Interview questions that really work!

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Imagine making your decision to hire someone solely based on a one-hour meeting. What happens when a candidate is schooled in the art of interviewing and masterfully maneuvers around all of your standard questions? Do you really know what this person is like? Making a great hire is one of the most important things that you do but it can also be one of the most costly mistakes that you make. There is so much at stake for both the employer and candidate. As the employer you want to find the right fit, the matching skill set and a future employee who will be an asset to your organization. The candidate has reasons for applying to your organization which you need to uncover. If you truly only have one hour or one meeting to make that all-important decision, how confident are you in the strength of your interview questions? Are they able to unearth true character and predict future behaviours? The questions that you ask are critical to your success.

However, there are some ways of asking questions and probing styles that will assist you. The premise is that past performance is the best predictor of future performance.

Behavioural Interviews

Candidates are asked to describe situations where they have demonstrated a particular behaviour. This interview typically includes questions where the candidate is asked to express both positive and negative aspects of their work lives. An interviewer can create these types of questions by reflecting upon specific work scenarios. The advantage of these questions is that they challenge the candidate to describe, in detail, real work examples, and to use their communications skills in a positive way. Here are a few samples:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond the call of duty to get a job done.
  • Describe a situation in which you were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone to see things your way.
  • Tell me about your worst "nightmare" project. What went wrong and what did you do? What did you learn from this situation?

Situational Interviews

Various "real life" situations are presented to candidates and in turn, they are asked to predict what they would do in such situations. Situational interviews are ideal for determining problem-solving skills, interpersonal relationships, management styles and basic common sense.

  • Assume you are a supervisor and one of your employees consistently arrives late to work. What action would you take?
  • It is 5:00pm on a Friday. You're working on a tight deadline for your Manager, but the Director suddenly asks you to drop everything and deal with a customer complaint. What do you do?
  • A co-worker tells you in confidence that he suspects another colleague of stealing. What would your actions be?

Semi-Structured Interviews

The Interviewer prepares questions which are directly related to the specifics of the job. Answers can be scored or ranked.

  • What experience have you had working with budgets?
  • What was the most challenging fundraising campaign that you have worked on? What was the outcome?
  • Describe how you use the performance appraisal process in your current organization.
  • While working at the front desk, please describe a situation where a client has reacted in a negative or threatening manner. How did you deal with the situation?

Unstructured Interviews

Typically these represent the most basic of interview styles where often there is little advance preparation. Unfortunately with these types of questions, it is easy to go off topic and information received is often fairly superficial. Another drawback is that an experienced candidate will be well prepared for these questions and the interviewer may learn little about the real person. They are useful, however, in preliminary screening of candidates and in combination with other interview styles. Common questions are:

  • What are your major strengths?
  • Why did you apply for this position?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years' time?
  • What are some of the frustrations that you want to avoid in a new job?

Soft Skill Assessment Interviews

A good interviewer also knows that besides technical and job specific questions, the assessment of soft skills is equally critical, but difficult to do. Soft skills or lack of them usually separate a candidate that will fit in to the organization and be a solid contributor or become a bad hire. Here are some questions that work well for HR practitioners around the country:

  • (To reveal past mistakes) - If you could change one (managerial) decision you made during the past two years, what would that be?
  • (To reveal creativity & problem solving) - What was the wildest idea that you had in the past year? What did you do about it?
  • (To reveal integrity & honesty) - What would you do if someone asked you to do something unethical?
  • (To reveal personality & temperament) - What brings you joy?
  • (To reveal diplomacy) - Have you ever had to resolve a conflict with a co-worker or client? How did you resolve it?

Favourite Interview Questions

"If you were a car, what kind would you be?" A market research company asks this question to learn about personalities and to determine how articulate and thoughtful candidates are. They ask this question early in the interview to relax the candidate and to see how creative they are.

"How do you feel about your accomplishments to date? If you had a chance to make a change, what would you do differently? What are you satisfied with?" A large hospital always includes these questions to probe problem-solving skills and self-awareness.

"If you had the chance to create an environment in which you would be most successful, what would it be?" One of a consulting firm's favourite questions, it is particularly good at exploring the issue of "fit" since the candidate's answer will paint a picture of an organization's culture and management style where he or she would function best.

While this represents only a sampling of many interview styles and questions, the key to success is preparation. With well-conceived questions, using a variety of behavioural-based, situational, structured and soft skill assessment approaches, your candidate will open up and do most of the talking (at least 80%). If you truly want to be confident and successful in the art of interviewing and selection, if you only have one hour or one meeting to make that all-important decision, ensure that you can uncover true character and predict future behaviours.

Source: "Job Interviews: Employers' Favourite Interview Questions", Vicki Kramer.

Source: "Assessing soft skills in Candidates",

Source: "Interview Preparation", Madison Macarthur.

Teresa Howe, CHRP, is an independent HR consultant and writer. As an HR executive with 15 years of generalist experience, she has contributed to several successful organizations being recognized as Canada's Top 100 Employers and created meaningful change. As a long-standing member of the HRPAO, she also serves as president of the Board of Directors for Jobstart, a not-for-profit organization, speaks at conferences and creates workshops on HR related issues. Teresa can be reached at

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