Interview questions to avoid and what to ask instead

This article originally appeared in my newsletter, InSight Issue 34   Published 28th May 2008     I recently did some consulting work for a new client and as part of my work, I reviewed their interviewing template and sat in on a few consultant interviews.     Oh dear!     It was more than a little disappointing to see how ineffective the process was, in accomplishing the critical tasks of an interview.     Having looked at the interviewing template, it was hardly surprising that these interviews were so poor. Interviewing templates are very important for rookie interviewers in ensuring that all the relevant areas of an interview are covered and, just as importantly, in reducing the chances of ineffectual, irrelevant or illegal questions being asked.     The three pillars of an effective interview are:  

  1. To understand the job/career aspirations   and motivators/drivers   of the candidate and as a result, whether the candidate is committed   to their job search or merely interested   in their job search.    
  2. To understand whether the candidate has the technical skills   and behavioural competencies   relevant to your current clients and/or your prospective clients and the motivation   to do the job on offer, or potentially on offer.    
  3. The candidate leaves the interview with the experience of being:
  • validated
  • appreciated
  • understood
  • affirmed

Point 1 is primarily for the recruiter’s benefit (so we don’t waste time working on candidates who are only ‘window shopping’).     Point 2 is primarily for the benefit of our client or prospective client (so we only recommend suitable candidates).     Point 3 is primarily for the benefit of the candidate (so they leave the interview with a positive experience and will recommend us to others, regardless of whether they are placed by us or not).     Unfortunately poor interview questions and processes can very quickly undo any good work the recruiter may have been done prior to that point.     Here are a few interview questions I recommend you avoid asking and an alternative way to ask the same question.       Ineffective question:     What are your major strengths?     Effective question:     In your last performance review, what aspects of your work did your reviewer mention as being particularly good or strong?     OR   What accomplishment(s) or aspects of your current/most recent work are you most proud of? Why you are proud of it/them and describe to me how you accomplished it/them?     Ineffective question:     What are your major weaknesses?     Effective question:     In your last performance review, what aspects of your work did your reviewer mention as needing to improve the most, to take your work performance to the next level and tell me that you have done with respect to that feedback?     Comment:    The two ineffective questions above are both opinion-based questions and as such, will elicit an opinion from the candidate. It is critical to gain evidence   during an interview.     A behavioural-based question   explicitly asks for evidence (ie. “what happened”) whereas an opinion-based   question   does not.     Ineffective question:     What will you do if your child gets sick during work time?     OR   Do you have young children?     Effective question:     Because of the intense customer-focused and high response nature of this job (or substitute any other valid job-related criteria), it is extremely difficult for the client to be flexible with starting and finishing times between the core hours of 9am and 5pm.Does that present any difficulties for you with respect to any other commitments you have?     Comment:    Although this sort of question may be asked with good intention, the reality is that if the candidate does not gain an offer for the job, they may believe it is because they gave the ‘wrong’ answer to this question and as such were discriminated against on non-job related criteria. Always ask questions that are specifically and demonstrably job-related questions  .     Ineffective question:     How did you feel about that feedback?     Effective question:     How did you respond when you received that feedback?     Comment:    Asking a candidate about their feelings with respect to anything, is a very indirect and unreliable way of asking a question where you need a definitive and reliable answer (eg. I feel good about hamburgers, I just don’t want one right now).     What a candidate feels   might be interesting to know, but how a candidate behaves   is what determines job performance. When you start asking candidates about their feelings you risk drifting into the territory of a counseller or therapist.     Ineffective question:     Where do you see yourself in three years time?     Effective question:     What skills do you want to gain or improve in the next 12 months and what steps have you taken recently to achieve this?     Comment:    In this day and age of rapid change in the job market, who really knows where they are going to be in three or five years’ time? I know I don’t. This may have been a sound interview question to ask in a much more predictable work world (25 years ago), but not anymore.     Here is a quick guide to the difference between effective and ineffective interview questions:         Before undertaking any interview, a recruiter needs to clearly understand the job brief and construct their questions to best assess the 4-5 key competency-based criteria for the role.     A high performing recruiter conducts excellent interviews. Asking effective questions   is the foundation of effective interviewing  .     Any recruiter would gain much by thoroughly reviewing their interview questions and requesting peer feedback on their interviews.     How effective are YOUR   interview questions?    

1 Comment

  1. Lisa on 29/05/2008 at 6:56 am

    Hey Ross 🙂

    We recently had some feedback from a candidate who made some rather scathing comments about recruiters who ask too many ‘Tell me about a time..’ behavioural questions.

    I use them all the time and I think competency based interviewing is essential – but I can see how some candidates find these questions bizarre or frustrating – particularly if the recruiter has not explained competency based interviewing to them.

    I think one of the biggest challenges with these types of questions has to be – how do you quantify the answer? – I see a lot of recruiters still apply subjective analysis to the candidate’s answer ie they liked the answer or they didn’t. But to be really effective you have to have a quantitive meausurement scale that ensures the consistent rating of multiple candidate answers to the same job competency – and realistically how often is this being done?

    Do you think that it’s time to look at moving past these sorts of processes to judge competency and to use tools like online assessment tools which can measure the person’s answers against population norms?


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