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The 13-Question Formal Interview

Primary Blog/Hiring/The 13-Question Formal Interview

Yes, I said it. A formal interview is almost unnecessary for hiring part-time employees. Okay, now I said it.

We end up hiring nearly 90% of the part-time staff who make it through the Three-Minute Telephone Screening Interview demonstrated in a previous blog and show up for the formal interview.

Sadly, it’s true; many candidates don’t even bother to show up for a scheduled formal interview.

Do I need to say it? Don’t hire them if they don’t show up for a scheduled formal interview!

Why Is a Formal Interview Almost Unnecessary?

First, you’ve already asked and gotten the answer to the most pressing question most businesses need to answer before hiring part-time staff: Are you available when I need you?

You’ll likely be able to teach them everything about the position. Hell, I’ve even hired a bookkeeper with zero bookkeeping skills or training. There are so many online tools and tutorials for just about every skill you need to know. I don’t even have to know the skill I need my part-time employee to learn.

What Is the Purpose of a Formal Interview for Your Part-Time Candidate?

You are looking to answer the one question you can’t train.

What is their attitude?

You know this, I’m telling you nothing new.

You meet people every day. I bet you can form an opinion about a person’s attitude within the first 30 to 90 seconds of meeting them. Am I right?

If you’ve done the Three-Minute Telephone Screening Interview, (and I hope you have) then you’ve already spent twice as much time as you need assessing their attitude.

We use the formal interview for these three purposes:

1. Can the candidate show up on time?
2. Is the candidate willing and able to clean?
3. Is the candidate rude or polite?

Can the candidate show up on time?
Quite simply, did the candidate show up five minutes before the interview, right on time, after the scheduled appointed time, or not at all?

  • Pro Tip: Five minutes early is on time, on time is late, and late is set free (or not hired in this case).

Workplace tardiness and absenteeism have become endemic in the United States. I blame the big-box stores for being complicit in this societal disease. Big-box stores have such difficulty getting staff to even show up for shifts that they overstaff by up to 50%. You, on the other hand, have a small business to run and cannot afford to be so frivolous with your business expenses.

By the way, if you’re wondering why you are having issues finding part-time staff it’s also because of the big-box stores. This overstaffing management style is sucking up all the available resources because they are unwilling or incompetent to manage employee tardiness and absenteeism properly.

This might sound like a personal rant, and it is, but there is a larger point. If your applicant has a big-box store on their resume (or they put it on your employment application) you can believe that they expect timeliness and showing up for a scheduled shift to be optional. Buyer beware.

Finally, I wish it didn’t need to be said, but if the applicant does not show up to the interview — don’t hire them! No matter how desperate you are, and you are desperate if you are going after a candidate who didn’t even bother to reschedule or cancel, don’t do it. It’s like the guy who doesn’t get that she’s just not into him. It’s very unattractive.

Is the candidate willing and able to clean?
We’ve made it clear through our recruiting and marketing material how important cleaning is to our business model. We clean all the time, seriously. Our staff is expected to, on occasion, clean and sanitize toilets with a toilet brush, equipment with a toothbrush, and even floor-tile grout with a grout brush.

Between every guest, they are required to sanitize the room the guest used, and every hour sanitize all the surfaces a guest may have touched throughout the lobby and restrooms. During the formal interview, we want to make it clear — you are going to be cleaning.

If you have something like cleaning that might be untasteful but is an important part of the position, now is the time to be upfront with the candidate. Best to know now before either of you invest time, money, and energy into a working relationship.

Is the candidate rude or polite?
If being unwilling and unable to clean is our first unforgivable sin, then being rude would be the second. We will terminate your ass faster than you can say, “Bob’s your uncle” for being rude to our guests or your fellow employees. Since we can’t teach attitude, we need to know right here, right now, if the candidate is rude or polite.

We emphasize how important cleaning is so the candidate can walk away. We zero in on attitude so we can decide to walk away.

Determining a candidate’s attitude is our main purpose for a formal interview.

Now, you might be thinking, “Why don’t you just use a personality test?” We have. And you know what, they don’t work for us, and here’s why.

First, we are a small business with small budgets. Personality tests cost businesses real money — about $500 million a year (Meiner, 2015).

  • Pro Tip: 100% of any expense you can cut (minus taxes) goes straight in the business owner’s pocket. Let me repeat that; if you save $100 on a business expense, $100 minus income tax goes right into your wallet.
  • ​Conversely, if you are operating on a generous 15% profit margin, then 15 cents, minus taxes, of every dollar your business makes finds its way into your change jar. So, make $100 and buy two over-priced lattes with your $15. Save $100 and you can buy an espresso machine to make your fancy lattes (yes, yes, yes, minus taxes).
  • ​“A penny saved is a penny got.” Old Ben Franklin was a genius.

Second, the personality tests are wrought with biases (internal and external) and dissimulation (i.e., fraud). These tests are mostly introspective (i.e., subjective) self-reporting questionnaires.

Let me ask you a question. Are you fully self-aware? Can you look at another person without introjecting your prejudices? Do you know how to answer a question to elicit the response you think is most desirable? If you are honest you answered, no, I’m not fully self-aware, no, I have a lifetime of learned prejudices, and yes, I know how to fake the answer to a question.

There you have it. Personality “tests” are extremely subjective, inaccurate, and dare I say it, a waste of time and money for small businesses hiring part-time employees.

What we have learned is that active listening during all communications with the candidate is the best way to determine their attitude, especially rudeness versus politeness.

Don’t forget to “listen” with your eyes too. Facial expressions can indicate emotion, intentions, and social goals according to psychologist Carlos Crivelli (Myers, 2018). Rolling eyes may be an indication of disrespect. If you have teenagers or have ever been one you know all the disrespectful facial expressions.

Here are some specific things to listen for:

1. Does the candidate say please, thank you, and you’re welcome? I believe we expect kids to learn this by the third grade, but if they haven’t then you won’t be able to teach them now. I know, easy right? I never said this stuff was rocket science.

2. Does the candidate respond to a yes or no question with Yes/No sir” or “Yes/No ma’am? I call this southern hospitality or military respect. It doesn’t mean they are not polite if they don’t use this response, but it’s a good indicator they are polite and respectful if they respond this way.

3. How does the candidate talk about life experiences, other people, and past jobs? You are looking for positivity. Do they focus on what they learned or what they lost? Do they talk trash or are they respectful, even if they were in a bad breakup or got fired? Positive people are polite people.

  • Pro Tip: Check out the candidate’s social media postings before scheduling the interview. Look for trash talk, disrespectful behavior, and negativity. These are all traits of rude people.

In the end, it almost doesn’t matter what you ask them as long as you let them do 90% of the talking and you are listening 100% of the time — eyes and ears.

Even though I believe the only wrong questions are the ones that keep your attorney up at night, I know you want specific examples related to part-time hires so here’s a baker’s dozen:

Legal Disclaimer: I am not an attorney or a plumber, this is not legal advice, you should not consider this advice without consulting your attorney. And fix your own damn toilet.

1. What made you apply for this position? This is the first warmup question designed to relax the candidate and learn something about your company’s perception in the community. This data is pure gold. Also, I have found nervousness can negatively impact the candidate’s true self from appearing. Give them time to loosen up.

2. How did you hear about this job opening? This is warmup question number two and designed to relax the candidate and figure out if our recruiting budget is money well spent.

3. Briefly, would you summarize your work history? I’m looking for two things here: first, will the candidate trash talk a previous employer, and second, have they worked for someone (like a big box store or a competitor) that might have corrupted their work ethic. We’ve found retraining someone who has worked in a big box store or for a competitor is more challenging and may not be worth the time, money, and energy. We might not disqualify a candidate for this past work history, but if we must choose between two otherwise equal candidates, we’ll take the virgin. I hope you understand virgin is a metaphor for the employee with no big box or competitor work experience.

4. How do you feel about taking “no” for an answer? We sell stuff in our business and all our employees are expected to sell, even part-time staff. I’m guessing your business sells stuff (service or product) too. If the candidate does not understand that “no” is just a prelude to “yes” then they might get an attitude when perceiving “no” as a personal rejection. If hearing “no” is personal, then they’re not likely to be happy working for us — or anyone for that matter.

5. How much supervision have you typically received in your previous job? We do not micromanage our employees. We expect a candidate to take direction but also work without direction once fully trained. A candidate that had a lot of autonomy in a past job is ideal, but not necessary. This is another opportunity to see if the candidate will talk trash a former employer or boss.

6. Why are you leaving your present job? I don’t really care about the reason. I’m looking for the candidate to finally break down and talk trash. People can hide who they are for quite a long time, but given enough time talking they will revert to their true selves. This is another reason you let the candidate do 90% of the talking — you want to make sure by the end of the interview they have revealed their true self.

7. What is important to you in the company you work for? This is another two-purpose question. First, will they talk trash here directly or indirectly about a previous employer? Are you seeing a theme? We are looking for rude behavior. Second, this question lets us collect data on what employees are looking for so we can become a preferred employer among employees. It’s a two-way street after all. You are being interviewed as well.

8. What kind of person do you find it most difficult to work with and why? You guessed it — will they talk trash or just speak in generalities? Also, I want to know how they handle dealing with difficult people. As hard as it might be to believe, guests (i.e., customers) can sometimes be difficult.

9. What is one thing you would like to avoid in a job and why? If the candidate has not started talking trash by now you might have a winner. The answer to this question also helps us to become a preferred employer. We have modified demotivating policies, like cellphone use during a shift, from the information we gleaned from questions like this.

10. What might make you leave this job? As I said, a bad attitude is a fatal sin. I don’t want to hire any whiners, slackers, or pigs. They can ruin your reputation in an instant. Pigs are what we call rude employees. I’m also looking for a pending future obligation that has yet to be revealed, like a planned move or certification in a different field.

  • ​Pro Tip: Did you know more people are killed by pigs than sharks? More businesses are killed by the pigs they hire than by the shark competitors trying to steal market share. Avoid or set free the pigs and the sharks become irrelevant.

Mic drop.

11. What is one thing your friends would say about you? Friends can be brutally honest. Your candidate is thoroughly warmed up by now. They just might say something incriminating, like “He’ll be late to his own funeral.”

12. What one thing irritates you about other people and how do you deal with it? Would you believe me if I told you this is the last question we ask to test for rudeness? We are serious about our reputation and so should you be. Don’t hire pigs and set free any pigs currently in your employ.

  • Pro Tip: The best way to know you’ve made a hiring mistake is to ask yourself this one question, “Would I hire this person if they came in today looking for a job?” If no, set the pig employee free. You’ll both be grateful.

13. Under what circumstances do you think work policies should NOT be followed? Assuming you have no illegal work policies the answer should be, “There are no circumstances when work policies should not be followed.” Your policies should be tried and tested by now. If not, you’ll enjoy the blog on that subject. I’m looking for two things here: if the candidate has violated work policy in the past did they do it because they felt it was in the best interest of the company (usually also the best interest of the customer) and that they understand we like our work policies and expect them to follow them.

There you have it. Hire for attitude and communicate anything you think might be untasteful but is a necessary part of getting your job done. The former is for your benefit and the latter is so the candidate can bail early before either of you have spent time, money, and energy in a working relationship.

What’s Next?
Use the formal interview to test for attitude; you probably can teach them all the skills they need to know for your job.

Be sure to communicate anything untasteful about the job you are offering to scare away anyone who might waste your time, money, and energy by quitting shortly after being hired because they don’t like to clean, for example.


Kermath, D. (2020, November 29). Recruit, Hire, & Retain Superstar Part-Time Employees: Little Known Ways Small Business Can Find, Employ, and Keep More Qualified, Competent, Motivated People. Amazon Paperback Edition.

Meiner, D. (2015, June 1). What Do Personality Tests Really Reveal? Retrieved from Society of Human Resource Management Web Site:

Myers, T. R. (2018, May 10). Why our facial expressions don’t reflect our feelings. Retrieved from BBC Future Web Site:

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