Quick tips for writing effective interview questions

Oct 7, 2011 | Recruitment

Interviews are far and away the most popular way of choosing the best candidate for a vacancy you have, but their effectiveness and reliability in terms of informing interviewers who will be best in the job can be patchy at best. By designing some really good questions you can make the interview process as effective as possible, and use it to get all the relevant evidence you need to reliably select the candidate who will do best in the job.

Here are some quick tips for those with interviews looming and a blank sheet of paper, hoping to find the ideal candidate for their vacancy and get as much as possible out of the interview process.

So how do you decide what to ask about?

When preparing to interview candidates, many people sit down and just try to think of good- interview questions’. That’s where questions like “What are your weaknesses?’” come from, which lots of people think of as a good interview question but when asked, may struggle to explain exactly what information relevant to the job that question will provide them with.

Think again, take a step back and look at the job description/person specification for the job. If you have specified certain skills, experience or personal attributes as being essential or desirable to the job, the most important aim of the interview is to find out which candidate best meets those criteria.

So use those criteria to develop your questions. Make sure you have questions which will enable or prompt the candidates to demonstrate how they meet each of the criteria. You want to make it as easy as possible for you to look at the criteria and know how well each candidate meets them, whether you have a scoring system, boxes to tick or are just making notes.

What to avoid

The following are some common pitfalls which will cloud the process, waste time or get you into some trouble..!

  • Closed questions, which allow the candidate to give very short limited answers, and are limited in the amount of information they give you.
  • ‘Hypothetical’ questions, instead ask for specific actual examples of what the candidate has previously done.
  • Changing questions for each candidate. Ask each candidate the same set of questions to ensure each has the same opportunity to demonstrate their suitability. If you need to ask follow up questions or questions clarifying specific things on a candidate’s application, these are fine.
  • Irrelevant questions which could be seen as discriminatory, such as asking whether a candidate has children, is planning children, or how they will manage childcare. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not technically illegal to ask about family plans or childcare, but it is a really really bad idea, and would be discriminatory if you were to ask only women. Plus you don’t need to ask it. If the information you actually want to know is whether the candidate can be flexible, or work long hours, or travel, ask that instead. Be clear about the requirements of the job and ask whether they would find fulfilling those difficult.
  • Questions which test interview technique rather than establish suitability for the role in question. Being good at being interviewed doesn’t necessarily translate into being good at the job the person is being interviewed for. Keep reminding yourself what information you really need to know to work out who’s best for the job, and if the question you are thinking of doesn’t help provide you with that, it’s not a necessary question.
  • Trying to trip candidates up. The idea is to give all candidates an opportunity to demonstrate how well they meet the criteria; to tease out the evidence you need. If you try to catch people out you will be wasting time finding out who is the least nervous, or who has thought of all the- trick- questions they might be asked and pre-prepared an answer.

What are- behavioural’ type questions and why do they work?

You need to work out which candidate will perform best in the role you’re recruiting for. So your questions should be about the criteria you’ve set, but also should be phrased in a way that will most effectively predict who will do best in the role.

A good rule to remember is that past behaviour is by far the most reliable indicator of future behaviour. If you ask a candidate for his/her opinion on how they would deal with a hypothetical situation, they will provide you with the answer they think you would like to hear, and give their version of the- ideal’ way to behave in those circumstances.

If, however you ask the candidate to give a specific example of a time when they were previously in a similar situation and ask them to explain how they actually dealt with it, you will get a much better idea of how the candidate is likely to deal with such a situation in the future. It is also much more difficult to invent an actual situation that happened than to come up with a hypothetically ideal way of behaving. This means the information you are getting is likely to be more reliable.

You can also follow on from asking for examples of past behaviour by exploring with the candidate why they dealt with the situation in that way, whether they feel they would do anything different in the same situation again, and what they learnt from the experience. A hypothetical- what would you do if…’ scenario does not give you this opportunity.

Interviews are never going to be foolproof but by following these tips you should be able to make the process as effective and reliable as possible, and hopefully avoid having to repeat it!

For a copy of our Guide to Effective Recruitment and Selection, including 6 pages of tried and tested interview questions for a variety of different subjects, sign up to our newsletter.

If you need help or advice with a recruitment process you’re going through, contact us at [email protected].