name some neutral group of people, like "dishonest employees," or "perpetual slackers."

"When have you been most satisfied in your career?"

Much like individual people, every company has its own "personality," per se. This means that every new working environment has its own perks and bottlenecks, its own energy, its own level of employee-employee interaction, etc. Certain companies offer their employees more creative leeway while others demand strict adherence to guidelines. Every one of these factors (and many more) will directly effect a new hire's motivation. Various people thrive under many different circumstances, and the job of the interviewer is to try to select the person whose personality best fits their firm's unique environment. The problem is that people in interviews like to smile and nod along whenever the interviewer starts talking at length about the perks of their working environment, making it almost impossible to read what the candidate is really thinking. Instead, many companies have taken to asking something like, "When have you been most satisfied in your career?" This question will get the potential hire talking about the elements of their last few positions and will likely highlight aspects of those jobs that they felt happiest working under. From this, firms can determine if the person would fit in well with their atmosphere.

"What is your greatest weakness?"

Perhaps one of the most important tasks of the interviewer is to find a person with a level head on their shoulders. No company wants the narcissistic, fresh-out-of-grad-school candidate who thinks that they're an infallible compendium of industry knowledge any firm would be lucky to acquire. These kinds of people hurt companies far more often than they help them because they refuse to acknowledge their weaknesses or consider the idea that they might need further training in certain areas. Rather, companies strive to find confident and qualified employees who can be honest with themselves about their shortcomings. These employees are likely to be flexible, honest and are less likely to try and pass blame around the cubicles when they make a mistake. In order to get a grasp on how realistic a candidate is, employers like to ask people about what they feel their biggest weakness is. This question will demonstrate whether or not a candidate can be honest in accepting that which they need to work on. (In contrast, a haughty candidate might spin off the tired response of "My biggest flaw is that I work too much.")

"Where do you see yourself five years from now?"

A big problem in the corporate world is employees using firms as rungs up the corporate latter. Especially in today's economy, the last thing a company wants is to allocate salary, benefits and human capital into acquiring a new manager only to have them jump ship to a competitor a year or two later. Sometimes this isn't even the employees fault. One cannot reasonably expect a person to stunt their own professional life for the sake of a few headaches. Nonetheless, companies will try and gauge the likelihood of that happening by asking an indirect question such as "Where do you see yourself five years from now?" Responses to this question can be good indicators of how stable and loyal the potential employee is likely to be. A response like "I want to lead a large team at a marketing firm somewhere" is indicative of a mercenary attitude to the corporate world. In contrast, someone who says something like "At the moment I plan on growing my roots here in this company and rising from within to be the best marketer I can for XYZ Firm" demonstrates far more loyalty.

"What are some of your hobbies?"

Employers must be careful not to cross the line into asking too specific questions about a person's personal life. Professionally speaking, your personal life needn't impact your working life. However, in reality we all know that it does. For this reason, employers often look for indicators of stability and healthy hobbies in a person's home life. The idea is that a person with a healthy and enjoyable life outside the office is likely to carry some of that positive energy into work with them. Workaholics and, at the other end of the spectrum, party animals, are not likely to be very friendly, emotionally stable people. Without probing too far, some interviewers will ask questions such as "What are some of your hobbies." Answers to this question can help reveal a little bit about the potential hire's lifestyle and serve as good indicators of roughly how they will carry themselves day to day.

"What were you hoping we'd ask today, but didn't?"

No interviewer can possibly ask all the right questions to highlight every one of the candidate's strengths and accomplishments. At the same time, candidates are often somewhat nervous on the other side of the desk and might not freely offer up information pertaining to aspects of their personal or professional life that they are not asked for. Nonetheless, this information may positively or negatively sway the interviewer's opinion of the candidate and it is thus necessary to prompt the potential hire to speak about it. Therefore, many firms now ask the open-ended question, "What were you hoping we'd ask you today, but didn't?" This question gives the candidate a chance to touch on anything he feels is important to the interview and the employer a chance to hear the candidate speak on his own behalf.

"What do you think of your old boss?"

No employer wants to be maligned to other companies or to the public. Many ex- employees hold very sour opinions of their former bosses. Justified or not, this is not the kind of thing companies want people spreading around. Especially if it appears that a candidate was fired from their last position, an employer might ask about their opinion of their old boss. Of course, very few candidates will go on a tirade about the injustices they suffered at their old job during the interview, but even subtle hints of distain can be picked up on by the interviewer. This question gives the firm an indicator of how they may be spoke of to other firms this person interviews at in the future, should they need to fire him.

"If you had enough money to retire right now, would you?"

Many companies survive not on great ideas alone, but by the tireless work ethic and dedication of their teams. It is therefore of great importance for a firm to find people who are passionate about their work and who have a drive to get the job done regardless of reward. Of course, money is extremely important in our society, but the last thing a firm wants is a bump on a log who just wants to do the bare minimum and suck up his salary until he can retire. Questions such as, "If you had enough money to retire right now, would you?" reveal a candidate's level of passion about their field. Someone who quickly shouts "Yes of course!" without much thought is seen as being in it primarily for money. These are not the kinds of people most firms want to see in their inner circle.

If you were hiring a person for this job, what would you look for?

Questions about another person can only reveal so much about about them. Something companies really want to know is what the candidate thinks are the qualities of a good employee for that position. The idea is that if the candidate has a misconstrued concept of the roles he or she will be expected to play at that firm, they might not be the right person for the job. It is much easier to hire a person with notions of the job that are congruent with company expectations than to try to change a candidates entire idea of what's important in that position. To determine this, interviewers will often ask the question "If you were hiring a person for this job, what would you look for?" This allows the candidate to give his concept of what a good manager is. His or her answer is a great indicator of how he or she will behave if hired.

Featured Research
  • How to Select Contact Center Software in 9 Steps

    Your choice of contact center software will affect the future success of your business. Don’t leave this important decision to chance. This guide provides nine actionable steps for the selection process. more

  • [Infographic] 15 Questions to Ask When Selecting a VoIP Provider

    Deciding which phone system is right for your business can be difficult. With our VoIP technology blueprint, discover the top 15 questions you should ask VoIP vendors before you make a buying decision. more

  • 2017 Business VoIP Buyer's Guide

    In 2017, more business will transition to a VoIP phone system. If you are among them—or if you’ll be upgrading an existing VoIP system—you need to learn about the latest technologies and market trends. more

  • The Basics of Real Time Personalization

    Real-time personalization of the customer experience has been described as the holy grail of digital marketing. And the race is on. Gartner believes that by 2018, businesses that excel in personalization will outsell those that don’t by 20%. Though the benefits are clear, the path to get there is not. more

  • Hidden Costs of Contact Center Software

    Creating a great customer experience for each person who reaches out to your customer support center is vital to developing a loyal and ravenous customer base for your business. In fact, according to Walker Information, Inc., “By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and as the key brand differentiator.” more