Questioning Techniques for Selection Interviews

What’s the worst question you’ve ever been asked at interview? Or the worst question you’ve asked a candidate? On our Recruitment and Selection Skills courses, participants tell us about a whole host of inappropriate, seemingly irrelevant and unhelpful questions. Candidates find this very frustrating as it gets in the way of them being able to show you what they can do. Here’s a selection:

These types of questions are likely to make the candidate overgeneralise which won’t give you an insight into their future job performance and are wasting precious interview time. Great interview questions seek to find out about the candidate’s knowledge, experience and skills related to the job. (See our blog on ‘Successful Recruitment – Know What You’re Looking For’ for help on creating selection criteria.)

The aim of the interview is to find out about what they have done so far in their career and what they will be able to do for your organisation.

So, what sort of questions will be most helpful?

In this blog I’m going to share 4 types of interview question that will help you gather the information you need. Each question type serves a different purpose and is suitable for collecting different types of information. The most useful ones are number 4 – behaviour based questions, so keep reading.

1. Factual Background Questions

When you look at someone’s work experience there are usually things you want to ‘fact check’. These questions do just that – they gather facts about the candidate and can be used to find out a little more about what they’ve already told you in their CV. They’re particularly useful for finding out about their education, qualifications, knowledge and experience. For example:

How many people did you manage?”

“Who were your key stakeholders”?

 “What do you know about . . . ?”

The trap you can fall into is spending too much time on these questions as, on their own, they won’t tell you about how well they will perform in the role.


2. Subjective Opinion Based Questions

As interviewers we usually want to find out how a candidate thinks and what opinions they have on relevant issues. Subjective opinion based questions gather this type of information.  Keep in mind that their responses will be subjective but nonetheless useful if you ask subjective opinion based questions that relate to the job they are applying for.

Questions such as:

How do you see the industry changing in the next two to three years?”

. . will help you assess the candidate’s knowledge, insights and opinions. Whereas questions such as:

What do you think makes a great manager?”

. . are less helpful as the candidate is likely to give you what they see as a ‘text book’ answer. But does that mean they will be a great manager? You simply can’t tell from their response.

Less experienced interviewers predominantly ask this kind of question. As a result, they gather broad-brush information at the expense of more focused performance indicators.

3. Hypothetical Questions

As interviewers, we want to know how a candidate will handle specific situations.  Hypothetical questions ask the candidate to describe just that.  Whilst their answer may give an indication of how they would handle a situation, they come with a ‘health warning’ – they can also be a measure of the candidate’s ability to provide the answers they think you are looking for. For example:

“What would you do if a member of your team’s work performance started to decline?”

Having said that, these questions can be particularly helpful when you’re interviewing someone for a role where they don’t have previous experience. For instance, interviewing someone who hasn’t managed others before. They can also be helpful for Graduates and Apprentices recruitment and other people applying for their first role.


4. Behaviour Based Questions

If you want to find out as much as possible about a candidate, these are the questions to focus time on. Behaviour based questions gather evidence of the person’s skills, competencies and behaviours by exploring their past experiences. Nothing predicts future performance better than past performance. For example:

“Tell me about a situation where you had to deal with an irate customer”

Give me an example of when you’ve had to work under pressure and to tight deadlines”

The key to asking behaviour based questions is to ask for a specific example and ask the question in the past tense, e.g. Talk me through an example of when you dealt with. . .” 

And then follow up with probing questions to find out more about the candidate’s answer and to make sure you do more than just scratch the surface. For example:

How did you respond to that?”

“What other approaches did you consider?”


A helpful technique is to use STAR when asking a behavioural question – aim to ask one or two questions from each element of STAR:

Situation     What was the situation? What was the context?

Task            What was the task or challenge? What was goal?

Action         What did you do? What was your contribution? Why did you act in that way?

Result         What was the outcome? What did you learn from it? How might you handle it                                                      differently in future?


It’s one thing asking the right questions, but you also need to discipline yourself to listen closely to their answers. Our experience is that candidate often generalise rather than sharing a specific example and your job is to pick up on this and steer them back to an actual experience they’ve had. Once you get them talking about a specific situation, you’ll learn more about them as a candidate.

What kind of questions do you ask at interview?  Do you make good use of these four question types or do some of your questions fall into the inappropriate, irrelevant or unhelpful category? Do you need to expand your repertoire questions in these four areas? Remember that the best questions for finding out how a candidate is likely to perform are the behaviour based ones. Doing this will put you in a much stronger position to objectively assess each candidate against the selection criteria; rather than comparing candidates with each other or deciding by gut feel!

I hope you find these tips useful – good luck with your next selection interview.

Posted by Julie Turner

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