Asking the right questions


Interview structure

Most hiring managers have only a rough idea of what they want to find out about the people they sit opposite during an interview. And more importantly, they often do not know how to extract the relevant information. I once had a boss who asked each candidate to describe themselves in one word. Other than putting them under stress to find that one magic adjective or noun, it was a pretty senseless exercise. It was more a case of armchair psychology in action that did not reveal pertinent insight.

As most interviewers have not been trained in this field, the questions they ask often depend on where the candidates lead them. In other words, the hiring manager follows the flow generated by the candidate. It has to be the other way round: in these situations we the interviewers have to lead the way and set the structure.

In order to select the right person, we have to evaluate their skills, successes, strengths and developmental needs. For this, we need to be able to compare them with each other. And that can only be done if we have data points on each dimension from the different candidates. That is why we need to follow a structure that ensures we ask the same questions to each individual. It also requires that we do not move on to the next question until we have fully understood the answer to our previous question and are able to evaluate it. This usually means we will have to probe until we get what we need. For examples of some of the key questions that have proved to be most effective in the roughly 5,000 interviews I have conducted, take a look at the key questions in the box on the right.

Taking things at face value

The candidate has almost 20 years of experience in the fast moving consumer goods space and has worked for Nestlé and Coca-Cola – two of the best companies in the market. He has to be good, right? Maybe. The fact that somebody has worked for such outstanding market leaders could also mean that he has benefitted from their excellent processes, knowhow and recipes for success. And even if somebody has worked at a leading organisation and was able to produce good results there, it does not necessarily mean that he will be able to replicate it in a new environment that is completely different from his previous one.

"We need to follow a structure that ensures we ask the same questions to each individual."

It sometimes appears that candidates are better prepared for the selection interview than the human resources person or the manager who sit across the table. There are certainly more books published on how to successfully apply for a job than there are books for interviewers. And good candidates read these books: they prepare for the questions they can expect, they find information on the internet and they talk to candidates who have been interviewed by the same recruiter. And most importantly, they want to impress the hiring manager, which can sometimes lead to self-serving dishonesty. In a large study by David Callahan, it was found that 95 per cent of college-age respondents were willing to lie in order to get a job. And 41 per cent had already done so.

The only way to look beyond candidates' assertions is again to probe with deepening questions that are concrete and to the point. The more they are so, the more difficult it is to not tell the truth.


Key hiring questions:

  • Which three aspects do you enjoy most about your current role?
  • Which two elements could you do without?
  • Please describe two successes that challenged you a great deal.
  • What was the challenge?
  • What did you want to achieve?
  • What specifically did you do?
  • What was the result – data, facts, numbers?
  • What did you learn from this?
  • What do colleagues, bosses and employees like about your work?
  • What would they say that you could still improve on?
  • What are you able to do better today than two or three years ago?