The CAN and WANT of the job interview

There are two things I want to learn about a candidate from a job interview…

The Want

I want to know why you WANT to work for us.  This may sound stupid but I get a lot of people applying that don’t actually WANT the position.  Yes, I am serious.  Oh, they may not come right out and say it but I can pick up what they are putting down.  Here is how candidates tell me they don’t WANT to work for us in this position.  These are answers to my first question in every interview…. Why do you want this position with us?

  • I have done this before.
  • I can do this with my eyes closed.
  • You all have great benefits.
  • I really like the culture at your company.
  • I was recently laid off.

You might be thinking that I am off my rocker.  You may think these are why someone wants the job.  Nope, this is why they are WILLING to work for us.  HUGE difference!  I want people that WANT to work here.  Their desire will get them over the hurdles and through the tough times.  Willing… not so much.

The Can

I also want to know if you CAN do the job.  This speaks to a candidate’s knowledge, skills and abilities.  It also depends on how much a company is willing to train you.  Some companies are willing to teach you everything you need to know while some need you to hit the ground running.

Unfortunately some people are unable or unwilling to do what it takes to be successful in a position.  That is also part of CAN you do the position.  This is where interviewers ask about past experience and situations you have been in.

One out of two?

All that being said, it is hard to find people that are at 100% in both areas.  If I have to gamble I will take someone with more desire over someone with more skill every day.  Desire gets you up in the morning and makes you push past where others quit.  Many of the ones that quit had the CAN, just not the WANT.

The starting point of all achievement is DESIRE. Keep this constantly in mind. Weak desire brings weak results, just as a small fire makes a small amount of heat.
Napoleon Hill

Reference checks in your job search

Reference checksWhat will your references say about you?

Some companies still ask for references as a part of the interview process.  Think this is antiquated?  Think again.  A good reference can seal the deal with an employer or derail an impending job offer.

I just saw an ad for someone willing to check your references, for a price.  Really?  Did you know you can do it yourself or at worse, have a friend do it for you?  It is always a good idea in a job search to know what your past employers will share about you.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal for employers to share information on past employees.  Most don’t because while it may be legal, it may also get them sued.  The sad part about this is that a truly bad employee can continue to jump from job to job with little information following them.  Now you know how that idiot next to you got hired!

When you check your own references you want to call the company’s main number, your local office’s number AND your supervisor.  You are probably fine calling the human resources departments unless they know you but you will want a friend to call your boss.  Some companies will ask for a signed background release form.  If so, just create your own.  Yes, you can pay for someone to do all this for you but if you are out of work, what do you have more of?  Time or money?

Reference check questions to ask

After you introduce yourself you will want to ask some of the generic questions that most companies ask to start with then move into the ones you want answers to.

"Hello, I am calling to check references on a previous employee of yours..."

OK, here is where the honesty line gets a little fuzzy…  What you wish you could do is call and ask “If a company calls you to ask about me, what will you tell them?”  But if you did that, what do you think they would say?  You think they would tell you everything?  Because of that, if you want to know what they will REALLY say you need to, or have someone else) play the role of a potential employer.  That means they need to have a story.  Name of the company, their name/position, a call back number, what position you are applying for, etc… Wait, maybe it is worth it to pay someone to do it for you.

But let’s assume you press on and save your money.  Here are some questions to ask.  The first two you should always receive answers to, the others… maybe not.

  • What was the position they last held at your company?
  • What were their dates of employment?
  • Are they eligible for re-hire?
  • How much was their salary and bonuses or commission?
  • Did they provide a 2-week notice when they resigned?
  • How would you rate their performance in the position?
  • What were their biggest strengths / weaknesses?

If they keep answering, you keep asking.  When someone calls your manager/supervisor they need to ask more direct questions.  Many managers will refer them back to human resources but not all.   Previous managers are sometimes the most damaging or helpful references.  It also helps if the person calling says they are your potential new manager.

At the end of the day, doing a little social engineering to check your own references might feel (is) a little dishonest but if you are worried that you will get a bad employment reference you are better off knowing ahead of time.

References Provided Upon Request

This one KILLS me!  In many of my past jobs we have requested that people provide us with references for us to call.  They are usually past supervisors or coworkers but the key here is that the candidate is providing us with the names and numbers of the people to call.  Think they are always good?  Think again.  Here are some of the funny comments I have gotten when calling references provided by candidates:

They put ME down as a reference? (laughing)
The only reason they didn't take anything is that it's all screwed down. (hotel manager)
They will be great for the first 30 days.

If you are providing references for a potential employer to call you better know what they will say about you!  You want to call each person and ASK them if you can use them as a reference before you start your job search.  Then once you submit their names to a potential employers contact them again and let them know a little about the position(s) you are applying for and what company it is with.  That way they can tailor their information about you to the specifics of the job.  It is very helpful to send them the job description.

At the end of the day references are not always a make or break part of the interviewing process but sometimes they are.  Do you want to risk it?

There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tell me about yourself

Tell me about yourself (or some other variation) is probably THE most common interview question but many people say it is one of the most difficult to answer.

Why should I hire you?

I recently read an article about rude recruiters.  The author went on to say that asking “Why should I hire you?” is rude.  My response was why is that rude?  That is what interviewers are asking when they ask “Tell me about yourself.”  They want to know what makes you different and a better match for them than all the other people that they are interviewing.  Here is a tip… most companies want to hire the best person for each and every opening and if they do not think you will be a good match, they don’t hire you.

This is the time for your elevator speech.  You want to tell them about yourself, but primarily the most relevant parts of yourself.  I also believe it is a good idea to weave information from your research on the company and the position into you monologue.

“I am a life long learner.  If I have any free time I spend it reading, listening to audio books, or podcasts around subjects I can benefit from.  That is one of the things that interested me about your company, I read how you all are always looking to improve your processes, procedures and people.”

One thing to be careful about here is not to lie.  Many people either lie in the interview or it becomes very apparent that they are telling me what they think I want to hear.  I want to hear about YOU.  But focus on the best YOU.  Think of this as a first date.  Do you show the REAL (unfiltered) you or the best you on a first date?  If you want a second date I bet you show the best you, which should also be the real you.

Why should someone hire me?

If you are having a tough time coming up with things to say about yourself, try asking others about you.  Ask some friends, coworkers or teachers “why would someone want to have me as an employee?  What are my strengths and weaknesses?”  They may be able to give you insight from a different perspective.  Start making a list that you can choose from when putting together your answer.  You don’t want to tell everyone everything about yourself, just what is most relevant.

Start thinking about who you want to be, then be.

Should you answer an illegal interview question?

If you have been on many interviews I bet you have encountered at least one illegal interview question.  There are three main ways to handle them and the choice is up to you.

That is an illegal question and I don’t have to answer it

While the above statement may be true if you respond with “That is an illegal question and I don’t have to answer it” you will likely not have another interview with that company.   While you don’t want to work for a company that is making illegal discriminatory hiring decisions, let’s not kid ourselves, all interviewing is discriminatory.



  1. the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.
    “victims of racial discrimination”
  2. recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another.
    “discrimination between right and wrong”

I believe that any company making a decision based on race, gender, age or any other non-performance related reason will be less successful in the long run.  Diverse companies will perform better.  So if you feel that a company is being discriminatory on race, age, gender, religion or any other non-work related reason then I suggest you look elsewhere.

I think you misspoke

Sometimes the interviewer doesn’t know how to ask what they really mean.  Here are a few illegal questions followed by what they should have asked.  The idea is to answer the question they should have asked.

How does your husband other feel about you traveling overnight?

What they should have asked:  We have had some employees in the past where overnight travel has become an issue.  Tell me how you feel about extensive travel for work and how you maintain some work/life balance.

Do you have children?

What they should have asked:  We expect everyone to be at their desk working by 8am and work until 5pm at a minimum but we frequently work overtime during peak season.  Is that an issue?

Where are you from?

What they should have asked:  We like to get to know people in the interview process.  Tell me about yourself.

How old are you?

What they should have asked:  We use the latest software and programs here.  How do you stay up to date on the industry?

I fully admit that some people ask those questions for the very reason they are illegal but I make the argument that those people are the exception, rather than the rule.  Granted, there are some industries that are much more prone to sexism, racism, and many other ‘isms but I chose to believe that most people are trying to do the right thing for their company.

I also fully admit that my views are filtered through a white male christian lens.  Sorry, I can’t change that fact but I do my best to be aware of my blind spots and filters.

Why do you need to know that?

Ask for clarity.  You may be surprised by what is behind an illegal question.  If you are like some of my friends and you want to push back a little when confronted with an illegal question, you can do so with tact.

Do you have children?
What concerns you about employees with children?

How does your husband feel about your chosen profession?
I would think you would be more concerned about how I feel about my profession.

How old are you?
How does an applicant’s age factor into your hiring decision?

Are you single?
Do you discourage employees from having personal relationships?

Unfortunately we all have to deal with situations where we need to try and figure out how to react and interviews are no different.  In short, there is no one RIGHT way to handle any interview questions.

TACT – getting your point across without stabbing someone with it.
New York Daily Mirror