Hiring a new PA? Here’s what to ask (and what not to ask) during interviews…
Going for an interview can be pretty nerve-wracking but interviewing someone can also be challenging, especially when you’re not familiar with the role. And although there are now AI-powered robot heads that can host interviews for you (yep, really) – this can only do so much, as the whole point of interviews is to try and get to know someone beyond what’s on their CV (which is a pretty big deal, especially when hiring a PA).
Here at BOWER, we do exactly that – help people hire PAs (and lots of other roles too). In fact, our whole team is made up of ex-PAs, so it’s safe to say, we know the role pretty well, from the perspective of both the interviewer and the interviewee.
One of the things that always makes a great interview is a good understanding of the role – any role – you’re interviewing for. Why? Different roles have different requirements and so, interviews have role-specific questions. When you have a strong knowledge on the day-to-day of that job, it allows you to ask for specific examples that allow the candidate to highlight their experience and give you a proper insight before saying ‘when can you start?’
Here are some of the questions we wish we, and our candidate PAs, were asked during interviews…
I expect [x] – would you be comfortable with that in this role?
The role of a PA can be very flexible, because it depends on the personal preferences of who the role is assisting (it pretty much comes with the title). During the interview, think about what you need from your PA – this is your chance to let them know upfront. Give them a good understanding of the day-to-day: do you need someone to be on call 24/7? Would you like your PA to manage every single email that needs to be sent? Would they be expected to help other members of staff, or make your lunch every day? But also give them the wider view of what you and your business goals are. What is it you’re looking to achieve within YOUR role? An understanding of the bigger picture will help a good PA to focus on how they can help you to achieve your own goals. A good PA will be a shadow-version of you but with better organisational skills! It can take another 27.5 days to find someone new, so this needs to be the right hire – be open, honest and don’t be afraid to mention the potentially off-putting elements of the role. PAs are resilient and expect to deal with challenges.
What would you expect from this role?
This is your chance to turn the tables and give the candidate the opportunity to be upfront. It’s better to ask this earlier on, than to add a token ‘any questions?’ at the end which can be a pain in the ass to answer, considering it’s so open ended. Use ‘what would you expect from this role?’ as a guided prompt for the information that you want to know – do they have any expectations for holidays, flexible working or anything they liked in their previous role? Be friendly about it – it’s not a test, if anything, it’s a an opportunity to show what great benefits you have as a company, or at least, it will give you some new ideas. Once you have discussed your mutual expectations then the groundwork has been laid and you can concentrate on getting under their skin a bit more.
What do you think makes a good PA?
This seems like a fairly innocuous question but the magic lies in the answer you get. We are NOT looking for an answer like ‘being really organised’, ‘having good time management’ or ‘good diary management’. All of these things are basic, minimum requirements for a PA role. We want to hear things like ‘being able to take a longer-term view of the year ahead’, ‘understanding the goals of a boss’, ‘giving your boss enough space to perform their role to the best level they can’. You are looking for answer that focus on going ‘above and beyond’ just the daily admin.
Tell me about a time where you successfully managed [x]
That [x] stands for a task that you want them to do in this role as your Personal Assistant. It could be, travel planning, diary management, meetings, inbox management etc. Why is this a good question? First of all, let’s face it, we all like to show off when it comes to a time where we totally aced something, right? This will give your candidate a little confidence boost and builds them a platform to shout about their achievements, instead of trying to shoehorn this information into the answers of other questions. For you, their answer has a lot more gravity than a ticked box in the skills section of their CV, because there’s actual, real-life proof. PS: You can ask this question for more than one task, in fact, your candidate would probably love that.
What’s the most difficult problem you’ve ever had to solve in your previous roles?
This question does two things – first up, it gives the candidate a chance to showcase their problem solving skills, but most importantly, it gives you an insight to what they consider to be a really difficult problem. How they solve that problem and their reaction to that problem, will tell you more about how they work than the actual example situation itself. Smart, right?
On the spot challenge
Give the candidate an example challenge to answer on the spot – nothing too abstract. Again, make it relevant to what you expect from them. For example: We have offices in Shanghai, Amsterdam and here in London. Each month, we have an AGM call – how would you organise that? Before you ask a question like this, you need to have an idea in your head of what a good answer would be – know what you’re looking for and use that to measure how the candidate fits.
Now we’ve seen the good, let’s look at the bad, the boring and the downright awkward. We gathered interview horror stories from BOWER HQ to bring you a comprehensive list of what not to ask…
How drunk do you get on a night out?
Ask this if you want to make someone feel immediately uncomfortable. Even if you’re okay with a candidate talking about that time they started dancing on top of the printer at the office Christmas party, it still feels like a trick question. Also, you never know if that person, or someone close to them, has had previous issues with alcohol – so yeah, don’t ask this.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
How many times have you heard “I’m too much of a perfectionist”? Yep, once is too much. Strengths and weaknesses is a bullsh*t question because it’s one of the oldest in the book. People prepare for this question, they’re not being their full selves and also, who wants to shine a spotlight on their weaknesses? You’ll get a better insight from their examples in the questions above.
So, when are you planning on having more children?
Okay, so apart from the fact that this is actually illegal, it’s beyond inappropriate. If your concern is that you – as a company – cannot afford a suitable maternity or paternity package, be upfront with your policies at the beginning (see above). Make it more about the company as a whole than the individual, as again, you don’t know their situation. Not cool, not fair and not legal.
How would you describe your personality?
With a PA, it’s important that you know a bit about them, but I don’t know a single person who enjoys describing themselves. I mean, what would you say in that situation? ‘Umm, fun, I guess?’ ‘My friends once told me that I was altruistic’ – bleugh! Instead, tell them a little bit about yourself (eg: hobbies, interests etc) and ask the same from them. Think of it more like a conversation than a presentation, to put them at ease and see their personality come through.
What’s the most annoying thing about your previous boss?
This question is going to do one of two things – make you look bad, or make the candidate look bad. Even if it’s used as some sort of ‘test’, don’t encourage it – by asking this question, you only make it okay for them to talk about you in the future (which isn’t exactly what you want from a PA). Instead, the question about the most difficult challenge (above) will highlight everything you need to know, without asking for it in plain sight.
When it comes to hiring a PA, every role is different, because it’s specific to what you need from them. Before any interview, think about what would make a good answer for you, instead of what sounds the most impressive.
As PAs, we know the role inside-out, so if you need a better understanding of the role, or someone to find the right PA for you, get in touch.