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6 best interview questions for employers: alternatives to cliched questions

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

Smart interview questions can help interviewers make smart hiring decisions but they have a shelf life. There’s no need to buy into the notion that interview preparation is an arms race between interviewers and candidates, but once a question is out there then the model answers will quickly follow. Too often the result is canned responses to predictable questions.

You can’t blame candidates for trying to figure out what they will be asked and what you want to hear. This is what bored Google’s Larry Page out of his mind and prompted him to ask candidates to tell him something he didn’t already know. But even this approach doesn’t always work.

Interviews have limits as a means of predicting future job performance. Asking certain questions may not give you the insight your looking for, and other, more direct questions, may actually be illegal.  And hiring on intuition, as Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman argues, is no better. So what are you left with? The need to freshen up and give your interview questions the attention they deserve. Devising variations can take candidates out of their comfort zone and prompt a revealing conversation.

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Here are our half-dozen cliched questions that need to be banished, together with some of the best interview questions employers can ask instead:

  1. Why do you want this job?/ Why do you want to work at our company?

Who wants a candidate that doesn’t like the job or the company? Still, these questions are quite easy to prepare for and candidates have also been instructed to respect the “it’s not about you” approach. Answers will largely move along the same lines, which greatly diminishes their significance.

Alternative: What were two things that made you want to apply for this position? / From what you know of our company, what are the two things you like best and why?

These alternatives can be answered using what they know of the company and the job. What distinguishes them from the originals, is that they require a certain degree of thinking. Candidates must contemplate on what is important to them and instead of a lengthy abstract paragraph they must be specific and to the point.

  1. Why should we hire you?

One of the most popular questions seems hard to answer at first. It requires candidates to find ways in which they are truly special. It screams for a rehearsed response and most of the time candidates will give you just that. The result, unfortunately, doesn’t really help you much. All candidates have seen your job description (which is worth writing well to help it stand out) and they will sell themselves as hard as possible. They will focus on their best assets and demonstrate they can add value to your business. Few surprises expected.

Alternative: If you were hired, how do you think you could help with this project?

Being specific can make them think on their feet. You will not hear a canned response; you will see a candidate actively trying to think. The result may not be as eloquent as the one they had prepared, but it may be a lot more meaningful.

  1. What is your greatest weakness?

Candidates know this question is a great favorite with hiring managers. What you end up with is a carefully prepared and faithfully recited answer. Even if the candidate answers truthfully, they will talk about a shortcoming that’s minor and unimportant for the position. You will admire them for their forthrightness but you won’t be any closer to discovering if they are right for the job.

Alternative: Describe a time you experienced failure in your previous job

This question might also be anticipated, but its greater advantage is that it can’t be so easily faked. Candidates have to talk about a situation that is both verifiable and requires details. Great storytellers may still get there but you will probably get more truthful answers. Anyhow, there’s more bravery involved in admitting a mistake during previous employment than a minor personality flaw.

  1. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

The purpose of this question is to see if candidates have long-term ambitions or how serious they are about this job. Unfortunately, it has the potential to kill a good interview. It’s always anticipated and the answer could easily either be a lie or elaborate and non-believable.

Alternative:“What’s your biggest dream in life?”/ What would be your priorities for the first 90 days?

The two alternatives can tell you different things. If you are set on finding out the person’s ambitions, you can ask “What’s your biggest dream?” like Zhang Xin, CEO and co-founder of SOHO China. This may give you insight in the way a candidate thinks and whether they aim high or low. The other alternative question “What would be your priorities for the first 90 days?” is more down-to-earth and practical. You can see how this person prioritizes their short-term goals and builds on the future.

  1. Tell me about a difficult situation you had to overcome

All companies ask behavioral questions. Although some doubt their value in predicting job performance, they are here to stay. Despite the endless variations, they have become abstract and predictable. So much so, that candidates are advised to come prepared with a bunch of stories — whether they are true or not — that can fit any number of behavioral questions. More often than not, these stories are trotted out.

Alternative: Have you ever had to deal with a customer while having another one on the phone?

Since behavioral questions may be sometimes your best bet, why not focus on something specific? Don’t let the candidates choose their difficult situation. Find an issue that you expect to happen often and ask if they have encountered it in the past. If they haven’t, you can turn to asking a situational question instead.

Behavioral and situational questions work better in structured interviews. Download our free guide to learn how to use them effectively.

  1. How many golf balls can you fit in a school bus?

The brainteaser family of questions was once a big deal at companies like Microsoft and Google. Many expressed doubts as to their effectiveness until Google’s data showed they had no predictive ability for job performance. What’s more, they sometimes stressed and annoyed qualified candidates making it more likely for companies to miss out on talent. Many interviewers though, still use them since they may find it useful in assessing quick thinking and analytical ability.

Alternative: Go to the blackboard and solve a problem

Brainteaser questions are detached from reality. How much do you really want to count all the haircuts in America? To see a candidate’s analytical ability you can ask them to solve a real problem. If you are set on puzzles, there’s a long list of actually solvable problems. Better yet, it can be something directly related to the job (also known as the work sample), which requires an equal degree of thinking and background knowledge. This, in particular, is the single best predictor of job performance.

Employers should keep in mind that structured interviews are the ones that work best. Not only do you want to ask the best interview questions, but you want to ask them in a particular order and with a pre-determined system. Dedicate some time to streamline your hiring process and you can boost your chances of making a good decision.

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