Being clear about the purpose and style of the interview will help you stay on course to get the responses that will help you decide who is the best candidate. It’s also an opportunity for candidates to assess whether the role is right for them.
Interview situations vary: they can be one-to-one or one candidate before a panel of staff form the employer company. Sometimes groups of candidates are given a task so that interaction can be observed. Interview questions generally fall into one of three categories:
1 behavioural – focus on critical incidents from the candidate’s past to demonstrate behaviours necessary in the post to help establish how a candidate might behave in a similar situation; supplementary questions examine responses in more depth
2 hypothetical or situational – “what would you do if...?” questions to find out how someone would act in a specific situation, which has relevance to the job
3 stress questions – involve putting a candidate under pressure.
These common types of questions have their critics. Behavioural or competency-based questions work on the principle that past success is an indicator of future results, but the candidate might over-exaggerate their role and the circumstances, which might be different to those they will face in future. It’s therefore important to ask supplementary questions for a clear understanding of what was achieved.
Hypothetical questions can provide a better understanding of how a candidate might approach a situation, but do not provide evidence of what the candidate has done in the past and thus may not give as clear an indication of performance.
The aim of the stress question is to see whether candidates can think ‘on their feet’ quickly and creatively. The problem is that answers to questions like, “Are there enough hours in a day?”, or challenges to “how would you sell me this desk?”, don’t necessarily help you select the best candidate. The answers can be as random as the question and some candidates will have googled the answer.
However, stress questions can be useful to test creative and logical thinking. But mindful of the skills, personality and character traits you are seeking, test any curve-ball question on colleagues – perhaps other members of the panel – to see what it can reveal. You’re not looking for the right answer but the right person. It is a rare candidate who doesn’t have an answer to the question, “what is your greatest weakness?”.
common interview questions and their pitfalls
Question: “could you tell me about yourself?”
Pitfall: unspecific. Gives no guidance about what you want to know – are you asking about their personality or why they want to work in your sector?
Instead: Be direct: “why did you take this career path?”
Question: “where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”
Pitfall: Potentially inappropriate. You could only ask this if you’re offering a permanent role or a contract that will cover five years. A candidate may reasonably ask for the context of where the company will be in five years (considering market and economic variables, this could be awkward to answer). It is also unlikely to be answered honestly
Instead: “what kind of skills would you like to have developed in five years’ time?” This will enable you to see whether the candidate’s aspirations match the organisation’s needs
Question: “what can you do for us that other candidates can’t?” and “Why should we hire you rather than other candidates?”
Pitfall: Irrelevant - taken logically, you are asking the candidate for a comparison to other candidates – if this is an interview with external candidates it’s unlikely they will know
Instead: focus on questioning them about their own skills, such as which are their strongest, and which are the most applicable to the role
Question: “what is your greatest weakness?”
Pitfall: ineffectual - candidates can all rehearse an answer that turns a weakness into a strength, so although it was once a good question, it has now lost
Instead: ask what you want to know. Asking, “what’s your greatest achievement?” allows the candidate to talk about something they’re passionate about and you can assess that against the role
Question: “why do you want to work for us?”
Pitfall: this might be appropriate if you have a really strong employer brand. It will highlight who has prepared for interview and who hasn’t but it doesn’t tell you which part of the organisation they want to work for
Instead: “why are you interested in this role?” It’s much more specific
Question: “are you happy to work in a small team?”
Pitfall: Unproductive phrasing - this is both a closed question (yes/no answer) and a leading question – the candidate will follow your lead, and you won’t learn about the candidate’s real preferences
Instead: open questions, such as “what type of team suits you best?”
Question: “tell me about your current role, what you specifically like or dislike and what you would change if you could?”
Pitfall: too much - this is a multiple question and candidates usually only answer the final part, forgetting about the rest
Instead: break the information up, start with: “what do you like about your current role?” After the candidate has answered that, ask what they dislike, and then what they would change if they could
It is best to ask open-ended questions, which start with the words “how”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why”, “which” and “describe”, so candidates give detailed answers rather than a simple “yes” or “no”. When you need to gain more in-depth information ask more probing questions using words such as “specifically” or “exactly”.
The list of sample questions on specific personality areas below can be amended to reflect your organisation’s values and aims. The questions you use should cover the relevant skills for the role. Candidates should also be given the opportunity to ask questions about the organisation and the role.
questions on specific personality areas
● why do you want this job?
● what are your expectations about working here?
● what are your career goals? (supplementary: what steps will you take to achieve them?)
● describe exactly how you accomplished a recent goal?
● what motivates you?
● give me examples of when you have gone the extra mile?
● when have you initiated some new activity? (or: hatched some grand plan?). What was the context and outcome?
● tell me about a problem you’ve handled and how you resolved it?
● describe an incident where you had to think on your feet.
● what big obstacles have you overcome in your life/work to date? How did they affect you and how did you deal with them?
● how do you determine or evaluate success? Give an example of one of your most successful achievements
● tell me about a time where you took a risk and failed; and when you took a risk and succeeded. What was the difference?
● how far do you think you can go in your career and why?
● how will you do it? (supplementary: what might get in the way and what can you do about these obstacles?)
● what can you contribute to our organisation?
● how would you describe yourself in terms of attitude at work?
● describe the manager who could get the very best out of you
● how do you feel about failure?
● what training or support are you likely to need?
● what culture would suit you best?
● describe a time when you were not happy with your performance and what you did about it
● what are your interests outside work and what do these say about you?
● what has been the hardest decision you have made in your life? How did you decide on the course of action you took?
● how do you prioritise what needs to be done (give examples)?
● give me an example of a high-pressure situation you’ve been in. How did you deal with it?
● have you ever taken a risk? What was at stake and how did you set about ensuring the risk of loss was minimised?
● who are your role models and why? (values/measures of success)
● tell me about a project you’ve worked on with others – how did you reach a consensus and agree actions to take?
● what makes a good team member? How do you like working in a team?
● how do you build your social networks? What characterises it?
● what would be the first five things you would do in this role?
● name one thing would you like to do better? How would you get there?
● what would you do if you made an important decision and a co-worker challenged it?
more articles about: the selection process
- recruitment is changing
- compiling a shortlist
- sorting applications
- the job interview
- preparing to interview candidates
- interview questions
- psychometric and other tests
- medical tests
- group selection methods and assessment centres
- keeping the selection process short
- candidate care programme
- taking up references
- foreign workers entitlement to work