Achieving Hiring Excellence - Asking Effective Interview Questions

Every time I take my parents to a new restaurant they tell me that they like it. But if I suggest going back, they act like I’m insane for suggesting a restaurant they clearly hated. The first few times this happened I thought my memory was slipping. By the sixth time I was convinced my parents were trolling me. By the tenth, I had to get to the bottom of it. 

You see, my parents are immigrants from Taiwan and while I grew up speaking Mandarin, it turns out the nuances of the language were lost on me. While they were communicating gradations of liking something, I translated it as general satisfaction. I was asking the wrong question, or asking a question where I couldn’t interpret the answer. I’ve since stopped asking “how did you like the food?” to a more direct “would you come back here to eat?”  

Asking the right question is key to getting useful information. Whether you’re interviewing your parents about whether they like a restaurant or assessing a candidate, It all starts with asking the right questions. 

When we interview a candidate, we are trying to figure out whether the person can be successful. To predict this we are interested in how a candidate would behave when faced with challenges in the role and within our company. So how do we develop questions that help us uncover a candidate’s potential?     

Step 1: Define what’s important. Avoid abstractions like “shows ownership” or “takes action.” Instead focus on what this person will actually be doing in the role? Is she dealing with angry customers? Is she creating things? Or is she heads-down doing complex analysis? 

Once we have clarity on what this person is doing, think through the hardest parts of the job. Why are those things so hard? What do your rockstars do that make them so successful? Whatever those things are -- patience, conflict resolution, problem solving, multi-tasking, creating, etc. -- will define the evaluation criteria we want to use when interviewing a candidate. 

Step 2: Define your observation methods. This is a fancy way of saying, “Choose how you’ll interview.” This blog post is about interview questions so we’ll stick to the two main types: backwards-looking and real-time. Choosing which one to use will depend on the situation. The key is being deliberate about what we are trying to observe. For the purpose of this post we will focus on backwards-looking observation. As an introduction, real-time observation would examine what the candidate can do right now and how she thinks through problems. Case study questions are a common way of assessing candidates in real-time. 

Backwards-looking observation examines the candidate’s past behavior in similar situations, also known as behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interview questions have two parts, an initial prompt that sets up a situation we want to observe and follow-up questions that uncover details of that behavior.

As an example, let’s say you’re interviewing candidates for a project management role. The role will require adapting one’s communication style with various stakeholders. In this scenario, one of the things we’ll want to observe a situation where the candidate has been effective in communicating at different levels of an organization. In evaluating her effectiveness we may be interested in how aware she is of other people’s communication preferences and whether she can adapt her own communication style. An appropriate prompt with follow-up questions might look like the following: 

Evaluation criteria: Communication skills

Initial prompt: Describe a project that required input from people at different levels in the organization.

Follow-up questions: What was the situation? What were you responsible for? What were the different people you needed input from? Why was input important? How did you adapt your communication for different people? What's a specific example? What were the results?

When our interviews lack robust details we open ourselves to subjective impressions. By asking the right interview questions we now have concrete examples from the candidate on how she has or has not been effective in communicating across different levels. Concrete examples (or the lack thereof) leave less for interpretation. Just as I was misinterpreting my parents about their food preferences, we should all be thoughtful about how we can misinterpret candidates if we aren’t asking the right questions.      

Need some interview question ideas?  
If you need some interview question ideas check our top behavioral interview questions. Our curated list is separated by some of the most common situations that companies evaluate. If you found this guide helpful, sign-up for our ongoing series. Leave us a comment on resources/topics you would like to hear about!  

Related posts: Three Simple Steps to Improving Your Interviews


About the authorJoe Shao is a co-founder at Perfect Loop who loves tackling big problems and eating good food.