Know how to ask the right interview questions

One of the many unfortunate by-products of the recession is an increase in the number of candidates applying for any one job. That means having to quickly establish who is right for the job and who are the ‘also rans’.

You should have been able to do a lot of the initial work quite quickly by comparing them to the job specification. So it is important to have a detailed job description, and if it needs re-writing, re-write it. If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got. If that is people who never pass their probation or leave after six months, you probably need to do something differently.

Once you have whittled down your applications, it’s time to start planning for the interviews. This is where you start to earn your money in HR, by getting the right candidate. The best way to do that is to ask the right questions in the interview. One of the greatest truisms in the workplace is ‘The best time to fire someone is before you hire them’.

Expert’s view: Tory Harper, HR co-ordinator, Crowne Plaza Liverpool City Centre and 62 Castle Street

What are the biggest challenges?

Making sure people’s CVs and applications live up to their genuine experience – while you might have someone who is perfect on paper, you really need to test this at interview.

What should you avoid doing?

Avoid asking multiple questions, answering your own questions or leading people into the answers you want to hear. Always use open questions, and when encouraging the candidate to talk, listen to their tone and their enthusiasm. Making appointments is not only about the interviewee’s previous experience, but also about their personality.

What are your three top tips?

  • It’s a cliché, but be prepared and ensure your questions reflect the needs of the position you are recruiting for.
  • Ensure you comply with anti-discrimination legislation – don’t ask anything that isn’t related to the job.
  • Don’t be afraid of silences. Sometimes candidates need time to think through the question before answering.

But first, a little preparation. Make sure you schedule your interviews as close together as possible so you can make good comparisons between the candidates. And second, have a clear structure, a set of questions for each person. There is nothing worse than drifting through an unplanned interview and coming away not knowing anything about the person you have just spent the past 30 minutes with.

Asking questions about the job and the specifics of the job may be simple, but William Holden, chairman of behavioural change experts Sewells and author of The Guide (see ‘Further information’ below), says finding out more about the person can be just as simple. “An initial interview is the first and most important opportunity a manager will get to assess the candidate and should be used to find out as much about the candidate as possible. Dig, dig deep, then dig deeper still”, he says.

After the initial openers about why the candidate has applied for the job, what it is they’re looking for in their work and why they want to leave their current position, you can get into some specifics – these will reveal plenty about a person’s character.

Holden advocates going into real depth about what drives a person, saying: “Ask the candidate what goals they have set for themselves over the next couple of years. Then ask them how they would feel if you could help them achieve those goals but they would have to work six days a week, 10 hours a day. If they say they are OK with those hours, make sure you always follow it up by asking them how they think their partner would feel about it – and tell them to be honest, because you might just check with them.

“By asking these questions, you want to find out if they have actually set themselves any goals. Successful people set goals, and they write them down so they have a clear picture of them in their mind. See how they react to the fact you may contact their partner about the hours.”

Holden adds: “Other good ways to find out about someone’s attitude and personality are to ask ‘Do they consider themselves to be a lucky person?’ And ask them about their hobbies or interests. What do they get out of them? Could they interfere with work commitments? If it’s a candidate’s ambition to become a scratch golfer, are they going to be 100% focused on their job or will they be day-dreaming about the ninth hole? What you’re looking for is someone who has clear goals and wants to achieve them with your company.”

Of course it’s highly unlikely you will find someone who is an exact match for the role you have advertised. In this case, always employ someone who is slightly under qualified, then train and mould them. Someone who is over qualified will get bored and become disruptive.

If you only do 5 things

  1. Prepare
  2. Rethink your interview technique if necessary
  3. Know what you want out of the discussion
  4. Schedule the interviews carefully
  5. Look beyond the candidate’s ability to do the job.

Further information

  • High-impact interview questions, Victoria A Hoevemeyer, Amacom, £14.99, ISBN: 0814473016
  • Conducting job interviews, Jagjeet Singh and Adrian Holden, Sterling Publishers. £4.99, ISBN: 8173591091
  • The Guide, Dr William George Holden, Forecast Publishing, £15.95, ISBN: 0956189105
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