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What To Ask & How: Guide To An Effective Interview

Andrea Weir
Published February 16, 2017

interview candidate

As part of a series on optimizing your hiring process, last week we covered some best practices for writing a job posting. Now onto step two: interviewing. Often, our interviewing practices are based on assumptions and status quo – but there is a better way. Studies have been done on the efficacy of different interview tactics providing more concrete evidence. Interviewers looking to improve the predictive ability of this often-subjective hiring tool, take note.


Who Gets the Call-Back?

First off, how do you select who to interview? If you’re lucky, you may have gotten a large number of applicants. However, this can also make your task a bit harder when it comes time to sort through the stack of resumes. Some employers choose to use an ATS (Applicant Tracking System) that filters candidates based on keyword screening. However, this is an outdated and typically ineffective method. Just because a job candidate knew which words they should sprinkle throughout their cover letter/resume doesn’t mean they will excel in a position. Try to also avoid being influenced by the presence of a fancy university/college on a resume. An Alma Mater is not a successful predictor of job performance. Ideally, you will have implemented a more advanced way to select those candidates that will continue to the interview phase.


Focus on job readiness. Depending on the position, technical skills can certainly be important. You may want to find a way to effectively test applicants on this front – for example, assigning a standardized coding test to potential software developers. However, it is critical to consider what other factors might make a person a success in a particular role. Consider testing for “soft skills” in order to narrow down your search to those who would bring the right characteristics into your team.


Best practice: Use a consistent rubric. Focus on enumerating the facts. A simple, effective, and fast technique is a 3 point rating system for three basic questions:

  • Do they have the education to be job-ready?
  • Do they have the experience to be job-ready?
  • Do they have the skills to be job-ready?


resume scoring outline


Consider all three questions holistically. Maybe one candidate has less formal education than another, but more than makes up for it with related hands-on experience and shows the soft skills necessary to easily pick up on something new and hit the ground running.


Prep is Key

Interviews can be stressful for candidates, but they also require some thought and preparation from the interviewer(s). Review the most important requirements for the job, and take a moment to do some planning. Depending on the number of applicants you received/how competitive the position is you may choose to plan to conduct a round of shorter “preliminary interviews” to further narrow your candidate pool before moving on to more in-depth discussions. Often video chat platforms or phone interviews are effective for this preliminary stage. If you used a personality assessment, it may be helpful to review beforehand which categories the candidate showed strong vs. weak performance in.


Structured vs. Unstructured Interviews

A structured interview involves asking all candidates the same questions, in the same order. The goal is to provide a standardized interview process. Research has consistently shown a structured format to be more reliable than unstructured interviews, which pose the risk of veering off into tangents or presenting some candidates with more difficult questions than others (whether purposefully or not). Structured interviews are better predictors of future job success, more efficient, and help to mitigate unconscious bias, giving all applicants a fair chance. This also provides better legal protection by making the process more objective. In a study of hiring discrimination cases in U.S. Federal Court, unstructured interviews were challenged in more cases than any other hiring tool. Structured interviews also survived 100% of the cases mounted involving their use, compared to 59% survival for unstructured (Terpstra & Mohamed, 1999)


Behavioral and Situational Questions

When compiling your interview questions, consider the use of behaviural and situational questions. Asking these questions allows you to form a better understanding of a candidate’s thought processes, problem-solving skills, and interpersonal tendencies. Behavioral probes ask candidates to describe prior situations or achievements, e.g. “Tell me about a time when you?…”  Situational interviews give the candidate a hypothetical situation to consider (“What would you do if?…)


Wanting to know about a person’s strengths and weaknesses is great, but asking a candidate to identify these traits is probably not going to yield accurate or useful answers. Asking for actual examples or analysis of specific hypotheticals will probably prove more useful.


For example, maybe you see social intelligence as a crucial skill for a particular job, and would therefore like to probe deeper into the individual’s ability to effectively relate to and communicate with other people. You might ask, “Describe a time when you had to deal with a highly critical or difficult customer. How did you handle the situation?”


Good vs. Bad Questions

For years, many companies like Google were notorious for giving candidates seemingly trivial brain-teasers as part of the interview process. However, these types of questions, like “how many windows are there in NYC?” are being increasingly recognized as the fluff that they are. Take it from former SVP of People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock:


“Performance on these kinds of questions is at best a discrete skill that can be improved through practice, eliminating their utility for assessing candidates. At worst, they rely on some trivial bit of information or insight that is withheld from the candidate, and serve primarily to make the interviewer feel clever and self-satisfied. They have little if any ability to predict how candidates will perform in a job.” 


Asking what kind of animal someone thinks they would be might be amusing, but what kind of real info are you going to get from that? Just for fun, here’s a list of 25 potentially amusing, but almost definitely useless interview questions. 


Response Grading

Use a consistent rubric. Especially if you have multiple interviewers, you will need a standardized format to compare notes following an interview. We suggest judging the interviewee’s response to each question on a 3-point scale. For example, in the case of behavioral questions, you might use the following template:


How to score candidate responses in an interview


Other Tips

  • Try to put the candidate at ease, and take note of whether a nervous candidate manages to relax as the interview progresses – this could be an indicator of their adaptability (if this is something that’s important to you)
  • Don’t monopolize the conversation – let the interviewee speak without feeling rushed
  • The interview is completed, and a colleague asks you how it went – do you fall back on your gut judgment, expressing your initial like or dislike of the candidate, or do you reflect on the quality of their behavior-related answers? It’s all too easy to allow bias to slip in without notice – be sure to review the candidate’s actual scores
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