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What Questions Should You Ask A Potential Employee?


by Michael Klazema, lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com

Potential employees are on a slippery slope of sorts when it comes to balancing job interviews and background checks. There is certain information an employer can learn about its applicants via background checks (e.g., criminal history, credit history, etc.) that they are not legally allowed to ask about in an interview. Similarly, there are things that can be learned in a job interview – such as a potential employee’s work ethic and overall temperament – that background checks cannot muster.

With this dichotomy in mind, an employer should strategically plan out interview and background check procedures so as to learn the most that they can about potential employees. Here are a few great questions that can serve multiple purposes in the employment screening process.

When I contact your previous employer, what will they tell me your strengths and weaknesses are?

Virtually any variation of the “when I contact your previous employer…” question can be a great means of learning not only about the applicant’s last job, but also about their honesty. In job interviews, it’s often difficult to really get to know an applicant because they try to give the answers an employer wants to hear. This question forces them to confront their shortcomings from their previous job, and will therefore derive an honest, thoughtful answer. Best of all, an employee can learn whether their applicant is a dishonest person by simply picking up the phone and calling an old boss to confirm the answer.

Why is there a gap in your employment history?

This question is not always relevant, since many professionals have been working consistently since graduating from college or high school. However, if there is a gap in an applicant’s work history, employers should and must ask about it. If the applicant had a job that he or she neglected to list on a resume, there may be plenty of reasons for it. For instance, perhaps the job doesn’t apply to the work opportunity at hand and was removed from the resume as a consideration of space. However, background checks can verify employment history, and if an applicant excludes a job and then lies about it when asked a question about employment gaps, they clearly have something to hide.

Tell me about a disagreement you have had with someone at work. How did you handle the situation?

Employers looking to pick up on applicants with temper issues or unprofessional work ethic can learn a lot from how an applicant answers this question. If the applicant answers honestly, the question forces them to disclose something significantly less flattering than their educational credentials and impressive employment history. It requires them to describe an instance where, for whatever reason, they clashed with an employer or co-worker, and it puts them in a position of relating why that disagreement was so notable.

On the other hand, if an employer is dealing with someone who doesn’t get along well with others, they will likely be greeted with a shallow answer and uncomfortable body language after asking this question.

Why did you leave your last job?

Some employers find this question boring, because it often returns the same generic answers (a desire to expand horizons, a want to experience more substantial work challenges, etc.). Still, it’s a good question to ask because the answer can be so easily confirmed or denied. If an applicant quit their previous job in a disrespectful manner or was fired for sexual harassment, they probably won’t say so when asked this question, but an employer can easily separate the truth from the lies, weeding out problem applicants along the way.


Michael Klazema has been developing products for pre-employment screening and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for a background check blog and community.