Interview questions

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

3    stress questions – involve putting a candidate under pressure.

These common types of question 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.

‘Curve balls’

The aim of the stress question is to see whether candidates can think ‘on their feet’ quickly and creatively. There used to be a fad to ask ‘curve ball’ questions – “sell me this desk...are there enough hours in a day?” – which became increasingly discredited as answers can be as random as the question. Although some still use them, they don’t necessarily help you select the best candidate, not least due to online advice on how to deal with them.

But used well, as part of a structured interview rather than just blurted out, they can have their place in testing 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, remembering you’re not looking for the right answer but the right person. It is a rare candidate who hasn’t got an answer to “what is your greatest weakness?” questions. Other questions that have their pitfalls include:


Open-ended questions

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 and ensure they cover the specific skills sought for the role. Candidates should also be given the opportunity to ask questions about the organisation and the role.

Questions on specific personality areas

Drive

• 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?

Initiative

• give me examples of when you have gone the extra mile?

• when have you initiated some new activity? (less formal: hatched some grand plan? supplementary: 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.

Self-assurance

• what big obstacles have you over come in your life/work to date? (supplementary questions: how did they affect you and how did you deal with them?)

• how do you determine or evaluate success? (supplementary: 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?

Impact/aspiration

• 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?

Self-awareness

• 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?

Judgement

• what has been the hardest decision you have made in your life? (supplementary: 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 (supplementary: how did you deal with it?)

• have you ever taken a risk? (supplementary: what was at stake and how did you set about ensuring the risk of loss was minimised?).

Interpersonal

• 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? (supplementary: how do you like working in a team?)

• when meeting someone for the first time,what’s the first thing you might ask them?

• how do you build your social networks? (supplementary: what characterises it?).

Execution

• what would be the first five things you would do in this role?

• what one thing would you like to do better? (supplementary: how would you get there?) 

• what would you do if you made an important decision and a co-worker challenged it?