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Probing Interview Questions

The purpose of the job interview, from the employer's point of view, should be clearly borne in mind. It should not be a fact-finding mission. Detailed information regarding the candidate's qualifications, knowledge and experience should have been gathered beforehand, either from the candidate's curriculum vitae (CV), application form, or from the introducing agency.

Neither should it be a time for the interviewer to talk at length about the company or the job. The candidate should have been sent as much information as possible about these things, and the interviewer should be able to assume that the candidate is there because he wants to work at the company, wants to do the job, and believes he/she can do the job.

The first interview therefore is mainly an opportunity for the interviewer to discover what makes the candidate tick; what sort of a person they are; what they like/dislike; how easy/difficult will they be to manage; what potential do they have for the future; how well they will fit in to the culture of the team/organisation.

The following are a few questions designed to give the interviewer an insight into the minds of candidates, of any type, or at any level. Each one is followed by a commentary to provoke thought and understanding about the meaning of the likely responses.

There are a few rules about questioning technique that should be observed.

  • When considering a number of candidates for a particular job, the interviewer should ask the same questions, in the same order. You must eliminate all possible variables if you are to differentiate between one candidate and another.

  • Ask your questions first. If a candidate is allowed to ask questions of you first, he/she will be able to 'design' their answers to tell you what you want to hear.

  • As far as possible, use open-ended questions. These demand detailed information, and cannot be answered 'Yes' or 'No'. Closed questions are leading questions, and apart from yielding very limited information, tend to give candidates an indication of what you want to hear: 'Are you used to working in the evenings?' Obviously the required answer is 'Yes'. The better question would be 'What hours are you used to working?'

  • Don't worry about briefly going off at a tangent, depending on the response you receive to one of your set questions, but keep going back to your interview plan.
  • Don't accept glib answers. Don't be afraid to challenge answers: Why? Can you explain that? What was the result of that? What did you try to change?

Finding out about strengths and weaknesses

Too many interviewers merely ask 'What are your strengths/weaknesses?' Candidates will be prepared for these questions, and you will receive highly contrived answers. In any case, is the candidate the best person to comment on their strengths/weaknesses? A referee will be far more able to provide information about these aspects, particularly as they relate to work. However, there are ways of probing candidates' self-perception.

What have you been criticised for in your past employment?
It is interesting to know what the candidate would admit to.

Did you agree or disagree? Why?
If they agree with any criticism they've received, you may have identified an area of weakness. If they disagree with all the criticism they've received in the past, they're probably an inflexible candidate, and hard to manage. Look for people who are prepared to agree with some of the criticism they've received, although they should be able to point out how they have addressed the issue.

What activities in your current/last position do/did you enjoy the most?
If the candidate has strong feelings about what they like best, they're also revealing the opposite - what they like least.

How would you describe yourself in three adjectives?
Candidates are unlikely to offer negative adjectives, but even positive ones can have negative implications if they're grouped in a way which suggests a weakness. For instance, "intelligent, efficient, reliable." All great attributes, but when grouped together suggest an absence of human qualities. Is this person arrogant and aloof? Does he or she get along with people? The grouping "friendly, co-operative, a team player" suggests fine personal qualities, but a possible weak performer. Ideally the candidate would suggest a few virtues to suggest strengths in both ability and personality, such as "goal-oriented, likeable, successful."

How would your subordinates or peers describe you in three adjectives?
What are the differences? Is the candidate sensitive to how other people see him/her?

If you had a choice, would you rather draw up plans, or implement them?

Draw up: has a tendency to think, innovate, conceptualise, theorise, risk taker.
Implement: a doer, follower (can be positive or negative)

State three situations in which you did not succeed. Why?
Do they admit to any? Is the candidate self-assured? Have they learned from their mistakes, and if so, what?
One example is too few: It suggests rigidity, a willingness to make only the barest, most grudging admission of the possibility of error. Three examples are too many. That response suggests that had you asked for more than three, then hey, no problem, the candidate would have been able to come up with whatever number of additional failures were needed. Look for the tendency to "blame others" for their own failures.

If you encountered serious difficulties on this job, what would they be?
Reveals candidate's areas of weakness or fear. Look for answers that indicate concern not about failure, but success: answers that suggest an interest in opportunities for advancement, the company and its goals, and a desire to work in a congenial place.

What three things are you afraid to find in this job?
Explores the candidate's fears (realistic or not). Look for the candidate's interest in the opportunity to excel.

Our company is keen to provide training to our staff. Which three areas would you like to improve?
What would you like to change in this job to make it ideal?

Why would he or she want to change it?
A good answer might be ' I don't think it should be changed. I do think it has to be mastered, and that's an exciting and challenging opportunity. Obviously at some point in my career, I'd hope to be able to handle even more responsibility.'

Exploring Ambition

Where would you like to be in 3 - 5 years? In 5 - 10 years?
Observe whether the candidate plans ahead and sets goals.

How do you expect to get there?
This will indicate whether the previous answer was truthful or programmed. Ask them to explain in detail.

What needs to you expect to be satisfied by accepting this position?
This gives candidates the chance to identify their most important career needs.

Exploring Attitudes

What would you do if the company you had just joined gave you £3,000.00 to spend during the first year any way you felt appropriate?
May reveal areas of weakness if job related or poor attitude if not job related. Important question is Why?
The obvious answer is the right one: a job-related use, such as taking courses. Ask a follow-up question, "Why?" probing for evidence of weakness, such as lack of adequate experience or training for the position you're seeking to fill.

We all fib occasionally. Would you say something that is not entirely true? Give me three examples of when you did.
Discuss: Significant, insignificant, borderline lies.
This tests the ability to walk the line between the answer that is too revealing and the answer that is too concealing. This question is designed to measure how forthright and honest the candidate is in their reactions to an authority figure. You have said that everyone lies, and everyone includes the candidate, so the premise on which the question is based is: You lie.

What would you do if you detected a peer falsifying expense records?
Indicates passive or active approach. Common answers: a) It's not my business b) Report it c) Give warning. Gives indication as to morality, honesty, and ethics.

  • The first answer is so bad it would be tempting to stop the interview immediately, and send the candidate home. If they can't even be trusted to protect the company's interests against dishonesty, why should you hire them?

  • The third answer is acceptable, barely. For the candidate, it finesses the conflict between being a squealer and letting someone steal from the employer. Understandable, but still weak.

  • Two is best.

  • There's a fourth approach, another finesse, which has the virtue of being more proactive than the third answer: The candidate should confront culprits point-blank and try to persuade them to change the erroneous report with-out issuing a specific threat as to what your conduct will be if they don't.

How would you describe the most or least ideal boss you could choose?
Indicates personality preferences. Indicates "would he or she fit in with future boss."

How do you motivate people? How do you like to be motivated?
Rather than advocate the use of threat or fear, the candidate should recognise that the best motivator, the one that is most constant, is the one that comes from within, the voice inside a person that tells them to 'show their stuff'. Look for a "self-starter."

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