Recently, while sitting in a conference that targeted the cultural entrepreneurship and technology sectors, it was a comment about job interview questions that had the most impact on me, rather than the buzzwords about innovation or new tech wizardry. Essentially, it was agreed that the ability to cut through to a person's true character, amidst all the noise, banter, and glowing spiels of the recruitment process, is one of the most important skills in business today.

Interviewing is an imprecise process, but you can improve the quality of information you access by asking the right questions.

Asking the standard questions about how someone works in a team, how they have demonstrated leadership, and even what their flaws might be, are all questions that candidates prepare for and rehearse. Do they really reveal anything other than the interviewee's rote answers?

As a potential employer, you can’t necessarily rely on what a candidate claims they will do – or even to an extent what they have done – but you can learn a lot from how they respond in the moment.

So, how do we effectively sift through the pumped-up rhetoric that all candidates deliver when seated across the table in a job interview? We asked a number of arts professionals, across a range of sectors, about the questions they've had the most success with when interviewing candidates in the workplace. 

1. WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO WORK?

Kym Elphinstone, who worked in the art museum sector before founding the successful PR company Articulate, said that identifying an individual’s underlying – and genuine – passion is key to finding the right fit.

Her essential interview question is: 'What would you do if didn't have to work?’.

The intent: Elphinstone believes the answer reveals an individual's true underlying drivers. ‘In the art space it can often be a labor of love, so a starting point of a genuine passion for the clients we work with and the projects we deliver, is important,' she said.

‘If an interviewee demonstrates they truly believe in the importance of increasing audiences and wider awareness for the arts, I can see there will be an alignment with our own values at Articulate. Whereas if that question hints that the person may have passions that lie elsewhere, that’s also a good tell that perhaps they aren’t in the right interview room!’

2. HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND TO THE “X” SCENARIO?

Rebekah Butler, Executive Director, Museums & Galleries Queensland, said that it was important to put a candidate at ease in an interview, so she likes to start off by asking the applicant to tell her something about themselves.

The advantage to this strategy is that it makes for a better interview overall, removing some of the blinkered stress from the situation.

Butler told ArtsHub: ‘I find it helpful to give the applicant a scenario and ask how they would respond to that situation.’ 

The intent: ‘Responses to this type of question offer insights into the applicant’s job-related skills, performance, and problem-solving abilities,’ she explained.

While a straightforward question, Butler said it was incredibly valuable in gauging an applicant’s competency and helps to determine if they are the right person for the job.

3. DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE MINDSET OF AN ARTIST?

Caitlin Dullard said of working at La Mama Theatre that everybody has to talk to many different artists – no matter what your job is. ‘You’re engaging with so many different creative personalities all the time. Every communication, every task is about making life for artists as easy as possible,’ she said.

As La Mama's Company Manager and Creative Producer, Dullard said that while you need to rattle through the list of core questions in a job interview, the real answers come from unexpected queries.

‘I always ask first, “Why do you want the job?” and of course there’s always the generic “managing priorities and difficult people” questions, but more interestingly, the question I think that has offered the most insightful answers over the years is a question about understanding the mentality of artists.’

The intent:  ‘We’ve interviewed lots of people who have been brilliant but who haven’t really evidenced that they get the artistic mindset and so haven’t been successful in getting the job. That’s the key question that has made the best candidates stand out from others,’ said Dullard.

‘And if you don’t get that, you’re going to struggle in this environment. Many people who have been employed here are artists themselves but you don’t necessarily have to be. But if you can’t understand what it is to be needing to be paid right now, to be stretched and emotional at showtime, you’re not going to really be able to do the job that needs to be done compassionately, I think,’ Dullard said.

4. ASK AN IMPOSSIBLE QUESTION WITH NO ANSWER

For the Director and CEO of the Biennale of Sydney, Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker, it is even more simple. Her advice is ‘Ask an impossible question to which there is no correct answer. The skill and the grace with which they respond is a measure of the person.’

The intent: Throwing someone out of their comfort zone and disrupting their expectations may not always reveal an interesting or erudite answer, however, it will tell you a lot about the candidate's personality and potential fit within the team dynamic. This is particularly useful in a fluid and stressful workplace.

5. HOW CAN YOU BRING YOUR UNIQUE SELF TO OUR VALUES?

Job titles seem to have a new currency in the contemporary work future. Dom Price, who calls himself a recovering accountant, today sports the title of 'Work Futurist'. He is Head of Research and Development at Atlassian, a leading provider of productivity software. 

He says that part of their hiring process is to do a values screening. ‘We ask, “How you can bring your unique self to our values?” The caveat is that some people are a product of their environment. So what we are looking for is potential.'

The intent: ‘You can usually smell someone with a growth mindset and who is willing to be curious, challenged, be a bit provocative and get shit wrong and not be ashamed by it,’ Price explained.

‘One of the things we had to undo – or unlearn – recently was the idea of the word "genius," that idea that creativity comes from some 55-year old Anglo Saxon white man. If you’ve not got a diversity of thought, of experience, and can bounce ideas off each other [in your organization] then it’s a complete waste of time. We signed up to the idea that the word "genius" is dead,' Price explained.

His philosophy, then, is to find real people who dream.

AND SOME OTHERS FOR YOU TO CONSIDER:

  • What happened the last time you made a major mistake and how did you deal with it?
  • Tell me about the toughest decision you had to make in the last six months.
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • Tell me about the last time you had to hit a tight deadline.
  • Why do you want to work for our company?
  • Tell me about the last time a customer or co-worker got mad at you.
  • When you get to the end of the day and your list of things to do is still a mile long, what do you do?
  • Tell me about the best idea you had in your last job, and how you presented that to your employer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.