March 22, 2023
The job interview is one of the best tools we’ve got to figure out whether a candidate is a good fit for a job or not, but let’s face it: it’s imperfect. Interviews are inherently inauthentic. Everyone in the room - on both sides of the table - is putting their best foot forward. The candidate wants to minimize their shortcomings, and an employer wants to paint the company, the culture, and the opportunity as perfect. Neither is true, nor should it be. Every candidate is human, and a company is a collection of humans. Being human means being flawed. The job interview relies largely on the subjective opinions and impressions of the interviewers, and a conversation can’t always reliably predict on-the-job performance. Poor employees sometimes interview really well, and great prospective employees don’t always shine in the context of an interview.
There is hope; the process can be improved. When interviewers ask smart questions, and listen for the right pieces of information in the answers, an interview can elicit important and relevant insights. A candidate’s performance in previous jobs, and their tendencies, preferences, and behaviors, can tell you a great deal about how well they’d fit into a team and company, and how well they’ll perform in a job.
Naturally, there are some interview questions that are ubiquitous; almost every interviewer asks them, and almost every candidate is prepared - like an actor with their lines memorized - to answer them. Therein lies the challenge. When questions are asked and answered ‘just because’, they lose their power.
Below, we’ll share the best questions to ask during an interview - an even dozen, to be exact. Some of these questions may seem familiar, but we recommend asking them in very specific ways: using a subtly different question structure to improve the quality of the information you’ll get in response. We’ll also share the things we recommend listening for in the candidate’s answer. Finally, we’ll close with three bonus follow-up questions and when to ask them.
Before we tackle the questions, we’d like to offer a word on the way candidates may frame their answers. Below you’ll find several situational questions. These questions ask a candidate to give an example - or tell a story - from their experience. A story should have four elements, often coached to candidates using the acronym STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Result. Simply put, an answer should give you a sense for the context in which a situation happened, what strategy was used to tackle it and what specifically the candidate did, and what happened as a result. If you don’t hear each of those elements in an answer, don’t hesitate to probe for them. Some candidates may not be practiced storytellers, and (unless the job involves telling stories) they shouldn’t be penalized for that. Asking for that missing information can bring out some important elements of a story that a candidate might otherwise have overlooked or downplayed.
With no further ado, then, let’s move on to the questions.
There is simply no reason for any candidate to be in the dark coming into a job interview. When arranging the interview, a candidate should be informed about the job (even if just through the posting or job description). If they aren’t, they have a responsibility to ask. And in this day and age, there’s no shortage of information to be found online about any company. A candidate should have a few things to share in response to this question. Otherwise, they’re showing you that they lack the interest or ability to do some basic research in preparation for an important discussion. Either is a red flag.
In answer to this question, a candidate has the opportunity to show their sincere interest in a position, and in your company. A good answer should make it clear that they’re intentional in their desire to take on the position, that they are genuinely interested in the work they’d be doing, and that their career goals line up with what might be expected in the role.
Some candidates will get this question confused with the previous one. If they do, gently correct them and let them start again; the answers are not interchangeable. In the answer to this question, a candidate should be selling themselves. Ideally, their answer should connect the dots between key responsibilities and requirements of the job, and the skills and strengths they bring to the table.
Everyone has both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors: elements that are attracting (or pulling) them to one job, and aspects of another job that are pushing them away. A good candidate is self-aware, and should be able to articulate what those factors are for them. A mix is ideal here; be cautious if a candidate’s only reasons for making a change are things they dislike about their current job. In most cases, they should be pulled to a new opportunity as much as, or more than, pushed.
Sure, most interviewers ask what a candidate's greatest strengths and weaknesses are. And in many cases, the response is just a rote laundry-list of things the candidate believes (or wants the interviewer to believe) they’re good at. Asking the question this way invites the candidate to connect their strengths with the job you’re recruiting for, once again showing that they’ve reflected, that they’ve done their research and thought about how they’ll use those strengths to be successful.
As with the question above, this way of asking about weaknesses asks a candidate to do more than just list a few areas for improvement. A candidate who’s used to giving rote (and perhaps less genuine) answers to this question will often struggle here, especially if they haven’t taken time to reflect on what skills they would need to be successful with you.
This can be one of the most fun questions to ask. If a candidate gives a truly authentic answer, you’ll be able to see it. Their face will light up, their body language may become more animated and expressive, and the story they tell will be compelling. This question is one that can break through the artifice of an interview, allowing the real person to come out. The answer will tell you a great deal about the kind of work that brings out the best in a potential candidate. In a perfect world, the job they’re interviewing for should give them the opportunity to tap into that level of engagement.
This question can produce a goldmine of helpful information about a candidate: the kinds of people they find difficult to work with, why they've found them difficult, their conflict resolution skills and style, and the level of responsibility they take (or avoid) for challenging situations and relationships. Depending on the job you’re interviewing for, you may wish to ask more specific versions of this question, asking about coworkers, supervisors, or customers. In each case, naturally you’ll want to listen for similarities between people they’ve found challenging in the past, and people they’d need to work with in their new job. It’s even more important, however, to listen for evidence that a candidate is self-aware of, and takes responsibility for, their own role in conflict resolution.
Like the question above (and the one below, for that matter), answers to this question consist of several layers. On the surface, of course, the answer is simply a story about the candidate overcoming a challenge. Below that superficial level is the really useful information. What kind of situation do they find most challenging, and why? What is their initial reaction when they hit a stumbling-block? What is their process for developing a strategy to overcome a difficulty? If their first plan doesn’t work, what happens then? What did they learn? Below the surface level of this deceptively simple question, there are facets to their story that will tell you a great deal about a candidate's approach to dealing with adversity.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there are layers to this question as well. The kind of decision that a candidate finds difficult can be revelatory. For some people, dealing with the unknown is tough - unfamiliar situations at work, whether complex or simple, that they haven’t seen before. For others, it might be a more personal conflict relating to an ethical or moral dilemma, or an interpersonal relationship. Whatever the decision, the answer will give you clues about a candidate’s ability and readiness to make a decision, their preferred decision-making style, and how prepared they are to deal with the consequences of their decisions. The more senior and responsible the position, the more critical these behavioral elements become.
Ambition and drive tend to be closely linked with high performance. Of course, this isn’t meant to suggest that every candidate needs to be a goal-setting machine to be considered as a new hire. But a good candidate should be able to respond to this question in several possible ways. Some people have developmental goals, linked to improving a skill or capability. For some people, their goals are more closely related to career progression: the kind of work they’d like to be doing, or the position they’d like to have, in a certain amount of time. Asking the question this way requires that the candidate focus on just one goal. The goal they choose will tell you a great deal about what is most important to them, at the same time as it tells you whether their ambition is one that aligns with the job and the company. You might want to go a step further, and ask the candidate to specify a short-term, mid-term, and long-term goal.
There isn’t a single job in existence today that is static and unchanging. Some jobs are changing more from within, as technology or other innovations change the way the work is done. For other jobs, the change is more external - disruptions in any number of industries are changing companies and jobs in those industries at the highest level. A strong candidate is usually one who is ‘tuned in’; they should be able to identify those changes, and how the changes will affect them and their work. The second piece of information you’ll hear in the answer to this question is the candidate’s level of interest in, and commitment to, learning and growth. Some people embrace change and are excited about the prospect of learning new things; other people tend to be more comfortable with the status quo. The answer will tell you where a candidate sits on that spectrum.
As mentioned above, some candidates aren’t that great at telling stories - even candidates with really great stories to tell. There are a few good reasons to help out those people. In part, of course, it’s to be fair to them. Unless you’re hiring a storyteller, it’s not entirely fair to assess a candidate on their ability to tell stories well. The other reason is self-serving: by trying a little harder to draw information out of a candidate, you might just uncover the most important detail: one that could show why a candidate is even more perfect for the job … or why they might struggle in ways you wouldn’t otherwise have foreseen.
To dig deeper, here are three follow-up questions to keep in your back pocket, and use when a candidate isn’t readily giving you all the information you want.
This question is helpful when a candidate is giving very superficial details in the Situation, Task, or Action parts of a story. If they’re staying on the surface, ‘why’ is the most effective question to help them go deeper. A good candidate brings reasoning skills to any job, and that means asking why. This question can’t be answered in just a word or two; it invites the candidate to share their understanding and expertise, and their problem-solving skills.
This probing question can be particularly helpful if a candidate tends to give overly brief answers to each question. Like the question above, this can help a candidate dig a bit deeper, giving you more of the detail from their experience that you’re looking for. It’s also important to remember that many candidates are insecure and feel like they’re going on too long, cutting their answers short as a result. This question lets the candidate know you want them to say more, and gives them permission to provide the kind of detail that you need to hear. Finally, this question is also sometimes a helpful clarifying question. If you don’t understand some aspect of a candidate’s story, asking this question can be more effective than saying so.
A good answer to this question invites reflection. It demonstrates that a candidate is able to learn from their experiences. Most importantly, a good answer speaks to an ability and willingness to grow and develop. A candidate may be able to identify and articulate the core problem in a previous experience, but they may only see the problem as external to themselves. Asking the question in this way goes directly to the heart of personal actions: not only what went wrong, but what the person will do differently as a result. Even in a situation that was primarily caused by external forces, a good candidate should take responsibility, finding at least one ‘nugget’ of personal growth and change.
Yes, the interview process is imperfect, but even an imperfect process can be improved. Include these questions in every interview (plus a few that are specific to the job you’re recruiting for). Listen closely to the information the candidate gives you in their answers - especially what they’re telling you below the superficial level. In the end, you’ll have the most comprehensive view of a candidate you can get through the interview process, and the foundation you need to determine whether a candidate is a good fit for a job or not.