Testing Assumptions by Developing Great Interview Questions

In general, we make too many assumptions.  For example, we assume that a candidate who’s been doing something for five years is better at it than someone who’s only done it for two.  Of course, that might be correct, or it might not.  What about the performance?  Did the candidate demonstrate the qualities we know are related to success on our job – or did she demonstrate the opposite behaviors?  We don’t know until we test the assumption.  The only way you can find out whether your assumptions are correct is to test and validate them.   For that you’ll need to have a pool of effective, well-researched questions to choose from.  Equipped with these great interview questions, you can unpack, delve into, and probe each experience in a candidate’s background until you have answers you can rely on.

Getting Beyond What They Did to How They Did It

Remember, people do not bring to you their accomplishments from their previous job or educational background — they leave their accomplishments behind.  What they bring with them is how they achieved their accomplishments.  They bring their initiative, analytical thinking, capacity to work under deadline pressure, and other qualities that made them successful.  One of the functions of the interview is to move past the knowledge of what they did to how they did it.  That’s what we “buy” when we hire someone.

You may think you already know how to ask questions, and maybe you’re right.  But you might not be when it comes to the special context of the interview.  Effective interview questions and probing techniques are derived from solid research into areas that are usually taken for granted.  The questions aren’t magic questions, but they have been determined to meet all five of the following criteria:

  1. They’re easy for the interview to ask
  2. They’re easy for the candidate to answer
  3. They’re seemingly casual questions
  4. They don’t telegraph the qualities you’re looking for
  5. They’re easy to follow up and probe for more details

In our Interviewing Skills Training workshop and in Dr. Swan’s book, “How to Pick the Right People,” we teach managers who are responsible for conducting selection interviews how to ask great interview questions.  They’re not magic questions – there are no such questions.  They are selected, in part, because they’re seemingly casual and therefore disarming.  Your aim as an interviewer is not to be unique or startling; your aim is to get detailed answers from a candidate so that you can differentiate one candidate from another.   When the same questions elicit different responses in each interview, you know the differences derive from your candidates and not from your approach.  Forget asking a candidate, “tell me about yourself,” or “why should we hire you?” because those questions don’t help you differentiate one candidate from another very well.

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