Interview Questions

Interviewing 3: Asking The Right Questions

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You have a great job description that articulates both the functional and non-functional requirements for the job you are filling. You’ve narrowed down the 250 resumes to the half-dozen you want to interview. Now you have a candidate in front of you and you get to ask questions to determine if this is the one person you want to hire.

What questions should you ask? A Google search will give you many “good” questions to ask in any interview. And yes, those are good questions. But are they the right questions for your job? No. Unfortunately, getting to those questions takes some work. Fortunately, you have that amazing job description to work from and I will give you some tools to make it easier.

Planning Ahead

The first step in crafting effective interview questions is to determine what you need to know That’s where your job description comes in. In my article on reviewing resumes, I suggested that you review the job description and identify the elements you expect to find in the resume You will repeat that exercise and focus on the elements to find using questions you can ask in the interview. Let’s go over the basic categories again:

  • Education — Does the candidate possess the educational qualifications necessary to perform the job?
  • Experience — Does the candidate have the required work experience to perform the job?
  • Expertise — Does the candidate have the knowledge and skills to perform the job?
  • Expression — Does the candidate have the communication skills, both verbal and written, to perform the job?

When you completed this exercise for the resume, you likely looked for education and experience and written expression. Those are easy to find in a resume. It is difficult to assess expertise that way. In the interview, you’re going to spend the bulk of your time determining if the candidate can show expertise.

The Interview Rubric.

As an educator, I spend a lot of time evaluating my student’s expertise. I evaluate their expertise in homework assignments, written exams, and presentations. In doing so, I use a traditional tool of educators around the world: a rubric. A rubric is a scoring tool used by educators to evaluate the quality of students’ responses. In interviewing, I use a rubric to evaluate the quality of candidates responses. I also use the rubric structure to help me plan the questions to ask.

Step 1: The Questions.

The first step in building an interview rubric, is to determine the questions you want to ask to assess if the candidate has the expertise that you are seeking.  One thing that I like to do at this stage is create a mind map. Okay, honestly, I’ve probably started the mind map back in the job description stage. But we will use one here to brainstorm questions to ask for evidence of qualifications. My mind map of dog walker questions starts like this:

Interviewing Questions Mindmap 001

One thing I identified is that I want to know if the candidate has experience working with different breeds of dogs. I further expanded that into two sub-groups. I want a candidate who has experience with different breeds of dogs. I also want a candidate who has experience with my type of dog. So I could, and will, ask “What kinds of dogs do you have experience with?” and “Do you have experience with” whatever kind of dog I’m specifically interested in.

 The problem with those two questions is that they will not elicit useful answers. The first question is a catalog question (Please list the dogs with which you have experience). It can show experience with several different dog breeds. It can also show an ability to memorize a list of common dog breeds. The second question is just a Yes/No question and doesn’t really provide us with any useful information. They aren’t effective.
What makes an effective interview question?

  • Relevant — Effective interview questions apply to the job you are filling. Starting with the job description helps ensure your job description drives relevant questions. Once you’ve written your questions, go back up the tree and validate that the question gives you information you need to make a hiring decision. In my example, I asked about terriers, border collies, Shih Tzus, and rescues. Do I have all of those types of dogs? If not, why I am asking? Limit your questions to those that apply to the job.
  • Open-Ended — Effective interview questions give the respondent a wide berth for the kinds of answers she can give. You want to avoid simple Yes/No or catalog questions. Concentrate on open-ended questions that encourage the candidate to explain or justify an answer. Open-ended questions also give you more information with which to base your hiring decision. A few Yes/No questions or short-answer questions are okay, most of your interview questions should be open-ended.
  • Clear —Effective interview questions are clear and unambiguous. I asked, “What kinds of dogs do you have experience with?”  What does “experience” mean in that question? I had a Shepherd-Collie mix when I was a child. Does that count? Or  do you only mean professional dog-walking experience? Be clear when you ask the question. During the interview, it is okay to rephrase to help the candidate understand. But it is better to have a clear, understandable question to begin with.
  • Unbiased — Effective questions avoid making any judgmental assumptions about a subject or a candidate. Avoid questions that are loaded or leading.   

Here’s a second take at those questions after I did some editing to make them more effective.

Interviewing Questions Mindmap 002

I clarified what I meant by “experience” and also pared the list of dog types to the few that I really care about. (Let’s assume that I have two dogs: a terrier and a rescue border collie.) I also crafted some open-ended questions about those dog types. I’m given the candidate the opportunity to open up and talk about their experience. I made my questions unbiased by asking both positive and negative questions, but I phrased them in neutral ways. I will not ask a candidate what they dislike about a dog breed. These questions are more effective.

But the best questions to ask are the open-ended questions that are the staple of the behavioral interview. I’m talking about the “Tell me about a time…” questions. These questions let you use examples from a candidate’s experience to determine if they have the knowledge and skills to perform your job. Here are some questions I’ve drafted that focus on the candidate’s knowledge of dogs. 

Interviewing Questions Mindmap 003

This is just a sampling of what we could ask. It’s easy to brainstorm “tell me about a time…” questions. You need to ensure you have questions relevant to the job at hand. Just like I could ask about experience with obscure dog breeds, I could ask about highly unlikely scenarios. So how do I know what scenarios to ask about? I think about risk and this simple formula:

Importance = Likelihood X Impact

The importance of a scenario is a function of the likelihood the scenario will occur and the cost, or impact, of the occurrence. Huh? Simple. How important is a scenario? How likely is it that the candidate will encounter the scenario in their job? What is the impact of that scenario occurring

Why do you ask about a time when a dog became aggressive around a person? You want to understand how the candidate will handle this situation. How likely is it to happen? Hopefully not too likely. That will depend on the dog. What is the impact if it happens? High. So the risk is relatively high, and I probably want to understand how the candidate will handle it. Why do I ask about a time when a dog was distracted? Even if not that big of a deal, it probably happens frequently. I want to understand how the candidate will handle that situation. I also asked how the candidate prepares for a dog for a walk. This is a baseline question. It helps determine if the candidate has the basic skills to do the normal day-to-day function of the job.

Step 2: The Answers.

You should now have a comprehensive list of effective questions you could ask a candidate to determine if she has the expertise to do the job. You aren’t finished. To grade candidates responses properly, you need to define the grading criteria. With interviews, unlike tests, there may not be a right answer. There will be good responses and better responses. Your challenge is to identify what makes a good response.

For each question that I ask a candidate, I also ask myself these three questions:

  1. What is a baseline response? A candidate has a to show this in order to pass the interview.
  2. What is a good response? I would expect most candidates to answer like this.
  3. What is an outstanding response? Your exceptional candidate will have this answer. This in an A+.

What is a baseline response? A candidate has a to show this in order to pass the interview.

What is a good response? I would expect most candidates to answer like this.

What is an outstanding response? Your exceptional candidate will have this answer. This in an A+.

For example, we will ask a candidate about the kinds of dogs she has walked. What responses are we looking for?

  • Baseline: Experience with at least two different small dog breeds.
  • Good: Experience with between five and seven different breeds with some variety of sizes and temperaments. 
  • Excellent: Experience with over 10 different breeds of different sizes and temperaments.

What about those more open-ended questions? You need to know what you are looking for before you ask them. When I ask the dog-walking candidate about dealing with a dog who was distracted on the walk, I’m looking for two things. First, I’m looking to see if the candidate has ever had to deal with this relatively common situation. Second, I’m looking to see if the candidate has the knowledge and skills necessary to deal with it. So my evaluation criteria might look like this:

  • Baseline: Has not encountered the situation or does not handle the situation appropriately.
  • Good: Has at least one believable story handled appropriately.
  • Excellent: Has multiple believable stories and shows a knowledge of dog behavior in devising a solution and showed a compassion for the dog.

Of course, if I were actually hiring a dog walker, I would include more information about ways to resolve the issue.

If we will talk about open-ended behavioral questions, we should also talk about the STAR technique.  The STAR technique is a useful strategy for responding to those “Tell me about a time” questions. There are four steps to answering using STAR: 

  • (S) The Situation in which the event took place.
  • (T) The Task that needed to be completed or the particular problem issue to resolve.
  • (A) The Action taken to complete the task or solve the problem.
  • (R) The Result of the action. How did the action result in success? 

The best responses are going to following this pattern. When you ask about a time that a dog became aggressive around a person, the candidate should:

Describe the situation: What kind of dog was being walked? Did the dog have any known behavioral problems? What was the environment? Park? City street? Was it crowded? Noisy? 

Describe the task: The problem, or task, is obvious. But there should be some detail. How did the interaction start? Did the person approach the dog? Did the dog approach the person?

What was the action taken: How did the candidate attempt to resolve the issue?

What was the result? Was it effective? How did the person respond? How did the dog respond? What was the follow up?

I look for STAR-style responses in my interviews. Not all candidates are going to demonstrate this level of preparation. Some are going to check off the STAR boxes in the course of their answer even if they don’t do so explicitly. I build STAR into my interview rubric like this:

  1. Baseline: Has not encountered the situation or does not handle the situation in an appropriate way.
  2. Good: Has at least one believable story handled in an appropriate way that includes the situation, task, action, and result.
  3. Excellent: 
    1. Has multiple believable stories;
    2. Demonstrates a knowledge of dog behavior in devising a solution and showing a compassion for the dog;
    3. Clearly articulates the situation, task, action, and result.

Step 3: Prioritize, Prune, and Assign

A fully developed interview rubric will have a lot of questions. How could you possible have time to ask all of them in an interview? You can’t. And you don’t have to. First, you can prioritize the requirements and the questions. Start with the most important job requirements. Ensure you have at least one question for each of those. The less important requirements can be addressed as time allows.

Next, review the questions with a critical eye. You need at least one or two questions for each job requirement, but you don’t need a dozen. Which questions are going to be the most effective at assessing a candidate?

Finally, remember that you aren’t going to be the other person interviewing. In most cases, there will be a group of stakeholders who will also be talking to the candidate. Meet with them beforehand and assign job requirements and questions to each. This is where starting with multiple questions for each job requirement can help. Different interviewers can ask different questions to assess a candidates ability to satisfy one job description.

Now you’re ready to start interviewing candidates.


Interviewing The Knowledge Worker — A Guide for Practitioners

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