Interviewers Need Better Questions

If we don't ask the right questions, we may not get the right answers.
Written by Dave Anderson on Aug 04, 2016
Interviewers Need Better Questions

“Tell me about yourself.” “What is your definition of teamwork?” “What’s your biggest weakness?” These are old interview questions that rarely improve an interviewer’s chance of finding the best candidate.

Some interviewers have not changed their interview questions for years, or they are using the questions they were asked when they interviewed years ago.

The Information Age

In today’s online world, the number of professional interviewees has grown exponentially. In the past, a few driven people headed to the bookstore and read a book on how to interview.

Now anyone can jump online for thirty minutes prior to an interview and find out what to say and what not to say in an interview. Unless interviewers improve their game, the advantage shifts to the candidates.

At the end of the interview day, an interviewer can be looking at a pool of candidates that provided similar answers and are truly undifferentiated. Interviewers must change their questions and adapt.

The Purpose of A Good Interview Question

The ultimate goal of interviewing is to find the best candidate. Therefore, why would I ask a question that does not help me identify the BEST in the midst of the rest?

Every question I ask in an interview should lead me to the best candidate. If the question does not help me differentiate one person from another, it is a wasted question.

Examples of Weak Questions

I have used many of the questions I now believe are weak questions. They are lay ups for anyone who did online research. Plus, they do little to differentiate one candidate from another.

  • Tell me about your strengths.
  • Tell me about your weaknesses.
  • Do you consider yourself coachable?
  • What would you do if an angry customer called you?
  • What would you do if you thought your teammate was cutting corners?
  • If you were put in charge of this team, what would you do in the first week?

These questions usually yield a stack of good answers because they are so common, and they are philosophical.

  • Which candidate has a better set of self-identified strengths?
  • Which candidate has the best philosophy on handling angry customers?

The answers to these two questions are unclear. If I can’t clearly determine who is the best, I should try something new when I interview.

Questions That Differentiate

My goal must be to find the best candidate. Therefore, I must modify the questions above to help me find the BEST in the midst of the rest.

I do not want to ask a question to which the best candidates and the average candidates can give me a similar response. If they can, it is a wasted opportunity.

Strengths/Weakness and Coachability

In Mark Murphy’s book, Hiring For Attitude he has a great series of questions to get a candidate to give a real answer about his strengths or weaknesses. They also give us a window into whether a candidate is coachable.

  1. What is your boss’s name? Or your previous boss’s name? Spell it please.
    1. This sets up the impression you are going to actually speak to the boss.
  2. Tell me about what _________ was like as a boss.
    1. This lets me know what the candidate wants in a boss. It will let me know are they a good fit for me and my style.
    2. If they do not want to speak directly about their boss then ask:

                                               i.     What do you wish _____ did more of/less of.

  1. What is something you could have done differently that would have enhanced your relationship with ________?
    1. The best candidates will take ownership and discuss not only what they could have done differently, but also what steps they have already taken.
  2. When I speak with ___________ what will he/she say your strengths are?
    1. This helps get them talking and sharing what their bosses thoughts will be because it is a positive question. It also gives me the ability to see if the candidates perceptions are in line with the boss’s.
  3. When I speak with ___________ what will he/she say your weaknesses are?
    1. First, I can figure out if I can live with the weakness described.
    2. Second, if they don’t have an answer, they are probably going to be a coaching issue.
    3. Third, if their boss did not provide the feedback, ask them what they think the boss would say.

Murphy suggests going through this series of questions in this order to get the most revealing responses. I think it is a brilliantly simple way to get past the canned answers many people are trained to give now.

Behaviors Instead of Philosophies

Who cares if you can espouse the right thing to do in a given situation if you have never done the right thing?

Most candidates know the answer an interviewer wants when they hear a philosophical question. The questions need to help me know how a person acts not just whether they know the philosophy.

  1. Tell me about a time you had a difficult customer call you?
    1. This question leaves it open for them to interpret what upset is. Perhaps they have a very low threshold for what upset is.
  2. Tell me about a time you suspected someone at work was cutting corners.
    1. Do they take action or do they stay silent?
  3. Tell me about a time you were part of a project team that had to solve a difficult problem.
    1. Are they specific about their role and what actions they took? The candidates with initiative will offer that information because it is who they are and how they think. The others may only describe the problem.

Don’t ask and “What did you do?”  Wait for them to offer it on their own. The best have the initiative to look and provide solutions. If I prompt them, they will tell me what they know I want to hear.

I want to know how someone has behaved in the past not how they think I want them to behave in the future.

The Bottom Line:

If I want the best candidates to shine through, I must be asking questions that help me identify who they are. The old questions and the philosophical questions do little to help me decide who is the best.

I must be able to identify the BEST in the midst of the rest.

Two great books I like to recommend are:

Hire On A WHIM, by Garrett Miller

Hiring for Attitude, by Mark Murphy

These books are a great 1-2 punch to improve our interviewing skills.  They approach interviewing from two unique but similar angles.


What is the best interviewing question you have heard? How does it differentiate the BEST in the midst of the rest?