Filed in HIRING ARTICLES by on March 29, 2018


Most municipal hiring managers know that ‘traditional approaches to interviewing’ are out the window in today’s job market. Based on the theory that ‘past behavior is the best indicator of future performance,’ the traditional approach to interviewing is ineffective, for the most part because it dwells on a candidate’s past.

If you’re getting lousy results using the ‘traditional approach to interviewing,’ perhaps you need to have a good look at your interview questions! Maybe it’s time for a change. After all, consider the old adage: “If you always do what you always did expecting different results, maybe that means you’re crazy!”

Here’s a great alternative: Instead of dwelling on the past, try this unconventional approach. Ask your candidates to solve some REAL problems. Let them show you how they think … look for men or women who are advanced thinkers – who have 21st century solutions.

‘Top Talent’ candidates tell us they find most of the ‘standard’ questions asked in a typical interview both tedious and predictable. Let’s face it, most interview formats aren’t designed to let a candidate demonstrate their current skills, abilities and knowledge.

As a result, if you’re recruiting for a mission-critical job that requires an exceptional hire, you simply cannot afford to bore top candidates with standard interview questions.

The sad truth is, if you’re hiring for anything other than the most menial job – one that calls for someone with exceptional talents – you not only take the chance of putting your candidate to sleep, you risk not hiring the best person for the job with the ‘same old’ standard interview.

Why the ‘same old, same old’ interview questions are weak …

Almost everyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the interview process knows that the ‘standard’ approach to interviewing is very likely one of the weakest strategies for hiring the ‘right’ person for the job.

Likely, the biggest flaw with the standard approach is the way the questions focus on the past – situations – when what you really want to know is, how this individual will perform in your town! This means that you need your candidate to demonstrate how they will solve the problems that will inevitably show up in their new job in their new municipality.

I’m certain that this is not ‘news’ to the experienced interviewer. Most of your candidates above hourly applicants will have anticipated and therefore practiced the answers to the typical questions. I’m not knocking this practice – in fact, I applaud the initiative. It means, however, that the answers you’re getting are not really their own. If your plan is to interview ‘Top Talent’ candidates, here are 12 questions to select from that I have found will help you to quickly determine which candidate is the best fit for your municipality.

The 12 questions I’ve provided here are broken into four categories. In this article, they are presented as interview questions, but they can also be provided in a questionnaire format – more like a screening tool – which can give candidates more time to think, while simultaneously saving some of a HR manager’s valuable time.

Questions relating to recognizing then solving real problems

The first 3 questions are known as ‘content questions,’ and they can be very effective, since they actually have something to do with what the new job is all about. They are also a great opportunity for the candidate to demonstrate their ‘problem solving abilities.’ If, like me, you believe the best people for the job are those who can accurately ‘put their finger on the problem’ then come up with the right solution, then these questions are for you.

It would probably be smart to try them out on one of your existing ‘Top Talent’ people to make certain they ‘get it’ – understand the problem and, in short order, come up with a good solution.

Q: Would you please outline the approach you’ll use, if you’re the successful candidate, to identify both the problems and opportunities in the job? Then explain: “We’ve found, over time, that the best people we’ve hired for any position first start by quickly identifying issues and opportunities … things that need their immediate attention.

Q: Are you able to identify the likely challenges in the following scenario?  Then add: “It is our hope that the people we hire are able to quickly identify problems in our existing practices and procedures. Please take a look at this outline and identify three places where you see serious problems are likely to occur?” (Give the candidate a single page showing an existing job related issue that you already know presents challenges to your municipality.)

Q: Here is a real problem you will face in this job … can you solve it? Then add: “We want to get an idea of your capacity for handling the actual problems you will face here. Briefly walk us through the steps that you would take to solve this specific problem … and assume it will be waiting for you on your desk on day one.” (Then hand them a half page with bullet points outlining an existing problem.)

Questions that demonstrate an ability to look ahead

If your municipality is like most I work with, things are fluid and happen quickly. You will need staff who are progressive and nimble … men and women who can think, see what’s coming, and come up with a plan for the future. The following questions are designed to identify candidates who will bring that type forward thinking to your municipality.

Q: What does the future hold? Where do you see this job going? Then add: “Many of the jobs in our municipality are changing, so hiring a person who has a handle on where things are going is a pretty important quality for us. So let me ask you, how do you see this job you are applying for changing? Can you identify at least five ways this job will change in the next 3- 5 years as a result of changes in the community, technology, the economy or any other changes?

Q: How do you see municipalities evolving? Then add “We live in an ever-changing world, so it’s our hope that the people we bring on board are able to anticipate the future to some degree. That way, we can and anticipate and plan ahead for those changes. How often do you think about where municipal government and services are going? What does the future look like to you?  Would you give us your take on what the next five years will look like for municipalities? How will municipalities like ours have to change as a result of new technology, business trends, demographic changes, and, perhaps, social changes?

Questions that indicate an ability to adapt and innovate

Have you heard the phrase “life-long-learner? Most of the time people who have a thirst for knowledge, who are quick to adapt, and are innovators by nature, make the best employees. If you agree, why not ask these questions?

Q: Could you outline how you maintain your ‘expert’ status through continuous learning? Then add: “Learning and learning quickly is essential in our fast moving city, and in the best municipalities generally. Please pick a subject matter area for this job where you will need to pick up knowledge. Then detail for us how you will initially learn what you need to know and then maintain your expert status.” (As an alternative, you could always ask how they have gone about maintaining their expert status in their current job.)

Q: Demonstrate your adaptability when dramatic change is the order of the day? Then add: “Things sometimes move fast and change quickly, everyone and every job in the municipality should be adaptable. Please tell us how you would adapt to the following situation and explain briefly – step by step – how you would adapt. (Provide them with a scenario of some possible big change that would require maximum flexibility and coolness under pressure.) (As an alternative, you could always ask for an example from their current job.

Q: Can you demonstrate how you will be an innovator? Then add: “Our municipality prides itself in innovation, so it’s important that we know everyone we bring on board is capable of innovation. Please identify an area of this job that would lend itself to innovation and tell us briefly, step by step, how you see that developing over your first year?” (As an alternative, you could always ask for an example from their current/previous job.)

Questions that help you better understand a candidate

There is room for improvement in everything, and interview questions are no exception. Interview questions that relate to a candidate’s skills, abilities and knowledge can be improved if you simply ask the candidate to rank their own answers from most to least important. Since you may have to ultimately convince a “Top Talent” candidate to take the job, some of the most worthwhile questions you could ask have to do with the candidate’s own decision-making process. The answers you get will indicate the factors that will influence whether or not they actually want the job?

Q: What are the factors that would influence your acceptance of a job offer if one were extended?  Add: “Everyone has career choices – we get that. Meeting your needs would be important to us. If we were to make you an offer, we would need to understand what’s important to you in your decision-making process. (Examples: money, responsibilities, ‘fit’, etc.) So, in order of importance to you, what are the top five factors that would influence your decision about an offer?”

Q: To be motivated about your work, what’s important to you?  Add: “Where at all possible, we want to make sure that we meet our employee’s needs by doing our part to help them achieve what’s important to them. What are the five most important factors for you in being fully motivated in your work?  Please list them in descending order of importance”

Q: Tell us what works best when it comes to managing you? Add: “We want to make sure that every new employee has the best chance of succeeding in our municipality. You can help us with that goal by outlining the best ways to manage you. Here are some examples of ‘how to manage me’ factors: I appreciate constructive feedback, this is what a reward looks like to me, I am okay with this amount of supervision, the best way to   communicate with me is and this is the  leadership style works best for me. Please help us understand the most effective and optimal approach with you.”

Q: List and rank the capabilities that you bring to this job. Add: “It’s important to fully understand the strengths of each new hire and how they match the requirements for the job. So, given the four important categories of knowledge, experience, education, and skills, can you please list in descending order what you have found to be your strongest five capabilities that will make you a top performer in the job?” (As an option, if you are concerned about weaknesses, you can also add this question: “Based on past manager assessments, 360s, and appraisals, what is the top job-related area where you need to improve the most, and what actions are you taking to improve in that area?”)


Smart HR managers are aware that, thanks to social media, sample interview questions of all types are now readily available to almost anyone. This means that if you work for a large municipality or almost any municipality that employs someone trained in Human Resources, candidates can now come pretty close to finding the actual interview questions you will use (and most likely the best answers) that were asked by hiring managers in other municipalities.

So, if your municipality is like most municipalities, and you rely on typical interview questions, chances are, you will be getting fully rehearsed answers.

By contrast, I have provided you with some alternatives that, by their nature, make rehearsing more difficult. You will find they work best with the more senior roles in your municipality – professionals whose job it will be to know how to identify and solve problems. Don’t be surprised, however, if after asking these more probing and in-depth questions of the average candidate, you’re met with a blank stare.

Not surprisingly, good questions are only one side of the coin; on the flip side, you’ll also need to know, in advance, what good answers to your more in-depth questions sound like. Determine in advance a range of answers from “really good answers” to “really poor answers” for each; that way, you’ll know in advance when you hear a great answer. As mentioned earlier, if you try out some or all of your questions on a trusted and competent professional in your own organization, this will go a long way toward making you a good judge.

If you use them, you will find, as I have, that top performers and professionals prefer these types of questions over the mundane “tell-me-about-yourself” questions that they normally get.

Whether you use my questions or develop your own, these types of “situational” content questions are the best questions, because they are focused on 1) real life problems, 2) the job the candidate is applying for, and 3) your municipality.

Bruce Malcolm

About the Author ()

Bruce's background includes 30+ years of human resource management experience covering all aspects of HR administration with a clear specialty in team building and recruiting. He created and developed the concept of “Ethical Head-Hunting™”. Bruce began his recruiting career in 1971 with Prudential Assurance.

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Receive the latest news and trends in the Municipal industry.

We don't share emails with any third party!