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Eight of the best interview questions to ask for SMEs

This article was updated 9th September 2016

Hiring staff can be a difficult business, especially for small or medium sized companies, where a mistaken hire can have considerable financial impact.  These interview questions from top business leaders should make sure you hire staff that flourish, rather than fail.

  1. What one thing about yourself would you like to improve?’

Stephen Dagnell, director, natural health products suppliers G Baldwin & Co: “It’s difficult to answer without showing a negative aspect of yourself.”

  1. If I asked you to paint this room green, what would you do?’

Lloyd Morgan, MD, Rockadove Video Production: “They might say they’d oblige, they might question why, and offer other suggestions. It’s how you interpret their responses which will tell whether they’re right for the role.”

  1. ‘On a scale of one to ten, how affable are you?’

Thomas Lavis, Lick frozen yogurt: “A lot of what we do is humorous, very human and sometimes unashamedly naïve so when I last interviewed someone, I put a sheet of questions on the table and left it by them when I made them a tea. I wanted them to read them and prepare some answers first. It was quite weird on purpose as I needed this person to think creatively and be in a situation fairly new to them.”

Click here to see if you are making one of these common SME mistakes


  1. If you could be an animal, what animal would you be?’

This question can really work, adds Lloyd Morgan at Rockadove. “We once had the answer ‘sloth’ and all three of us on the panel laughed, assuming he was joking. Six months later, we had to let him go, unfortunately, as he was one of the laziest people we’d ever met. This question can show you how people like to be, or how they think they’re perceived, and can help you identify an unsuitable candidate.”

  1. ‘What would you take to a desert island’? or ‘What did you have for breakfast’?

Brian Johnson, digital director at Forward Role recruitment, says the answer can be revealing: “I like questions that make the candidate think carefully (and quickly) before answering. The questions out of left field normally have some hidden meaning about a candidate’s cultural fit and challenge the candidate’s ability to be at ease with small talk and every day conversation, which is crucial.”

  1. “If we called them, what would your previous employer say about you?”

Gareth Davies, sustainable construction consultancy GreenBuild Consult: “Your record is important and this question will immediately elicit a response. If they’ve had a negative experience in a previous job, that’s ok, but it’s how they reflect on it, and whether they’ve obviously learned from it that’s important.”

  1. ‘What is your one motivating factor in looking for a new job?’

Michelle Mellor, director, Chefs Jobs. “It’s really important to find out why someone wants to move, as usually it’s about more than just money. It could be due to lack of progression, relationship with a manager or even as simple as a long commute. Once you know the main motivations, you can dig down and ensure this is the right job for them.”

  1. What’s the single biggest obstacle to you getting this job?’

Paul Bennett, senior appointments director at Acorn recruitment: “The sort of answers you might look for include ‘There is no single obstacle to me performing this role. I accept there will always be challenges starting any new position with a new company’ or ‘My strengths lie in dealing with change and adversity and I look forward to tackling the learning curve in front of me and immediately adding value to your business’.”

What else can you do? 

If you’re consistently hiring the wrong staff, take a look at your job descriptions: are you clear about what the role will be? If your business culture is high-pressured and impatient, are you mentioning this? Being honest about the potential downsides of a role can weed out the wrong people before they even hit the apply button.  On the other hand, if you’re hiring for a niche position, set yourself apart from the competition by emphasising what your company can do from the applicant, whether that’s job security or monthly team nights out.

Many companies know how important it is to hire the right personality for a role, but few know how to put this into action. It’s worth thinking about the soft skills that you want a new hire to have, and being honest about yourself about what the position really needs. Do you need money motivated go-getters, or would a team player flourish within the role? Surprisingly, applicants don’t always know themselves what personality traits they possess (ever met somebody who saw themselves as a sensitive person but was anything but? With that in mind, many companies use  psychometric testing to gauge a potential employee’s inner motivations.


[Image courtesy of Wikipedia: The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, known as the ‘Sampling Officials‘,]

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