So, your answer to the question is that you would hit the customer?” We sat there stunned, but it was his honest answer to an interview question. Interviews are serious work and require good questions and preparation. As business begins to grow again, there are good reasons to sharpen your skills at interviewing. If you are planning to make a career move, it is also a great time to contemplate sharpening your interview responses. For biomedical/clinical engineering managers, there is no more important duty than to hire the best people. While my experiences may not represent typical scenarios, the intent of this article is to provide ideas on how to improve your interviewing skills—no matter which side of the desk you are on—and along the way, pick up or provide some unforgettable answers of your own!

I interview with no less than two other members of my team. I usually ask one of them to handle the technical aspect of the position. This consists of computer skills, electronic knowledge, and mechanical expertise—definitely one to watch for. Since individuals no longer spend time working on cars and other mechanical devices, this represents an area where candidates may lack skills. The other member covers work ethic, ability to be a self-starter, and an interviewee’s ability to work as part of a team. This interviewer also handles the general variability of the type of work we do. This leaves me free to look for people with the “fire in their bellies.” I search for team members who have passion to serve others in our communities, who realize the criticality of our work, and who can work independently. It is also useful to find people who have a generally happy disposition and whose general sense of humor fits in with the team.

We generally interview candidates wherever we can find the most privacy but still provide a relaxed atmosphere for all. The team and I tend to be in high spirits, and we keep the mood light. We want to encourage the candidate to be his or herself and join in the fun. We will ask serious questions, but we do not want to portray our entire work environment as serious when it is often fun, which is another reason to do the interview as a team.

I have learned that the team concept yields the best results. If the vote happens to be the engineers’ against the manager, the engineers have my respect and we decide by the majority. On my own I have rarely hired the best candidate, but with the team I have never missed. Because we have interviewed together and worked as a team on choosing questions, the team also often knows what I want one of them to ask.

For instance, I may say, “Barb, ask our candidate ‘the question.’ “

“The question is,” Barb says as she directs attention to me, “If this guy asks you to do something you know is wrong, what will you do?”

I love this question. It is very, very unfair. The candidate does not know me. He/she does not know if I am a “my way or the highway” type of guy, and he/she does not know what answer I want him/her to give. Many times, I have heard candidates come back with, “Well, I’ll explain to him why that’s not the right thing to do and try to convince him that I shouldn’t do that.” This is a pretty good but fairly safe answer. But I’m not done:

“Ask the rest of the question,” I say to my teammate.

“If this man asks you to do something morally wrong, what are you going to do?” Now the candidate is on the spot. I want the candidate to think fast on his/her feet, show me inner thoughts, and let me see beneath the veneer into who he/she really is.

“I will not do anything morally wrong!” This is the answer, and if it is shouted while standing I do not hold it against the candidate. In fact, I will cheer! I do not want a team of people simply there to do my bidding without question. I need team members who will tell the boss when he is off in the deep weeds and that he is wrong, if it is necessary.

During this question you generally can feel the pressure increase in the room as the candidate considers the answer. A lot rides on the answer and their chances of landing the position. Most give me the answer I am looking for when pressed.

After this question I feel I’ve seen inside them a bit, how they processed their answer, and where their own moral compass points. I have only hired one person who answered, “I’ll do what you tell me to do.” I felt convinced that this person—a recently discharged ex-marine—answered in this way as part of his training. He turned out to be a great addition, but immediately after he answered I figuratively hit the buzzer (“Naaaaaaa!”) and let him know he had given the wrong answer and why.

Original Thinking

Many times I will hear, “I’ll do whatever I’m told”—again, the wrong answer. First, it is wrong because of the need for all of us to look out for the organization and one another. Second, it shows an individual who really does not like to think, and does not see alternatives or win-win situations. I am always looking for people who think outside of the box and want to put that thinking to work on my team.

One question I have used with candidates is to ask them if they know schematic diagrams. Schematic diagrams are circuit maps that show the electrical path a signal or voltage takes to make a device function. These days, many times they have been replaced with block diagrams.

My favorite response about schematics was the guy who looked me in the eye and stated that he knew them well and had used them for several years. As I unfolded a hand-drawn paper with capacitors, resistors, coils, transistors, and a transformer I had drawn, his face fell and an expletive escaped his mouth.

He could not identify even one. “It’s OK, not all that important,” I said. And it wasn’t. Although knowing how to read schematics was at the time very important, it no longer held importance in light of the fact that this candidate had just lied to me. The interview was over. I wrapped it up and thanked him for coming. Telling the truth represents a far more important talent than reading schematics. I can teach someone the schematics. It is doubtful I can teach character. Having a question that allows the gap in an interviewee’s character to show itself is priceless.

The Right Questions—and Answers

Open questions are fun and stimulate and spark your candidates’ thought processes. Creating good questions gives an interviewer the ability to put the candidate into a specific scenario and allows you insight into this person that you are considering for the job. Look toward creating scenarios that your team faces every day to see how a candidate would fit in. Or create some situations with tension or frustration to simulate a stressful situation and gauge how the candidate would do in a real one. Keep a list of your questions, and discuss them as a team. Find the best ones and refine them before the interview. As a team, there is synergy, and the best questions get better.

If you are the job candidate, anticipate these open-ended questions, always think carefully before answering, and above all, answer from a position of integrity and a view of what you can do for the hospital or clinic. Those of us in the hiring business are tasked with finding people who naturally think beyond themselves and think about the organization and its primary goal—helping people!

My most memorable reply (depicted in the beginning of this article) came from a question I always ask a candidate. It stems directly from my own experiences servicing equipment: “Tell me what you do when a well-meaning customer is hanging over you watching, talking, and distracting you during a difficult problem. How do you find the ability to concentrate and fix the issue when the customer won’t give you time to think and won’t go away?”

This question can ascertain how they will finesse the tough situations. I can remember how I handled it. I would look at the person and apologize. I would go on to tell them that I knew some team members could handle talking and thinking and problem solving at the same time, but I was more limited and could not do it. I would politely promise to look them up and explain everything once I completed the repair, but I would need some time to think. Normally, they would give me a pitiful glance and go their way, allowing me the time I needed to fix the equipment.

I will accept a lot of different answers to this question—I do not expect others to admit their limitations! Some have told me they would go to their vehicle for a part and hope that the person would disappear during that time. Others would work through it, trying to concentrate despite the chatter.

The response at the beginning of the article came from an interview a few years ago. This individual clearly had a very different tactic. My interview partners included a field engineer and another manager. I asked the question.

Our candidate hesitated and then replied: “I probably shouldn’t tell you this …” We all leaned forward in anticipation. We sensed this was going to be good.

“I had a guy do that not too far back. I was elbow deep in a copy machine,” he said with a soft drawl in his voice. “I knew that if I put my screwdriver on the end of the fuse to the metal case I’d draw a pretty healthy spark. So I did it. Quick as that spark my elbow flew back and I caught that poor guy right in the middle of his chest. He folded up gasping, and I finally had the machine to myself.” He finished, smiling proudly.

My manager colleague with a fine dry sense of humor was the first to speak as the rest of us were pretty stunned and at a loss for words. “So your answer to the question is that you would hit the customer?” he asked. The interview was over. He did not realize it, but it was over. There was no way we were going to hire someone to hit our customers.

Can You Take The Heat?

I also ask questions about how technicians take the heat. Physicians and radiologists experiencing service issues that keep them from providing their services can be very angry customers. One candidate told me he did not think it would be a problem. As a devoted Jehovah’s Witness who had participated in door-to-door evangelism, he had experienced upset and outraged people. He had learned how to de-escalate such situations. The team and I hired him. Hospital personnel never presented a problem for this young man!

Another gentleman answered that question by telling me he had worked his way through technical school as a bartender. I had no doubt that if he could handle overjuiced college students he could handle overstressed medical professionals.

One other scenario I encountered came from interviewing a group of people from a declining company. I found it amazing how four of them all had the same story to a question about networking computers. “There’s a chance we might get training in the fall,” came the common reply. Not one of them had the interest to do it on their own, although the world they were working in was rapidly becoming networked. However, we interviewed one person who had left the company and knew all the other applicants. He had the same pedigree as the others, except he made his move and took the initiative to learn networking on his own. He now worked in IT at a department store and missed the medical field. This was the guy we hired, and he was awesome! He made the grade and became a specialist very quickly. He had great customer skills and technical expertise and, when he told me he had applied at my current organization, I jumped at the chance to support hiring him. Good people are worth a few phone calls of support!

In addition to the great questions you ask, keep track of the questions that the candidate asks. And if you are a candidate, make sure you prepare good questions. Good questions from the candidate show an inquisitive mind and also provide those conducting the interview a glimpse into the applicant. The questions the interviewee asks will sometimes show you how much he/she knows about your company and how much research has been done before the interview.

Good questions, good team assistance, and good preparation all play a major part in building a great organization through hiring great people. Having strong people in equipment repair means more than having people who have the computer, electrical, and mechanical skills. There is a need for a passion to help people. I look for those who want to expand their influence and skills and do not let the job description define their contribution. Finding folks who get excited over contributing in this way and living a lifestyle of service makes the organization, the community, and the candidate all ultimate winners. Individuals who can communicate, present, and promote ideas and concepts in addition to repairing equipment will always be in demand.

My hope is all your interviews will yield success and that you will experience the joy of finding, and asking, great questions. In turn, I hope you will receive intriguing answers to aid you in your choices! Happy hunting, and may your interviews go smoothly, whichever side of the desk you occupy!

Russell D. Irons, AAS, BEET, MAOM, is a regional service manager in the biomedical industry and adjunct professor of business at Spring Arbor University, Spring Arbor, Mich. For more information, contact .