Interview Questions to Ask, and Stop Asking

By Noah Apodaca Feb 16, 2011
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Effective interviewing is the cornerstone of successful recruitment. Particularly during sluggish economic times, recruitment efforts can yield numerous highly skilled candidates, which makes the interview sessions all the more important.

Some hiring managers see the interview merely as a task that needs to be completed to move along in the process; they are more interested in the social aspects of meeting individuals who are interested in the company. On the other end of the spectrum, some hiring managers view the interview as a type of “Thunderdome,” where gladiators compete and the victorious champion is awarded the prize of employment.

Both extremes miss the three key goals of employment interviews:

Find out as much as possible about what the candidate knows.

Learn how their work skills have been applied and tested in work situations.

Determine where their aptitudes lie, defining the path of future growth and development.

Ideally, every one of the 10 to 12 questions that interviewers should be able to ask during a typical one-hour interview should be geared to give the most insight on the candidates’ knowledge, skills and abilities. With limited time and resources, don’t throw away a third or more of the interview asking questions that won’t help in the decision-making process.

Interview Question Effectiveness

Scrutinizing interview questions before using them can help improve their strength and effectiveness as well as ensure that interviewers and interviewees get more out of the valuable, albeit limited, time. To do this, answer the following questions about each interview question:

“What is the most likely response to this question?”

“Does that answer give me concrete data that will help my hiring decision?”

If either test falls flat, the question needs work. If both tests fail, toss the question out and start over.

Following are four solid questions to ask—and a proper way to word them—that can garner much of the information needed to help make an informed hiring decision.

Don’t ask: “Why do you want to work here, or why do you want this job?” This question addresses candidate motivation. We know the likely response to either of these questions is to ramble about how wonderful the organization is and what a great opportunity the position represents for the candidate. The truthful answer in all cases is that the candidate is not wealthy enough to be able to survive without earning money, so they’re seeking employment.

Neither of these responses helps to demonstrate what kind of worker the candidate is or provides any insight to their professional goals.

Instead, ask: “What particular skills or experiences make you the best match for this position?” Or to put a behavioral-based interview spin on the question, ask, “What would your most recent supervisor say are the skills that make you the best candidate for this position?” These questions give the candidate the opportunity to bring attention to the things they found to be important from researching the position and their vision of how they might fit in the organization.

Don’t ask: Where do you see yourself in five years? Candidates are thrown by this question easily and typically respond that they plan to be at that organization that they are interviewing with, excelling and making great contributions. This gives absolutely no insight on the candidate’s vision of their professional growth.

Instead, ask: “Where does this position fall along your career path?” Asking this gives the candidate an opportunity to speak about the skills and experiences that have prepared them for the responsibilities of this position and gives the interviewer an idea of what goals they’re looking to achieve. It might be that some candidates view the position as a destination job that they’d like to hold on to until retirement. Others might see the job as an opportunity to gain skills needed to achieve different professional goals.

Sometimes hiring managers are afraid to ask open-ended questions about a candidate’s future for fear that the individual won’t remain in the job once they’re hired. It is important to remember that employees cannot be forced to remain in any particular job—this is employment, not indentured servitude. While holding on to good employees is always a concern, remember that retention efforts will be more successful if every employee’s professional goals and plans are understood.

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Give candidates opportunities to share with hiring managers answers about their skills, knowledge and experiences.

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Don’t ask: “What was the worst thing about your last employer?” or “What did you like the least about your last job?” This question leads candidates to break professional decorum spending interview time whining or complaining about work experiences. Trash talk might be great in the professional wrestling ring but it rarely helps in corporate America, so why goad the candidate into it? Similarly, a list of complaints provides no useful understanding of how the candidate worked to remain successful in the face of adversity.

Instead, ask: “What aspects of your previous position did you find most professionally challenging?” or “What would your most difficult past client say you could do to improve service delivery?” These questions allow candidates to reflect on how they believe that their skills matched up with the challenges of their most recent workplace and to provide assessment of what could change. Follow-up questions can probe what steps were taken to address these challenges. This gives an idea of how the candidate deals with difficult workplace situations or challenging tasks as well as how proactive they were in addressing identified issues.

Don’t ask: What are your greatest weaknesses? Some canned responses to this: “I’m too much of a perfectionist.”“Because of my dedicated nature, I put too much of myself into my job and don’t take time for me.” Interviewers know these answers before asking the questions, so there’s no reason to have candidates recite them to us.

Instead, ask: “What kinds of professional development would make you a more-effective worker?” or “What areas of training would your past supervisor say you would benefit from the most?” This gives candidates the ability to provide self-assessments of skills gaps in an environment where they’re displayed not as personal failings but as opportunities for professional growth. In addition, using this option gives candidates the opportunity to see how their supervisor’s developmental philosophy has affected their professional development.

Giving candidates the opportunity to share answers with depth and breadth about skills, knowledge and experiences provides a hiring manager with a much more useful amount of information than an interview that uses canned questions to see if the candidate can give the “right” or “best” answer. The success of a company’s hiring process depends heavily on the ability to assess accurately what candidates can bring to the organization. In addition, it shows how the organization can interact with their newest employees to develop underutilized skills and provide a level of professional satisfaction that will keep them engaged and happy to continue as productive members of the organization.

Noah Apodaca is lead recruiter for staff and communications officer for the human resources department at the University of California, Irvine.

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