Hiring for a key position can be a time-consuming, difficult process. As the hiring manager, your objective is to offer the job to the most qualified person. That choice isn’t always obvious, especially when you have two or three equally strong applicants competing for the same position. But by knowing the right interview questions to ask potential employees, you have a better chance at learning enough about the candidates to make the best choice.

Not sure where to start to conduct a job interview? Think about your staffing needs and consider these 12 interview questions to ask employees:

1. What skills and strengths can you bring to this job?

This is one of the most effective interview questions to ask a potential employee. Note that the question is not "What are your skills and strengths?" but "What skills and strengths can you bring to this job?" The answer is yet another way to gauge how much interest applicants have in the job and how well prepared they are for the interview. Stronger candidates should be able to correlate their skills with specific job requirements. For example, "I think my experience as a travel writer will be of great help in marketing products to overseas customers." The question should be answered in the context of contributions they can make to the company in this specific position.

2. In a way that anyone could understand, can you describe a professional achievement that you’re proud of?

Here's another one of the really good interview questions to ask employees when hiring for a technical position, such as an IT manager or tax accountant. The answer shows the ability to communicate with others in the company. Do the candidates avoid jargon in their answers? Do they get their points across clearly? Failure to do so may be a sign that they can't step out of their "world" sufficiently to  work with people in other departments, which is a growing necessity in many organizations today.  

We can help you find qualified candidates:

3. Tell  me about a mistake you've made on the job.

Look for candidates' willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them, as well as how they hold themselves accountable for their decisions. Do they blame others for a project’s missed deadline, or do they accept responsibility and say what they learned from the failure? You aren't looking for an employee who doesn't make mistakes — ideal employees  recognize their weaknesses and work on them. 

4. Describe the most interesting project you worked on in a past position.

This is one of the most important interview questions to ask employees you may hire to assess whether the person would be a good long-term fit. The response should indicate what types of tasks they enjoy the most. Do these  align with the  job description  you posted? Or given their interests, would they be unhappy with either the job or the organization?  Look beyond skill sets when evaluating candidates. Make sure they’ll not only be productive, but satisfied, employees.

5. How have you changed the nature of your current job?

A convincing answer here shows adaptability, creativity and resourcefulness — and a willingness, when necessary, to take the bull by the horns. The question also gives candidates a chance to talk about contributions such as efficiencies they brought about or cost savings they achieved for their employer. If candidates say they didn't change the nature of the job, that response tells you something as well.

6. What sort of work environment do you prefer? What brings out your best work?

Interview questions offer a good opportunity to probe for specifics. You want to find out whether this person is going to fit into your corporate culture. If your  company's culture  is collegial and collaborative, you don't necessarily want to hire someone who likes to be left alone to do their work. You also may uncover unrealistic expectations or potential future career clashes ("My plan is to spend a couple of months as a receptionist and then apply for the presidency of the company.").

7. How would your colleagues describe your personality?

While you don't want carbon copies of existing staff, you do want to consider how well new hires will fit in with the rest of the team. Think of your team’s existing chemistry and what qualities the candidate would bring. If you manage an aggressive, high-performing staff of Type A personalities, you’ll probably want to look for someone who’d be assertive enough to both succeed at the job and comfortably work with others from day one. If your team members are quiet yet industrious, then a candidate who self-describes as “pushy” and “loud” might not be your first choice.

8. Why did you leave your last job, and what have you been doing since then?

Even with a low unemployment rate in the job market, it isn't unusual for highly competent people to find themselves out of a job, leaving them with gaps in their employment history. While it’s important to ask about this, don’t come off as accusatory. Asking in a neutral, diplomatic way is key, but do try to get specific, factual answers that you can verify later. Candidates with a spotty employment history, at the very least, ought to be able to account for their  extended periods of unemployment and demonstrate productive use of that time — getting an advanced degree or professional certificate, for example, or volunteering for a related cause.

9. What do you hope to gain from working here?

Pay attention to whether applicants focus only on their immediate needs, like a paycheck or short commute, or if they mention longer-term goals. This can help you determine if you're dealing with someone just looking for a job versus someone who wants to  build a career  with your company. If candidates discuss career aspirations, see what they know about the organization beyond what’s published on the website’s “About Us” page. That can tell you a lot about how interested they really are in your company.

10. Describe your most challenging client or coworker. How did you resolve those  conflicts?

Every position involves some level of collaboration, and everybody has dealt with personality conflicts in the workplace at one time or another. Your list of interview questions to ask employees should include one that gives you a sense of how candidates  work with difficult individuals and how they respond in  high-pressure situations. No matter how talented or experienced a candidate may be, always be sure this is someone who can resolve differences in a professional, respectful manner.    

11. What would have made you consider staying at your last position?

Candidates may have well-rehearsed answers to  interview questions  like, "Why did you leave your last job?" By asking them to consider what circumstances they wish had been different at their last company, you're likely to get more candid feedback.  Obviously, the work environment or job responsibilities — or possibly the management style — were less than ideal. Do the candidates' reasons for leaving demonstrate career ambition, a desire for a more suitable work environment, or something less desirable? And how do their previous situations compare with the position they’re interviewing for?  

12. Do you have any questions for me?

All prospective employees  should have a few questions of their own on topics not covered during the interview. Be wary of anyone who answers with a quick "no" or only asks about compensation; they are not likely to be as enthusiastic about the position. Nor are generic questions especially impressive. A serious candidate will be knowledgeable about your organization and the field or industry you work in. They should demonstrate a genuine interest in learning more about the company, the workplace culture, the job you’re discussing or other information not readily available on the website.

Beyond the interview questions to ask potential employees

Great employees have certain traits in common. Before you hire, you should spend enough time in the interview to identify these qualities of character, such as the right-sized ego, do-it-yourself attitude and finely tuned sense of humor. Watch for subtle distinctions in their answers. You’ll be glad you did — and so will everyone else on your team.