Pharma | Biotech | Medical Devices

4 Interview questions to avoid when interviewing Top Talent and 4 better ones to ask

Since founding MTS Talent and growing it into Switzerland’s leading Life Science interim staffing provider, I’ve learned which interview questions expedite the hiring process and which ones delay it.

Over the past 15+ years, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, qualifying both interim talent and permanent hires to ensure the ideal fit with our client’s needs. I share my insights here to help you identify and secure the perfect candidate for your team.

Note to HR and Hiring Managers:
Hiring interim specialists differs in significant ways from hiring permanent employees, however for this article’s purpose the interview questions I’m suggesting apply equally regardless if you are interviewing a potential permanent hire or an interim/contractor.

If you wish to quickly get an overview of Interim Staffing in Switzerland, download our free Guide How to Hire Contractors and Interim Managers in the Life Science Industry”. The Guide tells you what every Director needs to know about hiring interim staff in the Pharma, Biotech and Medical Device industries. Download your FREE copy at the end of this post.

Before the interview

Presumably, the person you are interviewing has already met your requirements on paper and has all the desired skills and work experience for the role you need to fill. You’ve checked their LinkedIn profile and when relevant, any posts or papers they have published. Perhaps you checked their Facebook profile and other social media accounts as well (although I personally leave Facebook alone as I feel it can be too personal). Having ticked all the boxes for hard skills, the interview is the time to learn the candidate’s soft skills like how they work independently, as well as in a team and how they deal with stress and potential conflict.

Don’t wait to do the research until reception calls to tell you your candidate has arrived. A sure fire way to lose top talent is to show up for the interview unprepared and uninformed. Before they sit down across from you, have a clear grasp of what will make a good fit with the team and what questions you want to ask to gain further insight into their profile and experience. Soft skills are as important as degrees and specialised skills among high performing teams. The interview is your chance to see them use those skills in action. Important as well to your preparation, is that you will want to make some informed assumptions about what motivates candidates so you can highlight the benefits for them if they join your team and company. (see our blog post 3 deciding factors motivating high-calibre talent)

It’s a candidate’s market and you’re not alone

A word of caution before we get to the 4 Questions to avoid asking Top Talent in an interview – don’t assume you are alone pursuing a top candidate. We’re in a candidate driven market today and the best candidates will often have lined up several opportunities besides yours, or are being targeted by several companies like yours.

That also means candidates have done their homework on you, and are interviewing to learn about your company and corporate culture as much as to showcase their own talents. They may have already interviewed with a competitor, so don’t limit your chances by naively assuming you’re the only one pursuing them. The candidate is selling themselves of course, but don’t forget you are selling the candidate the role, your leadership ability, career development opportunities and your company.

4 Questions to avoid and 4 better questions ask

You can expect experienced Life Science candidates to have well-rehearsed responses to all the usual interview questions. Get a step ahead of the competition by not asking the same old questions they hear repeatedly. Instead, raise the bar from the beginning and ask highly relevant and engaging questions which will help you make the right decision when the interview is over.

Here’s my list of mediocre questions to avoid – and my suggestions of what you really want to ask:

1a. DON’T ASK: “What is your biggest weakness?”
Every good candidate knows how to answer this question: Just pick a theoretical weakness and magically transform that flaw into a strength!

For example they might answer: “My biggest weakness is getting so absorbed in my work that I lose all track of time. Every day I look up and realise everyone has gone home! I know I should be more aware of the clock, but when I love what I’m doing, I just can’t think of anything else.”

Right … you’ve learned their ‘greatest weakness’ is that they’ll put in more hours than everyone else? Wow! How terrible. Who would ever want to hire you?

1b. DO ASK:  “Tell me about a time a colleague or customer got red-in-the-face angry with you?”
Conflict is inevitable when teams and business units work hard to reach targets. Mistakes happen. Sure, strengths come to the forefront, but weaknesses also rear their ugly heads. That’s OK; none of us are perfect.

But a candidate, who pushes the blame or responsibility for mistakes onto someone else, is a candidate to avoid hiring. Better to choose someone who talks about the solutions they (and their team) found to fix the problem over the candidate who is always looking where to place the blame.

Every business needs employees who willingly admit when they are wrong, step up to take ownership for fixing the problem and most importantly, learn from the experience.

2a. DON’T ASK: “Where do you see yourself in 3 years?”
Answers to this question go one of two ways. Either candidates try to show incredible ambition because that’s what they think you want to hear, providing an extremely optimistic answer such as “I want to be the VP of this department” or they try to show humility and commitment to the role by saying something like “I want to do a great job and see where my talents take me.”

In either case you learn nothing, other than how well candidates can sell themselves.

2b. TRY ASKING: “What kind of business would you love to start?”
What will you learn by asking this question? The business a candidate would love to start tells you about their hopes and dreams; their interests and passions; the work they like to do and the people they like to work with. Turn this question into a conversation by asking open questions like “why so?” and “how would that work?” You’ll learn what the candidate really likes to do, which will tell you a lot more about their outlook, attitude and true beliefs better than any fantasy future scenario.

(Quick note: “Where do you see yourself in three years?” is a great question to ask a current employee since the best employee development plans are one’s created by the employee, not by the employer.)

3a. DON’T ASK:  “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
Your goal in the interview is to determine whether the candidate will be outstanding in the job and that means evaluating both hard and soft skills required for the role. Do they need to be an empathetic leader? Ask about that. Do they need to influence board members? Ask about that. Asking this classic question at the beginning of an interview can often dominate the discussion as the person feels inclined to share their entire life story.

3b. DO ASK: “How has your career progressed since taking your first job in our industry?”
If you want to understand their career motives, ask why they accepted certain jobs and why they left others. If you want to understand their education choices, ask why they attended a certain school. Or ask why they took a sabbatical between two high profile jobs. Know as much as possible about the candidate ahead of time, and then ask interview questions designed to allow a candidate’s true feelings to come out.

4a. DON’T ASK: “Out of all the other candidates, why should we hire you?”
Hmm. Since a candidate cannot compare themselves with people they don’t know, all they can do is describe their incredible passion, desire and commitment … basically beg for the job. This is a sure way to lose a top talent’s interest in you before you even begin discussing a contract.

I’ve heard from many candidates that interviewers too often ask this question, which comes across to candidates as: “Go ahead. I’m listening. Try and convince me.”

And you learn nothing of substance and possibly lose the chance to hire a top candidate.

4b. DO ASK: “What do you think I need to know that we haven’t discussed?” Or even, “If you could have a do-over on one of my questions, how would you answer it now?”
Rarely does Top Talent reach the end of an interview feeling they’ve done their best. Maybe the conversation went in an unexpected direction. Maybe the interviewer focused on one aspect of their skills and entirely ignored other key attributes. Or maybe candidates started the interview nervous and cautious, and now feeling more relaxed and confident wish they could go back and better describe their qualifications and experience.

Think of it this way: your goal is to learn as much as you possibly can about a candidate. Don’t you want to give them a chance to ensure that you do? Demonstrating your empathy of a candidate’s point of view may be the deciding factor in getting them to accept your offer over a competitor.

If this article was useful to you, download your free Guide: How to Hire Contractors and Interim Managers in the Life Science Industry which will give you some more important questions to ask during the interview process. 

What every Life Science Director needs to know about hiring Interims in the Pharma, Biotech and Medical Device industry

Kelly Brändli, Founder and Managing Director of MTS Talent services has over 15 years of experience in the life sciences industry. Since 2010, she has grown MTS Talent into Switzerland’s leading Life Science interim staffing provider, supplying high-caliber Marketing & Medical Affairs Talent on an interim and contract basis.

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website.