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Lessons in Leadership

How to Develop Effective Interview Questions

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Developing effective questions is the key to a successful employment interview. Questions usually fall into two categories: (1) standard questions for all candidates and (2) individual questions that are developed from each person's application or resume.

Types of Interview Questions

A. Commonly-Asked Questions

Anyone who has ever applied for a job knows that certain questions show up in interview after interview:  What are your goals? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What do you know about our company?

One of the reasons these questions are frequently asked is that they do focus on useful information. The problem, however, is that candidates are asked them so often that they usually have well-rehearsed answers.

When you want to ask a common question, try to give it a slightly different twist. Change it to an Experience Question or Predictive Question (discussed below) or simply ask it in a different way.

Here are some examples . . .

Common Question: What did you like about your last job?
Revised Question: Give me an example of a time that you felt really excited about your work.

Common Question: What do you know about our company?
Revised Question: Why are you interested in working for this company?

Common Question: What are your goals?
Revised Question: How do you feel this job would help you achieve your career goals?

B. Experience Questions

Experience questions are designed to relate the applicant's past experiences to your current needs by asking for specific examples from their work history. Because the best predictor of future performance is past performance, experience questions are usually the best way to get information about ability, motivation, and fit.

Here are some examples of experience questions . . .

  • Think of someone you found it hard to work with in the past. What made that relationship difficult?
  • If you could have made one suggestion to management in your last job, what would it be?
  • What about yourself would you like to improve? Give an example of how these characteristics have caused you problems in the past.

C. Predictive Questions

Sometimes an experience question may be difficult to use because the applicant has not worked in similar circumstances. In that case, you may want to pose a hypothetical question which asks how the applicant would handle a particular type of situation. Although this does not necessarily predict what they would actually do, it does let you know how they view the problem and what options they consider.

Here are some examples of predictive questions . . .

  • I understand that you have worked mostly with customers who have technical backgrounds. How would you explain the major features of your company's product to a customer with no technical knowledge?
  • Your previous teaching experience has been with children, but this position involves teaching adults. If you were developing a workshop for adult learners, what might you need to do differently?

D. Follow-Up Questions

As an interviewer, your goal is to learn as much as possible about the applicant. You will therefore use follow-up questions to further explore the answers you are given to questions in your interview plan. As applicants answer your questions, listen for points that you want them to clarify or expand, then ask a follow-up question to get additional information. You may also plan in advance to ask a follow-up to some of your standard questions, as in the example below.

Initial Question: What do you do to try to calm down angry customers?
Follow-Up Question: How do you handle customers who won't calm down?

 

Characteristics of Good Questions

A. Neutral

All too often, managers ask questions which provide lots of clues about the "right" answer. To encourage unbiased responses from the applicant, your questions must be neutral – that is, they must not reveal the answer you want.

Bad Question: Would you be able to travel about 50% of the time?
Better Questions: How much do you travel in your current job? Ideally, how much travel would you like to have in a job? How much travel would be too much for you?

B. Job-related

Interview questions should be developed from the requirements of the job. Questions directly related to the job are also legally safer. Legally, questions about the applicant's personal life, hobbies, family, finances, and non-work activities are hazardous.

Bad Question: Do you have small children?
Better Questions: What caused you to miss work in the past? What might limit your ability to travel?

C. Open-ended

You will gain more information from questions that start with words like who, what, how, tell me about, describe, etc. Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no.

Bad Question: Do you like your present job?
Better Question: What do you find most rewarding about your present job?

D. Non-threatening

Applicants provide more information when they are relaxed. Since job interviews are uncomfortable for many people, try to avoid questions that will make them more anxious.

Bad Question: Why do you change jobs so often?
Better Question: For your last three jobs, tell me why you took them and why you left them.

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