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P&S Search Process: Developing Interview Questions


Job interviews enable you to perform the following four tasks that, combined with other steps you take, are essential to making a sound hiring decision:

  1. Elicit firsthand information about the candidate's background and work experience that augments or clarifies what you have already learned from the candidate's resume or application;
  2. Get a general sense of the candidate's overall intelligence, aptitude, enthusiasm, and attitudes, with particular respect to how those attributes match up to the requirements of the job;
  3. Gain some insight – to the extent possible – into the candidate's basic personality traits; and
  4. Estimate the candidate's ability to adapt to your department's work environment.

Unfortunately, what occurs during a job interview does not tell you – not directly, at any rate – how effectively a candidate may perform on the job if hired. Nor does the image of the candidate that emerges during the interview necessarily represent an accurate image of who the candidate really is and how they is likely to react in actual job situations. When developing interview questions, keep in mind three rules of thumb:

  1. Ask only for information that will serve as a basis for the hiring decision;
  2. Know how the information will be used to make the decision; and
  3. Do not ask for information that will not or should not be used to make hiring decisions.

Every question you ask during a job interview should have a specific purpose. That purpose may be to elicit specific information, to obtain some insight into the candidate's personality, or to examine they thought process when presented with certain situations.

It is recommended that you develop questions based on each major task and responsibility in the position description and on the knowledge, skills, and abilities required by the position. Include some problem-solving questions that allow the candidate to think creatively. Also include behavior-based and open-ended questions that elicit more than "yes" or "no" response and ask the candidate to describe past experience and how they would handle specific situations.

A selection interview should be as structured as possible so that each candidate is evaluated according to the same general criteria. An interview that follows a general standard outline of questions for each candidate will produce more reliable and valid information for selection than an unstructured interview. It is also less likely to run afoul of laws and regulations governing the selection process.

There are times, however, when it is appropriate to ask applicants some questions that are specific to them only. For instance, questions that pertain specifically to an individual's application or resume should be asked. Examples of these types of questions might include: "Describe what your daily responsibilities at XYZ Company included. Why did you leave your employment there? What occurred that caused you to be terminated?"

It is also recommended that you ask questions about specific responsibilities or accomplishments that the candidate has included in they resume or application. Look for "key" verbs that are used, such as: initiated, developed, created, organized, increased, analyzed, implemented, improved, designed, or coordinated. For example, if a candidate's resume indicates he "developed and implemented a new training program," ask specific questions to determine the extent of his responsibility in developing and implementing the program: "Were you solely responsible for the development and implementation of the program? How did you determine the need for this program? What was your budget? What sources did you use to develop the program?"

It is also appropriate to ask an interviewee follow-up questions to a response that encourage further conversation, such as "Can you give us more detail? Could you give me an example? Can you explain what factors entered into your decision?

What makes an interview question "good"? The answer, simply, is that a "good question" does two things: First, it gives you the specific information you're seeking; second, it helps you gain some insight into how the candidate's mind and emotions work. You can ask hundreds of such questions, but following are 15 of the most basic, along with some general ideas on what do look for in the answers. A word of caution: suggestions on what to look for in the answers will not apply to every interviewee – you must make independent judgments based upon the interviewee's actual response, demeanor, and apparent experience with the interview process.

Sample Questions

  1. Can you tell me a little about yourself professionally?
    A confident candidate can give a brief summary of his strengths, significant achievements, and career goals. Your primary job is to make sure that the answers are consistent with the applicant's resume. A rambling answer with few specifics could indicate a poorly focused or incompetent candidate.

  2. What do you know about UNI, and why do you want to work here?
    What you're looking for here are answers that indicate the candidate has done more than simply download everything on the Internet that relates to UNI and has also given some thought to how he can make a contribution. You can generally assume that a candidate who can't answer this question is not terribly interested in your organization.

  3. What interests you about this job, and what skills and strengths can you bring to it?
    The answer is yet another way to gauge how much interest the candidate has in the job. The stronger candidates would be able to correlate their skills with specific job requirements. They will answer the question in the context of contributions they could make to the department. This question is also another way of asking the candidate about his or her strengths and, by omission, weaknesses, since most people will answer in the context of their own talents and skills.

  4. Can you tell me a little about your current job?
    Strong candidates should be able to give you a short and precise summary of duties and responsibilities, which you can then check against information on the application/resume. Be wary of the candidates who badmouth or blame their employers. If they're not loyal to their current employer, how can you expect them to be loyal to you?

  5. I see that you've been unemployed for the past _ months. Why did you leave your last job, and what have you been doing since then?
    Generally speaking, people don't leave jobs voluntarily without another one waiting in the wings, but it happens. And in these days of downsizing and mergers, for highly competent people to find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own is not really unusual. Keep an open mind, but try to get specific, factual answers that you can verify later. Candidates with a spotty employment history, at the very least, ought to be able to account for all extended periods of unemployment and to demonstrate whether they used that time productively – getting an advanced degree, for example.

  6. What would you describe as your greatest strengths as an employee?
    What are your greatest weaknesses? These questions are two of the well-publicized "killer questions," so you want to be careful not to take the answers at face value. Look for specifics, not rhetoric. Then probe to see how those "strengths" contributed to specific accomplishments that the candidate's application/resume mentions. Be cautious of candidates who say they have "no weaknesses." Well-prepared candidates should be able to present weaknesses and describe what they've done to strengthen them.

  7. Who was your best supervisor ever and why?
    Who was the worst, and looking back, what could you have done to make that relationship better? These two are more penetrating questions than you may think. Among other things, the answers give you insight into how the candidate views and responds to supervision. A reflective, responsible answer to the second part of the question could indicate a loyal employee capable of rising above an unpleasant supervisory situation and/or learning from past mistakes, both highly desirable qualities. A bitter, critical answer may indicate someone who holds grudges or simply can't get along with certain personality types. In today's team-oriented workplace, you want employees who try to minimize these clashes and not use them as excuses.

  8. How do you think that "best supervisor" would describe you?
    What about that worst supervisor? You are probing here to uncover whether the candidate's attitude toward work and supervision is a good match for the job and your workplace culture. You're also looking for some sign that candidates can see themselves as others view them and can deal with points-of-view other than their own. And you're likely to elicit relatively honest answers, because the questions suggest that you may compare the candidate's answers to actual responses from former bosses. Evasive, dishonest, or insufficient answers (such as "I do not know") could indicate someone with a poor attitude toward supervision.

  9. What do you think has been your single greatest achievement on the job? What was your worst failure?
    You're looking here for specific, verifiable accomplishments. If the candidate answers with vague generalities, probe. Evasiveness is a worrisome sign. The first half of the question is a gift – if the candidate does not take it, something's wrong. The candidate should present failures as "things that I could have done differently," not as "the world is against me" or "it was Joe's fault." How did the candidate's achievement help the company achieve its goals? Listen to how the candidate speaks. Is it "I" or "we"? You should also check these answers against the application/resume, along with information from references and past employers.

  10. What sort of things do you think your current (last) employer could do to be more successful?
    This one is a great "big picture" question. You're probing to find out whether the candidate has a clear understanding of his current or last employer's missions and goals and whether he thinks in terms of those goals. Candidates who can't answer this question well are demonstrating a lack of depth and interest which can quite likely carry over into your organization. Sometimes the answer to this question also reveals hidden bitterness or anger at an employer.

  11. Can you describe a typical day at work in your last position?
    Strong candidates can give you specific details that you can later verify, but the main point of this question is to see how the applicant's current (or most recent) routine compares with the requirements of the job in question. How interviewees describe their duties can prove highly revealing. Do you sense any real enthusiasm or interest? Do the details match the information you already have? You're looking for enthusiasm and some indication that the candidate connects his current duties with organizational goals.

  12. What sort of work environment do you prefer? What brings out your best performance?
    Probe for specifics. You want to find out whether this person is going to fit into your department. If your organizational culture is collegial and team-centered, you don't want someone who answers, "I like to be left alone to do my work." People rarely, if ever, work at their best in all situations. Candidates who say otherwise are not being honest with themselves or with you.

  13. Where do you see yourself and your career in three years?
    What you're looking for here is a general idea of the candidate's ambitions – or lack thereof – and how realistic they are. Thoughtful candidates will include the university in these plans. This question can also screen out "time-savers" and drones, as well as those whose career aspirations are unrealistic.

  14. Can you tell me something about an important decision you made and how you arrived at it?
    Notice the intentionally vague aspect of this question. It's not hypothetical. It's real. What you're looking for is the person's decision-making style and how it fits into your organizational culture. Did the person seek the advice of others (team-centered)? Vary decision-making strategy to fit the particular situation (better), or apply the same set of rules no matter what (worse)? Is the person a creative thinker? A risk-taker? This question is an especially important one if you're interviewing a candidate for a middle- or senior-level management position.

  15. How do you handle conflict? Can you give me an example of how you handled a workplace conflict in the past?
    You want candidates who try to be reasonable but nonetheless stand up for what's right. Unfortunately, most candidates say the right things, which is why you want some specifics. Be suspicious if the answer is too predictable. While some people may be naturally easygoing, candidates who say that they never get into conflict situations are either dishonest or delusional.

Once you develop the interview questions, arrange them in a logical sequence format and determine who will ask the questions. If the Search Committee members will each ask several questions, assign the questions to be asked by each member.