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Choose Your Interview Questions Wisely to Select the Right Candidate

A rule of thumb that applies to all types of interview is that interviewers should speak no more than 20 per cent of the time, interviewees the rest.


These show that interviewers:
  • have prepared themselves properly

  • know what they want to get out of the interview

  • are conscious of time and cost
Good preparation enables interviewers to see the trees as well as the wood and to distinguish between them. Since they are conscious of time and cost, they have worked out precisely what they wish to achieve from the interview, and are able to go straight for what is important in the most precise way.

Short questions permit interviewers to move through the interview at a good pace simply because the interviewees are able to talk with as few interruptions as possible. This does not mean that questions should be fired at the interviewees in a brusque manner. That is mistaking discourtesy for efficiency, insensitivity for deftness. They should always be put courteously, calmly and patiently.


These tend to be asked by interviewers who are:
  • anxious and lacking in confidence

  • unprepared, or

  • show-offs
Anxious interviewers abhor a silence. They feel that unless someone is talking, filling up the space, as it were, the interview is running out of steam and they have failed to do their job properly. So their questions ramble on until they forget what they are asking.

Unprepared interviewers spend a long time trying to explain the purpose of every question, hoping the interviewee will think they know what they are doing.

Show-offs are more interested in making speeches (which is what, in disguise, their questions really are) than finding out information. They develop their themes at great length before putting the question, hoping that the interviewee will be impressed by their fluency and grasp of the material.

Long questions are almost always a waste of time because most perceptive interviewees quickly realize that the interviewers are floundering. They either lose respect for the inter viewers or become even more anxious than they were to start with. In either case, the result is to reduce the efficiency of the interview.


Interviews should move from one topic to the next through a logical progression of questions. From each reply comes the next question, until the end is reached. The progression moves faster and more smoothly if interviewees can devote their thinking time to the answers rather than trying to understand what it is the interviewer is actually asking.

Think of the interview as a jigsaw puzzle. Each question is a piece that fits into the puzzle until a complete picture is built up. If you try to put two pieces into the same space, all you will achieve is distortion. Questions asked one at a time produce separate replies, the first adding on to the next, until the picture is complete.

Multiple questions cause confusion and slow down interviews, because the interviewees first have to work out what it is you want from them before they can respond. How do interviewees answer a multiple question such as 'Would you have time for more training, and do you think you could benefit from it?' if, in their present circumstances, they do not have the time for more training although they think they would benefit from it? A 'No' to the first part would seem to apply to the last and make them seem to the interviewer uninterested in developing their potential. A 'Yes' on the other hand might mean them overloading themselves, which could lead to problems.

How would an interviewee reply to the following appraisal question? Do you and your department head get on well together? Have the occasional drink together?' They may get on well together but they never drink together. On the other hand, they may have the occasional drink together, but have many disagreements. If the answer is 'Yes', which question is being referred to? Similarly, a negative reply would be ambiguous, so that the interviewer will end up with a false picture of the relationship between the two employees.

Many interviewees are confident enough to override the problem and give whatever answer they think the interviewers are after; but for more diffident interviewees multiple questions can be intimidating. As they are reluctant to ask the interviewer to put the question more simply, they will waste time trying to make sense of it and, moreover, give replies which are not a fair and accurate reflection of their true feelings.

In addition to the above, questions should be:
  • relevant

  • straightforward

  • interesting
Relevant questions relate, directly or indirectly, to the purpose of the interview. Irrelevant questions go outside the purpose of the interview. Relevant questions are 'need to know' questions. For instance, a man with an unusual name or a different accent from your own country comes to you for a job. How much do you need to know about the place and circumstances of his birth before deciding if he is suitable?

The test is to ask yourself: does the purpose of the interview justify the question, and will the interviewee feel perfectly happy to answer it? If you cannot answer either question with an honest 'Yes', if the purpose can be achieved just as well without it, and if it may embarrass the interviewee, then don't ask it.

Straightforward questions should give the interviewee the opportunity to reply in an honest, open and straightforward manner. Trick questions and leading questions restrict the interviewee's freedom of reply. 'Were you popular at school?' is a typically old-fashioned job-interview question that is still being asked to which only a very brave or foolhardy applicant would reply, 'No, and it didn't bother me a bit because I was getting straight A's.'

Trick questions are designed not to learn more about the interviewees but to trap them into revealing more about themselves than, in their view, the interviewer is entitled to know. There may be circumstances when this is necessary, where, for example, the interviewee is deliberately evading answering a question that is germane to the purpose of the interview; but the relationship between managers and employees should be such that managers can explain their reason for asking the question and expect the interviewees to respond with equal honesty.

In an appraisal interview with his bookkeeper, the manager of the accounts department who suspects that the bookkeeper wants to leave for a higher salary asks, 'What would you do if a rich aunt left you a million pounds in her will?' Instead of asking about his or her plans for the future the manager has tricked the bookkeeper into replying, 'Give up my job immediately,' which, though honest, only serves to confirm the manager's suspicions and, at the same time, suppresses the bookkeeper's real feelings that he or she is being underpaid.

Sometimes, for the best of motives, interviewers try to put words into interviewees' mouths because they would like them to make a good showing. The temptation, however, has to be resisted. Interviewees must be given the fullest opportunity to make of the interviews what they can, even if this means they will fail. Only by asking straightforward questions which allow them to answer freely can this be achieved.

Some interviewees are less forthcoming than others, but you will learn far more if you are straight with them than if you try to lead them or trick them into answering. Only when the interviewee is reluctant to give you information that is vital for your purposes should you use all your interviewing skills to probe the information from them.

Interesting questions make interesting interviews. Admittedly, some interviewees respond to questions more enthusiastically than others, but challenging questions can inspire even the least enthusiastic interviewee, whereas boring questions turn all interviews into tedious chores.


These questions are:
  • Those where the answers can easily be ascertained from some other source, such as the candidate's CV or application form in a selection interview.

  • Backward looking, that is dealing with matters that do not relate to the interviewee's present life. A typical example is asking the forty-year-old applicant to a senior management post to talk about his or her early school days.

  • Repetitive. Interviewers who are too lazy to think up new, more demanding questions tack on a 'Why' to every answer. 'I enjoy travelling.' 'Oh, yes. Why?' 'Because I learn something new all the time.' 'Why do you say that?' and so on.

In short, whatever the interview question be, interviewers must try to establish whether the interviewee has the skills and experience to do the job, has the enthusiasm and the interest for the job and is a good fit for the specific position at hand.