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Are your interview questions soggy or fresh?

You’re a small-business owner pressed for time and with a position to fill. When it comes time to interview the candidate. you may end up reaching for cliché job interview questions like, Tell me about yourself, or What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?

You’re a small-business owner pressed for time and with a position to fill. When it comes time to interview the candidate. you may end up reaching for cliché job interview questions like, Tell me about yourself, or What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?

But it's precisely because you're a small-business owner that you can't use the crutch of cliché interview questions. The fact is, this line of questioning is too general to tell you if someone is right for your job. And if you have only a dozen or more employees, a single bad hire can exert a big influence on your small business.

Avoid Rote Questions

If you ask routine questions when conducting an interview and hear routine answers, you'll base your hiring decision on irrelevant factors, says Martin Yate, who gives interview tips in his book Knock 'em Dead -- Hiring the Best: Proven Tactics for Successful Employee Selection.

"Small-business owners are very good at projecting our values onto other people," Yate says.

"We'll hire people that look and talk like us and come from the same socio-economic background."

Bosses who know how to interview use questions that relate to a job's specific requirements. The best job interview questions tease out how the applicant's skills and abilities do (or don't) fit the demands of the job.

Rethink these Five Clichés

The next time you're conducting an interview, try these suggestions to come up with better interview questions.

Cliché #1: Tell me about yourself.

This question tells you what's on the job seeker's resume, which you already know from reading it, says interview expert Doug Hardy. He suggests adding a twist that will generate an answer that's revealing, disarming and intriguing all at the same time.

Better interview question: Tell me something about yourself as an employee (or team member or person) that I otherwise wouldn't know until you'd been here for six months.

Cliché #2: What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Even assuming the job candidate tells you the truth, this question doesn't get at what you really need to know: how the candidate's strengths and weaknesses relate to the skills required for this particular job. Will her strengths enable her to do well? Will his weaknesses cause him to fail?

Better interview question: This job requires patience and tact in dealing with customers. How would you rate your people skills on a scale of 1 to 10 – and why?

Cliché #3: Tell me about a time you had to overcome a challenge.

Everyone has faced challenges. Maybe your job seeker started training in kindergarten to make the US ski team and strove toward his goal until he finally won an Olympic gold medal. All the answer to this question tells you is that he's a good skier.

That information is useful -- but only if you're hiring a ski instructor.

When conducting an interview, focus on important job skills you need the job candidate to have and then ask an interview question about that skill.

Better question: Yesterday, a cashier told a customer that she was unable to accept a return because the purchase was made more than 60 days ago. The customer began to shout. What would you do in that situation?

Cliché #4: Why do you want to leave your job? Or its fraternal twin: Why do you want this job?

When you ask these questions, you're showing you don't really know much about how to interview. And you're asking a question that you know is unlikely to generate a truthful answer.

What job seeker is going to respond to this question by saying: My boss is a jerk and the last time I got a bonus, Sarah Palin was running for vice president?

What you really want to know is what they think is important to getting the job done on a day-to-day basis. Ask a question that focuses on skills they believe will help them do this job well. Then, evaluate whether their ideas match up with yours.

Better question: Who was the best person you ever worked with (or are currently working with)? What was it about his or her daily behavior that made this person stand out in your mind?

Cliché #5: Where do you see yourself in five years?

You might ask this interview question because you want to know how this job fits in with the applicant's career plan. If that's the case, be straightforward and ask: How does this job fit in with your career plan? or What interests you about this job?

If your employees tend to stay less than five years, then it's more useful to know what they can do for you next month than what they want to be doing in five years.

Better question: What are the first three things you'd do if we hired you?

The next time you're conducting an interview, remember that your goal is to find people with the skills and abilities to help your business flourish. And remember: job seekers want to find a position where they're challenged and successful.

Asking the same old questions won't give them the answers that they or you will need to make that happen.

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