The art of asking the right interview questions

One of the most important lessons I learnt in my recruitment career was that asking the right questions and preparing for it effectively was key. The better I prepared for it in advance and the more effective questions I asked, the more information I was able to gain which then helped me to make the right hiring decision. Is it an art to ask the right interview questions? I do think so because I learnt that asking lots of questions alone doesn’t mean that you are doing your job right. You need to ask the right questions based on a candidate’s required job competencies. And not just that, you also need to know how to interpret the answers correctly and be able to read between the lines, something that should not be underestimated.

No matter what position I had to fill, my guideline was always to find answers to the following four questions: Is the person able to do the job? Is the person motivated to do the job? Is the person manageable? Does the person fit into the organisation? For each of these four questions I had to ask a series of further probing questions. This always helped me to determine if the candidate was absolutely the right choice. Research has actually shown that the rate of successful hires using traditional methods is just 19 %, while with behaviour-based interviewing, the percentage is 75.

Many HR Professionals believe that past performance is the best indicator of future success on the job. Questions are crafted so that candidates give real-life examples using SAR statements (S: Situation in which the behaviour took place, A = the action the candidate took to address the situation, R = results of the action). The goal of the recruiter is to determine that the candidate cannot just do what they claim they can do, but also have actually done it and can describe specific situations they faced, the actions they took and the results of their actions.

I always made use of this behaviour-based interviewing technique to some extent because these kind of questions revealed many more insights about a candidate’s skill set, knowledge or experience. Some examples are: “TELL ME ABOUT A TIME … when you had many projects due all at the same time.” Or “GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF … when you came up with a cost-cutting idea.” Or “DESCRIBE … an innovate idea that you developed that led to the success of a company initiative.”

Let’s assume you ask two candidates two different questions. Candidate 1: “Are you a good leader?” and candidate 2: “Tell me about a situation in which you had to lead many people to achieve a goal. Afterwards, you also asked “How did they respond?”, “How did you keep the momentum going?”, “What was the outcome?” Which candidate do you think will tell you more about their experience as a leader? If you ask structured, open-ended, and probing questions, you will make candidates reveal the necessary information that you need to confidently predict how they are going to perform on the job in the future. You might never have a 100 % guarantee for it, however, the chances that a candidate might perform very well in the future again are high.

Another important point that a recruiter needs to keep in mind is not to ask any illegal questions which might vary from country to country. In the USA, for example, asking “Do you have any disabilities?” is considered as illegal but if you formulate the question differently by asking “Can you perform the functions of this job?” it would not get you into any trouble. It is important to be well prepared in order to reduce the risk of asking illegal questions without realising it and expose the organisation to lawsuits.

Asking questions doesn’t end at the interview stage. At a later stage also former employers need to be contacted and asking the right questions at the right time will again prove to be valuable in order to make the right hiring decision. Last but not least, knowing what, how and when to ask the right questions can also be very beneficial for making other important life decisions too. Thus, a skill that is definitely worthwhile learning and applying. 

Karin Schroeck-Singh
Karin Schroeck-Singh is a passionate Public Speaker, eBook Author, and a freelancing Online Content Producer. She has an MBA from the University of Leicester (UK) and gained 18 years of international work experience in Italy, the UK and India.