Questioning Techniques

So, the candidate is taking his seat in the interview room. Their application is in front of you and the interview is about to begin. Do you feel prepared? Do you know the types of questions to ask? Would you know what to do if the conversation dries up?

Question Preparation: Is this you?

It is almost eleven o’clock. Your telephone rings, and it is the receptionist telling you that a candidate has arrived for an interview. You meant to spend some time this morning preparing for it, but other urgent tasks got in the way. You ask someone to show the candidate into the meeting room to give you time to run through their CV. You buy a bit more time by offering the candidate a large mug of tea or coffee while they wait. You have about five minutes to run through their CV, try and remember why you short-listed them in the first place, and consider what questions you are going to ask them. But it does not matter too much. After all, you are bound to think of some questions during the course of the interview.

The importance of preparation

If this is you, then you are not alone. But as with all aspects of the recruitment process, the key to good interview questioning is preparation. The cost to the organisation of recruiting the wrong person is substantial, both financially and emotionally, and so it is essential that you use the interview process wisely.

Consider why you are conducting interviews. What does an interview add to the recruitment process that a CV or application form will not provide? A well-planned interview will:

  • Reveal more information about a candidate than the summary provided in a CV
  • Add new information that is missing from the CV
  • Encourage the candidate to open up and talk, giving you the opportunity to assess them in terms of their ability, skills and personality

You ought to be using the interview process to answer the following questions about each person that you interview:

  1. Can this person do the job?
  2. Will this person fit into the team, and into the organisation as a whole?
  3. Will this person want to work for us?
  4. Will this person be a reliable and dedicated employee?

The danger of interviewing on the hoof is that you will only find answers to some of these questions. When you are comparing two candidates after the first round of interviews, you will not be able to do so in a fair and balanced way. So make sure that you prepare for each interview thoroughly.

Consider the complete application

When you made your shortlist of people to interview, you assessed carefully each candidate’s CV or application form against the job and person specifications. Now is the time to go back through the notes that you made, and consider the questions that you will ask each candidate at interview.

Looking at a candidate’s CV or application form, remind yourself of the reasons why you decided to interview them. Consider what further information you would like to have about this person, and write down some questions you could ask that will help you. Examples might include:

  • Gaps in career history
  • Skills/ experience referred to that you would like to know more about
  • Skills/experience implied, but not stated
  • Skills/experience required for the job, but not stated on the CV/application form
  • Hobbies and interests. What does this person do outside work?
  • Education. Why did this person study a particular course?

You should also refer to the job and person specifications when preparing questions for interview. Comparing these two documents with the CV or application form, where does this person fall short of the requirements of the role? Where are they overqualified? Make notes on questions you could ask at interview that would confirm these.

Balancing questions

Remember that an interview is more than just an opportunity to ask a series of questions. Listening is just as important, and you will think of other questions that you want to ask resulting from the answers you receive. So preparation is about making sure you do not miss something important, rather than about planning every single question you will ask during the interview. A good interview will flow logically and progressively, and your questioning route should reflect this.

Once you have made notes on the questions you would like to ask, ensure that the list is balanced. In other words, your list should include some questions that require short factual answers, and others that will get a candidate thinking and talking. Some different types of question are described below.

Closed Questions

Closed questions are questions that demand a one-word answer, or a very short response. Examples include:

Q: Can you use Microsoft Word?
A: Yes, I can.

Q: Can you speak Italian?
A: No, I can’t.

Q: What is your typing speed?
A: 60 words per minute.

An inexperienced interviewer will often ask too many closed questions, and may conclude that the interviewee does not have much to say. So you should remember that closed questions are best used when checking basic information about a candidate. Perhaps there is something that was not made clear in their CV or application form. For example:

Q: In which month did you leave Morrisons?
Q: How many years have you worked at Simpsons?
Q: How long is your notice period?
Q: Are you able to work evening and weekend shifts?

You may also need to use closed questions with certain types of candidate. For example, you should use them when interviewing someone who will not stop talking, in order to break up what they are saying. Or with a candidate whom you suspect of being vague or evasive with their answers. For example:

Q: So when exactly was this?
Q: Did you resign from this post, or were you asked to leave?

The important thing is to strike a balance between open and closed questions. Allow plenty of opportunity for the candidate to have their say. But make sure you uncover the important facts as well. Do not be afraid of asking a closed question in order to be certain of a particular point.

Open Questions

Open questions are much broader, and demand a longer answer. You use open questions to invite a discussion, and to get a candidate talking. The candidate will need to consider their response to each open question, and will not be able to hide behind a short or one-word answer.

Open questions often begin with one of the ‘W’ words: Who? Why? What? When? For example:

Q: What do you like most about your current position? What do you like least?
Q: Why do you feel you are particularly suited to this position?
Q: What do you hope to achieve by changing jobs at this time?
Q: Who do you go to for help or guidance?

But there are also other ways to begin open questions in order to start a longer discussion, or to really get a candidate thinking. For example:

Q: Tell me about some of the challenges you face in your current job?
Q: How do you handle stress in your work?
Q: How did you get the information you needed from the senior managers?

Open questions reveal a lot more about a candidate than closed questions. With open questions, it is harder for candidates simply to provide the answer that they think you want to hear. So you will learn a lot more about a candidate’s ability, personality and skills by considering carefully the open questions that you ask.

If you are well prepared then you will have considered several open and closed questions to ask before the interview has begun, and plenty more will present themselves during the interview itself.

Situational Questions

A Situational question is when you outline a hypothetical situation to a candidate, and ask them how they would deal with it. For example:

Q: Suppose you had two pieces of work to finish by midday, one for your immediate superior, and one for the Managing Director. It is clear you will not meet the deadline for both tasks. What would you do?
Q: You suspect that a colleague is stealing from the till. You know that he has money problems at the moment. How would you deal with this situation?
Q: Suppose a customer telephoned you, complaining that they felt ill after eating one of the company’s products. How would you react?

The situations you use should, as far as possible, reflect typical scenarios that the jobholder is likely to face.  Then you will get a revealing insight about the way a candidate might deal with a particular situation. However, you should use situational questions with a degree of caution. Remember that a candidate will have little or no direct knowledge of how the organisation operates, or maybe even of the industry that the organisation operates in. So you should judge the response you get by the approach that the candidate would take, rather than look for a perfect answer.

Leading questions

Leading questions are ones that suggest or imply a particular answer. For example:

Q: Presumably, if a member of your team were rude to a customer, you would dismiss them on the spot?
A: Yes, absolutely

Q: You’re not suggesting that qualifications are not as important as experience are you?
A: No, of course not

Asking leading questions is hardly ever effective in an interview situation. You rarely learn more about a candidate by leading them to a particular response. They can be useful, however, if you suspect a candidate of consistently giving you answers that they think you want to hear. In these circumstances it is legitimate to throw in a leading question as bait, and see if they hook themselves.

Creating stress

You often hear about interviewers who are particularly tough, or who seem to enjoy intimidating candidates. Whilst it is never recommended to make a candidate feel uneasy just for the sake of it, there are occasions when creating stress in an interview is very important

Dealing with stress has become a part of working life. There is stress in every job nowadays, but some careers and roles are particularly stressful by their very nature (for example, any role handling customer complaints). When recruiting for a position that requires a calm, unflappable person, it is legitimate to create stress in the interview to see how the candidate reacts. You can do this by challenging some of the answers that the candidate gives to the questions you ask. For example:

Q: Are you really suggesting that you would tolerate a team member who was not pulling their weight?
Q: How on earth do you manage to do your current job without spreadsheet skills?

The aim is simply to see how the candidate reacts to being challenged. A candidate who deals with stress effectively will remain calm under such questioning. That is all you are looking for, so once you have established this, progress the interview on a calmer footing.

Probing questions

Probing questions are used to obtain additional detail from the candidate by delving deeper into a topic being discussed. As a result, they often follow on from open questions. For example:

Q (Open): Why do you want to work in the public sector?
Q (Probing): Don’t you feel that your commercial skills are better suited to the private sector?

A probing question is sometimes tough, but always fair. It should sound conversational, and follow seamlessly from the question that preceded it. If you take this care, you may get a more emotive response from the candidate, revealing more about the person and the way that they approach a given situation. If you are not careful, probing questions can sound intrusive and make the candidate feel uncomfortable.

Questions to keep up your sleeve

Any interview can dry up, no matter how well prepared you are. You may have misinterpreted a person’s work experience from their CV, or they may have misunderstood the nature of the vacancy. In either case, you could find yourself with a prepared list of questions that are suddenly no longer relevant. So it is a good idea to have a reserve list of questions you could ask of any candidate, just in case you need them. Every job and organisation is different, but some examples might include:

  1. How would your current work colleagues describe you?
  2. What do you think you would contribute to this organisation?
  3. What do you dislike most about your current position?
  4. Where would you like to be in three years time?
  5. Describe your perfect working day
  6. Describe a situation at work where you demonstrated your team skills
  7. What is your greatest weakness?
  8. What would you most like to change in your current role?
  9. How do you keep yourself motivated?
  10. What most gives you job satisfaction in your current role?

Talking Too Much

A common problem for interviewers, not interviewees, is that they talk too much. It is common for an interviewer to begin the interview by telling the applicant all about the organisation. Then they spend ten minutes talking about the job itself, followed by a summary of how the job relates to other positions within the company. Before they realise it, half the time allotted to the interview has passed, and there is just a little time left to ask the applicant a few basic questions. You must remember that your role in the interview process is to learn as much about the applicant’s suitability as you can. The applicant has probably already seen a job description, a person specification and any other details about the company that you sent them before the interview. So there is no need to spend much time in the interview process describing the organisation and the position to the applicant in detail. You can quickly summarise these details, or leave them to a second or subsequent interview. Let the applicant convince you of their suitability for the role, not the other way round. There should always be a sensible balance. Allow the applicant to talk, but keep him or her on course by asking sensible questions.

Questioning techniques: Checklist

  • Are you fully prepared for the interview?
  • Do you know what types of question you can ask?
  • Have you thought about specific questions you will ask each candidate?
  • Have you got a spare question up your sleeve just in case?
  • Can you think of questions to ask that might get a quiet candidate talking?
  • Do you know how to create stress in an interview intentionally?
  • Would you feel confident stopping a candidate from talking too much?