One Must-Ask Question When Interviewing A Job Candidate

Published: Sep 22, 2014

One Must-Ask Question When Interviewing A Job Candidate One Must-Ask Question When Interviewing A Job Candidate

September 22, 2014

By Mel Kleiman for

If you've ever arrived late to a movie, you know figuring out what happened during the time before you took your seat can be extremely frustrating. Without having all the right facts in the right order, what you see and hear after the action begins can lead you down a lot of blind alleys.

The exact same thing happens when you begin an interview by asking applicants about their current or last job. Most interviewers ask applicants about their last jobs first and most applicants have a canned answer because they know the question is coming. Starting an interview with a question about the last job puts you in the position of trying to move forward by going backward.

Any work history makes more sense when viewed from the beginning, which is why the first and most important question every interviewer needs to ask is "Tell me about your very first paying job. What was the first thing you ever did to earn money?" Even first time workers have done something to earn money; and if their primary job was staying in school, that answer still gives you a lot of information.

Ask this question because...

The reason to ask this question is to get a good idea of applicants' values and work ethics. Psychologists tell us most of our values are established early in life. Although, in theory, these can later be changed and adapted with conscious effort, in practice, most people carry the values they learned as children throughout life. As the president of Nordstrom's said when he was asked who trained his employees, "Their parents did."

Applicants take these values into their first jobs where they begin to evolve a personal work ethic. First jobs are the boot camps where applicants learned how to deal with money, customers, coworkers and job responsibilities.

Though values are largely learned at home, at school, and on the first job, strong value ties exist between members of the same generation. Demographers tell us generations are characterized and defined by events that leave a lasting emotional impact. Studies show regardless of whether they grew up in the suburbs, inner city, or on a farm, Gen Y's were universally affected by the boom and bust economy in which they grew up, the massacre at Columbine, 9/11, and the war in Iraq. As a result, Gen Y expects to earn money on its own terms because its generational values prioritize respect for individual needs.

"Tell me about your first paying job" creates a strong framework for the entire interview. When we ask this question we're looking for what takes place behind the scenes. Some people got a first job as prep cooks and stayed in that position until they left that employer. Others started as prep cooks and learned to do every other job in the kitchen before they moved on. Some learned they never wanted to do a job like that again, which can be a very important motivator.

Now take a minute and think about your very first job. What did you think about it? What were the three most important things you learned from it? What did you do with the money you earned? How did that learning affect where you went and what you did afterward? What part of that job was the hardest for you? Why? What part was the easiest? Why? Aren't these the same principles and values you hold to today?

What to listen for...

Listen for information about applicants' work ethic and values. First jobs are emotionally powerful milestones that set expectations and belief patterns about how future work should and will be done. The answers you get will provide you with a foundation for understanding where applicants are coming from. For example, if you use, "What did you do with the money?" as a subset question, you might hear, "I bought clothes and school supplies" or "I saved it." Or "I spent it all and went back to work to get more." No matter what the answer is, it will tell you a lot about the applicant.

The timeline that began with the applicant's first job will ultimately lead you both to the present moment. Here's a great subset of questions to ask at this point:

"Of all the jobs you've had, which job did you enjoy most? Why?"

"Which job did you enjoy least? Why?"

"Which manager got the most out of you? How did he or she do that?"

"Which manager did you like the best? Why?"

"Which manager did you like the least? Why?"

Build on the information obtained from the first job question. For example: "You said you worked as a cashier. Did you ever train anyone else how be a cashier?" (Only the best employees are entrusted to train others.)

Finally, remember there are no "right" or "wrong" answers to any of these questions. There are only answers that indicate you should move the applicant forward in the hiring process and answers that indicate the process is over for this applicant. If your culture demands employees always arrive on time for work and the applicant admits to having been late five times in the last six months, you may feel disappointed, but you got the answer you needed.

About the Author

Mel Kleiman CSP: Helping companies build a frontline that will help them build their bottomline. Visit and

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