The One Most Important Question to Ask Candidates

As an author of 5 books on hiring, all with the emphasis on the most revealing interview, the long, chronological Topgrading Interview, I’m hesitant to suggest one question being most important.


Most Important and Most Revealing: If the candidate has had 8 bosses, that’s sort of 8 questions, not one, but you get the point.  This is by far the most important, most revealing question you can ask candidates.   It’s important because about 25% of candidates, who hyped their resume to cover mediocre performance, will drop out.  They know they can’t get bosses to talk with you and they wouldn’t want them to talk with you and give “so-so” references.  Good!  At least 25% of resumes have deliberate falsehoods, and you don’t want to waste time with those candidates!

And the question is the most revealing.  At Topgrading, Inc. we’ve interviewed over 20,000 candidates for executive positions, and so we know what questions are revealing.   Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Candidates who are willing to arrange reference calls with managers are sharp and honest.  They might not be the best fit for your job but that’s what interviews can reveal. By asking the big question, 25% have dropped out, leaving you with the best candidates to evaluate.
  • The negatives (failures, mistakes, what bosses would say are your weaker points, not just strengths) reveal what you are MOST interested in knowing.  Every book on hiring tells job hunters to lie on their resume and in interviews, because reference checks are generally worthless.  So, a question that ACCURATELY reveals the negatives, not just positives, is extremely important to you.
  • Realizing THEY will have to arrange reference calls, candidates that did not drop out tell the truth – the whole truth.  High performers naturally share their accomplishments but they are happy to reveal their failures and mistakes because they’ve learned from them and because … they know that bosses will list them.  Literally millions of reference checks, organized by candidates, have been done and Topgrading companies always say that candidates did NOT hype their responses to the question.  Of course not, because the reference call would show that hype!

When to ask that question: Let candidates know in your first communications with them that their arranging reference calls with bosses is a final step in hiring.  The Topgrading Snapshot is a screening tool that informs candidates of this requirement and produces valuable information like full salary history and those boss ratings.  An online screening tool can ask the question for you … and give you answers even before speaking with them.  The 25% or so will drop out (good).  Then invite candidates with the best-looking Snapshots in for interviews.  The most important interview is the Topgrading Interview, and the Topgrading Interview Guide has questions for you to ask including appraisal by the candidate of bosses, what bosses would list as strengths and weaker points, and how each boss would rate their overall performance (a deliberate repeat of what is shown in the Snapshot).

Summary: Getting the “negatives” and not just positives for candidates avoids costly mis-hires.  Let candidates know THEY have to arrange reference calls with bosses assures HONEST answers to that most important, most revealing question.

Click (here) for more information about the Topgrading Snapshot.


The testing industry is huge

The testing industry is huge – thousands of companies pay a lot of money to administer tests to candidates for hire.

  • Why? Simple – many studies show that more than 50% of resumes contain hype, fiction, and lies.
  • Why? (I sound like one of my grandkids) Simple – because reference checks are almost worthless.
  • Why? Because companies don’t allow their managers to take reference calls.
  • Why? Because if a manager says negative things about a candidate you have, and that candidate finds out, that candidate might sue you, go to EEOC (“discrimination” on the basis of age, gender, race, pizza favorites, whatever).

Because candidates easily write A Player resumes, how can you tell the true As from the fakes?  You can’t (unless you use Topgrading), so you’re desperate and hope that screening candidates out who do not achieve scores on tests is a good idea.

Tests can be useful, to test actual knowledge or abilities (knowledge of SAP or whatever).  And personality tests can be useful AFTER someone is hired … so they are honest when taking the test and the use is for seminars on communications or team building (“Amiable, how can you best work with the Analytics over there?”)

Do you “believe in” personality tests.  It’s understandable.

  • Why?  Because you go on line, take a test for free, show the results to a friend, and that friend says, “Wow – that profile is accurate.”

But personality tests with cutoff scores (candidates achieve a score or they don’t get an offer) are, in my experience, scams and shams. They eliminate as many A Players as C Players and because of that personality tests do not improve your hiring, are NOT just neutral, but are actively harmful. The “case studies” are very much in doubt to me because when I read the “validation” manuals, the results are too poor to produce the positive results.

  • Why? Here we go again. Despite the assurance that the test has a built in lie detector, I’ve never seen one that works.
  • Why? Simple:  You’re a job candidate.  Just think of someone who would clearly be an A Player and pretend you’re that person when entering answers.
  • Are there other ways to cheat? Sure, go to and for a few bucks you can take just about any test and then get coached on how to score better. On the home page, they quote someone who brags about achieving the best score the administrator had ever seen, after being coached. But that’s dishonest.
  • Why? Enough of the “whys!”

MY OFFER TO YOU:  Send me the validation manual for your personality test and (no charge) I’ll send back to you why it’s likely to be deceptive … and I’ll explain how you can honestly “test” your test at no expense.  (Email me at )




Interview Questions That Are Risky to Ask

Avoid spending time in a minimum-security prison!  Just kidding, but you know that questions like,  “Are you pregnant” are illegal.

Having personally conducted over 6,500 hiring interviews of candidates for executive positions, and having written 5 books on interviewing (the latest:  Topgrading: 3rd edition), I frequently am asked what interview questions NOT to ask.  That happens to be a good question to ask…! The “wrong” questions could get you a law suit, drive away A Player candidates, or simply NOT reveal anything important.

Here’s my advice:
Do not ask questions that are illegal (at national, state, and local levels). You already know not to ask questions that reveal age, religion, race, etc. The Topgrading Interview has been vetted by a leading employment law firm, Seyfarth Shaw.  In Topgrading books, they continue to say they cannot find any law suits connected to Topgrading or specifically, the Topgrading Interview.   Topgrading Interview questions are all relevant to the job.

Ask questions about hobbies, interests, etc. outside of formal interviews.  Sure, have meals, team get together, play golf, or whatever to test candidate social skills. But be careful with “get to know you” questions that might trigger responses that reveal forbidden areas (volunteering at the church, protest marches, etc.)
Use structured interviews, in which all candidates are asked the same basic questions (EEOC insists on this). Follow up questions are fine, but stick to the topic.  There are four interview guides used in Topgrading (phone screen, competency, in-depth chronological – the Topgrading Interview, and reference check: all are structured).
Don’t expect competency (behavioral) interviews to reveal much. They are super easy for interviewees to make things up: “Pat, please describe a time you were well organized.” We’re okay with including competency interviews as long as they are followed by the much more revealing Topgrading Interview. A Ph.D. dissertation vetting Topgrading case studies found that 2/3 of Topgrading companies abandoned competency interviews because they did not add value.
Skip the trick questions.  Zappos is (in)famous for asking candidates, “How weird are you on a scale of 1 to 10?”  People have told me the “right” answer is between 5 and 7 because the company wants employees who are kind of weird but not too weird. People can learn through contacting people in a company what is asked and expected for responses.  So candidates can trick the employer when the employer uses trick questions. Topgrading questions are not secret – candidates are asked about every job:  successes, failures, key decisions, key relationships, and what bosses would list as the interviewee’s strengths and weaker points. While you’re trying to trick candidates, candidates will trick you right back!
Ask very few hypothetical questions.  “How would you handle it if your manager asked you to do something illegal?”  The candidate can make up anything.  More revealing is if the standard questions produce a real-life example. For example, if you suspect that the candidate is too willing to please bosses and worked in a company that did illegal stuff, a follow-up question could be, “At Acme, were you ever asked to do something illegal, and if so, please explain.”
When in doubt, change the subject.  In an interview suppose the candidate volunteer’s information that reveals a “forbidden” area: “I joined a different church at that time and …” You might interrupt and say, “No need to discuss religion – let’s get back to the job – what did you like most about that job?”
Use interview approaches associated with proven improvement in hiring success.  By “proven,” case studies should be of named companies and include quotes from the CEO and/or head of Human Resources.  “Anonymous” case studies are, of course suspect.
Use two interviewers. General Electric improved from 25% to 50% high performers hired using the Topgrading Interview. CEO Jack Welch asked me how they could improve on that number and I responded, “Jack, in all of the interviewing workshops at GE we use 2 interviewers, and I’m sure a tandem Topgrading Interview approach will produce better results.” That was a short discussion; Jack implemented it, GE shot up to 90% high performers hired, and GE became the most valuable company in the world (in market cap).

Conclusion: Interviewing need not be difficult or risky. Follow the above advice and you will conduct the most revealing interviews of your career…and stay out of trouble!

CEOs Want Human Resources to be Tougher Minded

I’ve had the honor of working with famous CEOs that expected and got A Player heads of Human Resources.   Some HR heads rose to CEO (John Hoffmeister, Shell) and others were retained when a new CEO was named (Bill Conaty, under Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt).  But, too often HR has the suffered the Rodney Dangerfield issue –“I don’t get no respect.”

Please don’t shoot the messenger (me!).  I asked three dozen CEOs what they think of their top HR professionals.  I heard a lot of versions of, “They’re good people and competent in HR narrowly defined,  but they aren’t tough enough on talent and not focused enough on  the most important strategic decisions.”

One CEO pointed to a current issue of a prominent HR magazine that has articles on union organizing, e-verify, helping women get to the top, competency models, how to get ahead (emphasis on accepting change, not being afraid to be critical, communicating better), getting certified in payroll, personalizing training, having Millennials teach tech to older managers, running an efficient HR department (how: automate), and using technology for sourcing candidates.  The CEO said, “These are all worthy topics but said, “HR, you don’t get it!  Performing in these areas is just the routine of HR, and it’s hard to connect these things to profits.”

The main advice to HR from my unscientific sample of CEOs is:

  • Get an MBA, not a Masters in Human Resources.  Think like a business person, not an HR specialist.  Study with future CEOs, not just future heads of HR.
  • Hold peers accountable for maintaining an A Player standard.  Be tough minded.  In talent reviews don’t wait for the CEO to say, “Good ‘ol Charlie has missed budget 3 years in a row and must go.” Do that yourself.
  • Measure quality of hire, and do it honestly.   I met with the heads of HR of just the largest 100 companies in the world, and they said they mis-hire people 75% of the time. The head of HR for a large pharma said in a professional meeting, “We achieve 97.5% good hires.” The moderator asked how “success” is defined and the answer was,”We send an email to the hiring manager 30 days after someone is hired, asking, “Does the person you hired a month ago have skills to do the job?” Huh?  That’s like asking if the new hire has a pulse.
  • I’ve been in meetings in which CEOs rolled their eyes when HR bragged about reducing time to fill jobs and cost to hire, and said,  “Great – we mis-hire 75% of the time but we’re quick and inexpensive doing it.”  

    Use hiring methods with documented success of 75% high performers hired.  Measuring quality of hire HONESTLY is one mark of an A Player head of HR.

  • Be realistic.  Look at yourself honestly.  A CEO sent me an article in a recent CFO Magazine,  it showed that HR inflates their influence in M&A:

Finance and HR have different opinions regarding the extent to which HR actively participates in M&A transactions.  In the eyes of finance managers, HR overestimates their level of participation in choosing target companies, due diligence, and integration.  I get HR magazines and cannot recall any article suggesting how HR can be effective in these aspects of M&A.  But for many companies, M&A is discussed all the time by the rest of the C suite.

This is just one example of a contribution HR could make if HR had the education and experience to offer valued insight on strategic initiatives that “move the needle” for the company.

 CONCLUSION:  The vast majority of HR heads I’ve known have been perceived by CEOs to be soft – paying attention culture, emotional intelligence, etc. – which is fine — but NOT really understanding the business operations and finances, and not contributing as much as other functions to the strategic issues that determine the success of a company. Hence, CEO advice is to get a business education, learn operations and finance, and develop a reputation for REQUIRING the hiring of high performers and in performance reviews NOT letting managers get away with excusing chronic low performance.