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Interview Ice Breakers: 7 Questions to Segue into Meaningful Candidate Conversations

Take the time to build a relationship before jumping into your questions

A glacier is exploding in front of a large body of water.

​Heidi recently joined a mid-sized company as manager of recruitment, and her initial goal is to strengthen the interviewing skills of her frontline hiring managers.

She assembles a group of 15 leaders for an interviewing workshop and hands out a sample resume that's common to the types of hires the organization typically makes. She asks everyone to review the resume for several minutes and then requests that they begin interviewing her as they normally interview any other candidate. They're collectively the one voice of the hiring manager, and she'll field their questions in this mock interview scenario.

Their questions are scattered and lack alignment. Initial questions from the audience bounce around from "Tell me about yourself" to "What's your greatest strength?" to "Give me an example of a time when you've had to overcome a significant obstacle at work." Clearly there's little consistency in the team's questioning techniques, there are no ice breakers to ease into the interview, and the team's interviewing abilities leave a lot to be desired.

Create Trust, Comfort

"The relationship [between interviewer and candidate] isn't ready to dig into details right off the bat," said Gabrielle Bowden, HR director and assistant controller at The Bridges Club at Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Taking the time to build rapport, establish some common ground and make the individual feel welcome are critical to the relationship-building process that's supposed to happen during an interview.

"Move too quickly into a formal question-and-answer format," Bowden said, "and you'll likely create an expectation of formality where candidates are hesitant to show their true selves."

Your objective should be to establish trust and allow candidates to feel comfortable sharing some vulnerability in a positive sense. You'll know you're there when a candidate occasionally says, "Well, Gabby, I wouldn't normally say this during an interview, but . . ." Your ultimate goal will be to get to know the real candidate behind all the interview hype.

But how do you get there? What types of questions typically make a candidate feel at ease sharing more about themselves: their short-term goals, longer-term career objectives, and their ultimate willingness to join your organization versus the others out there that are competing for talent?  

Start with something related to the business that also allows a candidate to put their best foot forward. Here are some suggestions:

  • Tell me about your job search up to now. What's motivating you to look for a new opportunity, and what have your experiences been as a candidate in the open market?
  • Before we launch too deeply into your career experience and background as well as what we're looking for in our next hire, tell me what criteria you're using in selecting your next role or company.
  • What's really important to you at this point in your career?
  • Not to limit you in any way, but besides us, who would be the two or three leading companies that you'd want to pursue now if you could, and why are they on your short list?

Ice breakers are helpful in creating a relaxed and personalized atmosphere. People tend to be comfortable talking about themselves and their experiences and then jumping into the question-and-answer session in the formal evaluation process.

"Openers are meant to establish the tone and tenor of the interview meeting, and richer discussions stem from more personalized and transparent invitations to connect on a personal level," Bowden said.

Continue with Inviting Opener Questions

"If the ice-breaker questions set the mood, then a smooth transition into the first formal interview questions will go a long way in cementing a spirit of trust and transparency between the hiring manager and the candidate," said Eve Nasby, vice president of business development at Amerit Consulting in San Diego. Open up with a question that allows the candidate to share a broad overview of their backgrounds like this:

  • Let's start with a brief overview of your career progression, leading me up to how you landed in your current role. Just maybe a minute or two working backwards on your resume from the past to the present so that I understand how you've progressed in your career and gotten to this point.

"The 'minute or two' caveat sets the stage for a quick refresher, and it's good to have an opportunity to hear directly from the candidate how they compartmentalize information and discuss their historical career priorities," Nasby said. In addition, it will save you a lot of time if you, like many employers, haven't had a chance to look at the resume in detail just before the interview. "The Readers' Digest version of the candidate's resume overview accounts for the larger blocks of time in her career and will help you keep focused on the individual's historical career drivers and current needs," she added.

If a candidate is entry-level or hourly, you can adjust your opening questioning salvo to build rapport and trust by asking something a bit more humorous and friendly like:

  • So, let me ask you the most important question before we begin: Do you enjoy interviewing, or would you rather do just about anything else other than this?
  • Most surveys will tell you that there are only two things that people hate more than interviewing: dying and paying taxes. Does that describe you fairly well, or do you actually enjoy interviewing a bit more than that? 

With more senior candidates, you might want to defer to their hiring expertise by asking a question like:

  • Let me switch roles with you before we begin. When you hire people at your own company, what do you generally look for in terms of their backgrounds, experiences and overall style? And what do you like or dislike about interviewing candidates?

Clearly, you can open with questions that reflect your style, personality and individuality. What's important, though, is that you're comfortable in your own approach and try to make the candidate comfortable in answering questions transparently in a spirit of getting to know one another.

"Too many times employers engage in formal Q&A discussions without ever letting the candidate talk about their true selves," Nasby said. "Candidates really want to know what it's like working for you. Don't underestimate the power of a strong bond or interpersonal relationship to serve as the ultimate swing factor in the candidate accepting your job over someone else's."

Be Truthful, Too

Of course, vulnerability and trust go two ways: as an employer, you'll want to share your true perceptions about the job in terms of its advantages and shortcomings. No candidate is a perfect fit, and no job is a perfect opportunity either. But establishing trust and rapport in the very first meeting goes a long way in getting the relationship off to a good start and creating an expectation of transparency.

"In essence, you'll be giving each candidate a glimpse of how you value and handle professional and career development in the workplace. To do that in the pre-employment stage may come as a shock to some candidates, but it will certainly help you stand out among your competition because of your selflessness and goodwill," Nasby said.

Combined with additional interviewing queries focusing on what the candidate's ideal opportunity might look like in terms of role, responsibilities and learning curve, you'll be setting a foundation for longer-term success. After all, how many candidates are asked "career introspection" questions that force them to think about their career progression up to now, their key motivators in selecting a new role, and this position's link to future career opportunities three to five years from now?  No, they're not easy questions, but most candidates will walk away from an interview like this with a very solid impression of the organization and your leadership style. Open your interviews with questions like these, and watch candidates' interest grow exponentially as they reveal more of their "true selves" during the interviewing and selection process.

Paul Falcone ( is an HR trainer, speaker and executive coach and has held senior HR roles with Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon and Time Warner. His newest book, 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees (Amacom, 2016), focuses on aligning front-line leadership teams and on key employee retention. A longtime contributor to HR Magazine, he's also the author of a number of SHRM best-sellers, including 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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