110+ best interview questions and answers (according to 250+ recruiters)
Choosing the best interview questions is the most efficient and effective method for gaining valuable insight into a candidate’s personality, experience, creative ability, critical thinking skills, and overall suitability for the position. It can also be extremely difficult to do, regardless of how much experience you have as an interviewer.
Between the nuances involved with hiring for different positions and the importance of finding the right company culture fit, coming up with a comprehensive list of questions is no easy feat. That challenge is made even more difficult by the fact that sample answers to common job interview questions are easily found online, making it hard to trust that responses are authentic, original, or accurate.
The ability to ask the best interview questions can set you apart as a hiring professional and helps optimize the interview process. Honing this essential skill can lead to a host of advantages including a reduced time-to-hire, lower turnover rates, and the ability to make better hiring decisions with confidence.
In an effort to help you find the most effective and insightful interview questions, we asked 250 experienced recruiters for their opinions about the best interview questions and created this comprehensive guide of our findings. Here’s what you’ll learn:
Most popular interview questions and answers
Although it’s tempting to want to curate a list of unique and creative questions, popular interview questions are popular for a reason and the answers can reveal a lot about a candidate’s personality or background. We surveyed hiring professionals to find out which popular interview questions are their favorites.
1. Tell me about yourself.
Although this is a common interview question that candidates are likely to prepare for in advance, its open-ended format allows for a wide range of response types. It’s also a great way to transition from introductory small talk to official interview mode.
How a candidate approaches the answer can offer another angle of insight: Do they launch right into an elevator speech about their personal or professional life? Do they use the question as an opportunity to explain how their education or work history supports the position they’re hoping to fill? Do they have a clear career path in mind and would this role help fulfill those goals?
There’s no wrong answer but the applicant’s response and how that response is delivered can tell you a lot about a candidate.
“Sure! For the past three years, I’ve been working as a social media specialist for a mid-sized marketing agency, where I create, schedule, and manage content for between 5 and 10 clients at a time. I really enjoy the work — I’m creative, organized, I love meeting deadlines, and I find the analytics reports fascinating, so it’s a good fit for my personality! It’s been great but I’d prefer the opportunity to focus my efforts on building a strong brand identity and online community for one company like yours.”
2. Give an example of a time that you improved or optimized a process that was outdated.
A candidate with the ability to identify potential areas of improvement in a workflow, their role, or within the company is an invaluable asset, particularly if they’re also willing and able to offer a solution. Creative, process-focused employees are more likely to take ownership of their position and offer innovative ideas that could benefit the entire organization.
Asking for an example of a time they optimized a process doesn’t have to be limited to work experience, either. Although that may be the ideal response, any reply that demonstrates superior problem-solving skills is worth considering.
“At my current job, we were using Slack to communicate about upcoming and ongoing projects. Although it’s a great platform for conversation, it wasn’t the best option for project planning; messages would get buried, misplaced, or wouldn’t be seen by everyone involved. I researched project management platforms and presented the idea of using Notion — it was flexible enough to work for the different types of projects various teams worked on but created one resource that anyone could easily reference. Once we got past the learning curve, everyone agreed that project planning felt so much more efficient and organized.”
3. If you were an interviewer, what do you think the three most important criteria would be for hiring someone for this position?
Asking which qualities or skills would be most valuable for a position allows you to assess an applicant’s understanding of the role while also offering them the opportunity to explain how they fulfill those needs.
This is also the type of question that many candidates might need a moment to think about — and how they handle that can be as revealing as their answer. Do they rush right into an answer, forming their response as they reply? Do they feel comfortable taking a moment to consider their answer? Do they play it safe with surface-level answers or go more in-depth by offering some more interesting ideas?
“That’s a great question. What are the three most important criteria I’d be looking for in an administrative assistant? Well, I think an obvious one is being organized since there are a lot of responsibilities and different tasks involved. I’m a huge fan of productivity and calendar apps to help with that. Second, although you work directly with so many people, the ability to work independently and self-motivate is critical, so that you don’t end up creating more work for others! Good communication skills are also important — you have to be clear in explaining what you’re working on, what is needed, and follow-up persistently. I’m a people-person and won’t hesitate to pick up the phone or send a message.”
4. How would your past coworkers describe your interactions with them? Why would they describe them this way?
Understanding a candidate’s personality and work style is important to how well they’ll do in the role they’re applying for, as well as how they’ll fit into their team and into company culture. It’s easier to hire a good fit than it is to adjust someone’s general disposition.
While it’s obvious that a candidate is unlikely to reveal negative traits, what they choose to highlight can be a good indicator of their self-awareness and if they’d be a team player or not.
“The coworkers at my current company would describe my interactions with them as helpful and friendly. I’m a problem-solver by nature; I really enjoy the challenge of identifying an issue and brainstorming a solution. So, if someone was working on a project or had a difficult client, they’d often come to me for advice and I was always happy to throw out some ideas or ask questions that would help them land on a solution.”
5. Please give an example of a project that you owned and what the process was like from start to finish.
Asking for specific examples of projects a candidate has been responsible for offers insight into the level of responsibility an applicant has taken on in the past, experience and skills they may have learned along the way, and the executive function skills needed to accomplish the assignment.
It may be helpful to ask follow-up questions about what they found most satisfying or challenging about the work that they completed or how they overcame any obstacles that they outlined in their answer.
“I was responsible for revising the landing page for the website at my last job. Our objective was to streamline the information and improve the copy, functionality, and design. I came up with some rough drafts, worked closely with the writers and designers on the marketing team to improve on those ideas, and then used A/B testing to determine which was more popular based on bounce rate and sign-ups. It was a big job with a lot of moving pieces but we saw a 25% increase in sign ups once the new page went live and it was interesting to work with teams in other departments.”
6. What kind of people do you have trouble interacting with? How do you deal with them?
Asking people to discuss what kind of people they find difficult can help you gauge their personality type as well as their willingness and ability to answer honestly.
Even people who get along with everyone encounter certain personality types that are more challenging to manage, and being able to admit that demonstrates authenticity. Obviously, if their answer is applicable to the people they’d be working closely with, they may not be the best fit for the position. Most people will try to play it safe with a response to a question like this, so being able to provide a clear answer should count in their favor.
“I work well with a lot of different people and got a lot of experience in doing so during a prior job as a customer support representative. I’d say the biggest challenge is people who always seem adversarial — as if they’re looking for fault in you or your work. However, it’s important to remember that it’s probably not personal. It may just be their style of communication or a reflection of something they have going on in their own lives. I respond by being patient and friendly, and I accept their feedback without letting my perception of their tone interfere with their actual message.”
7. What do you do when a decision is being made that you disagree with?
It’s impossible to please everybody all of the time, at work and in life. Conflict comes in many forms, and knowing how a candidate reacts when they disagree with a decision can reveal whether or not they’d be a good culture fit for the role or team they’ll be working on.
Respectfully voicing a conflicting opinion can also demonstrate a level of interest and a sense of ownership in an outcome, which is a trait that can have many different advantages for your company.
“I think it’s important to try to figure out why the other side thinks the way they do. Even if I don’t agree with their perspective, trying to understand the reasoning behind it can be helpful. I also make an effort to communicate my ‘why’ calmly and clearly and, when possible, suggest alternate solutions that might meet everyone’s needs. Ultimately, I listen and respond thoughtfully, accept the prevailing outcome, and move on.”
8. How would you describe yourself in 5 words?
The words someone chooses to describe themselves can reveal a lot about their personality. Using adjectives listed in the job description would be a sharp and strategic tactic. However, whatever words they offer up as an answer are likely to provide a sneak peek into what aspects of their personality they’re most proud of, and what they think is most relevant to the available position.
“That’s a great question! I’d say that I’m honest, independent, curious, responsible, and competitive. I actually think those personality traits have contributed to my success in sales. It’s the perfect career path for someone who is driven and comfortable with themselves and others.”
General interview questions
These are questions that can take any form. They might be generic or clarifying questions to behavioral and situational questions, they can be role-specific or questions to determine culture fit.
They can also be icebreaker questions or closing questions. You can tailor these questions to each specific candidate if there are particular areas about their background that you’d like to explore further. For example:
Great interview questions to ask:
- Why do you want to work here?
- Why did you leave your last job?
- You have a lot of experience in the customer support industry. What do you think you’d like about moving to a sales role and what do you think would be the biggest challenge you’d face?
- What do you like about our company from what you’ve learned so far during the hiring process?
- I’ve noticed an employment gap in your resume. Can you tell me more about that period?
- Why did you pursue this career?
- How did you choose your field of study?
- What do you love about your field of expertise?
- Does this position line up with what you expected, based on the job ad?
- Now that we’ve discussed this position in-depth, would you re-apply? Why / Why not?
- Should you get hired, what do you think would be most challenging in this role?
These are some of the most common questions to ask in an interview because they are general enough to be adapted to any role or candidate.
These questions are great as first-round interview questions to ask. Also, you can use some of them as phone interview questions to ask candidates before you bring them in for a technical interview.
Behavioral interview questions
Behavioral questions ask candidates to share an experience they had at a previous job and explain how they handled a situation.
This can give you insight into how people will react in similar situations at your company.
You can craft behavioral questions to assess most kinds of qualities or skills. For example:
- Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult colleague. (assesses communication skills, diplomacy and ability to overcome obstacles)
- Have you ever missed a deadline? What would you do differently next time? (assesses ability to learn from mistakes)
- Have you ever been assigned with a task you were not familiar with? (assesses problem-solving abilities and openness to ask for advice
Make sure you give your candidates an opportunity to reflect and ask follow-up questions if needed.
Behavioral questions, as well as the situational questions that follow, can be part of the third round of interviews where qualified candidates are compared to each other based on soft skills and culture fit.
Situational interview questions
Situational questions present candidates with hypothetical scenarios and ask them to explain how they would act.
Situational interview questions work particularly well for sales, manager, and customer service roles, since these candidates will need to think quickly on their feet.
Just like with behavioral questions, you can evaluate a variety of job-related qualities. Some examples:
- If you discovered your supervisor was breaking the company’s code of conduct, what would you do? (assesses integrity, judgment and communication skills)
- If an angry customer demanded to speak with your manager without specifying their problem, how would you handle it? (assesses ability to stay calm in trying situations, diplomacy and judgment.)
- What would you do if your manager gave you a seemingly impossible task with a tight deadline? (assesses tactfulness and confidence)
Keep in mind that how people say they would act isn’t necessarily the same as how they would act. When evaluating answers to situational questions, pay less attention to their actual answer and more to the candidate’s thought process and how well they can justify their decisions.
Skill-based interview questions
Skill-based questions are designed to gauge an applicant’s proficiency and personality. Questions about hard skills touch on a candidate’s professional background, while questions about soft skills tap into personal characteristics.
Identifying a candidate’s skills helps determine not only how they’d perform in their role, but also within the company itself.
Communication skills questions
The ability to communicate effectively, both verbally and in writing, makes it possible to convey ideas, set goals, report progress, and interact positively with clients and colleagues. Although good communication skills are essential components of certain positions, like sales, public relations, or marketing, they’re a valuable asset in every role.
Hiring a candidate with strong communication skills increases productivity, enhances collaboration, and contributes to a more pleasant work environment all around.
Top 3 communication skills interview questions
Here are the most common communication skills interview questions. Check our dedicated communication skills interview questions article to see more.
- How would you overcome communication challenges on a remote team?
- Have you ever worked with someone you struggled to communicate with? If so, what was the obstacle and how did you handle it?
- Describe a time you had to share bad news with your team or have a difficult conversation with a coworker.
Candidates with good teamwork skills are able to accept feedback, resolve issues, recognize the strengths of other individuals, and help foster a healthy work environment.
Good interpersonal skills and the ability to work as part of a team is important, even in roles where a candidate does their actual work independently. Promoting a culture of teamwork, and hiring to support that effort, improves communication and collaboration on a company-wide level.
Top 3 teamwork interview questions
Here are the most common teamwork interview questions. Check our dedicated teamwork interview questions article to see more.
- Describe a group project you worked on. What was your role and what did you achieve?
- Has your team ever failed to reach a goal? If so, what went wrong and what did you learn from that experience?
- Tell me about a time you had to work with a colleague you didn’t get along with.
Learning and adaptability questions
Change can be challenging for many different personality types, but the ability to adapt is essential to innovation and critical to succeeding in a dynamic work environment.
Learning and adaptability questions can reveal whether or not a candidate is likely to remain calm under pressure, accept new team members or tools, or if they can adjust swiftly to unpredictable circumstances. Seek out candidates who are flexible and open to new experiences.
Top 3 learning and adaptability interview questions
Here are the most common learning and adaptability interview questions. Check our dedicated adaptability interview questions article to see more.
- Imagine you have submitted a piece of work that you thought was finished, but a colleague returns it to you with multiple corrections and comments that would take you hours to address. What would you do?
- Tell me about a time you had to learn how to use a new tool at work. How long did it take you to understand its features use it daily?
- What are the biggest challenges you’re facing when starting a new job?
Creativity is a skill that can turn a good candidate into an amazing hire.
While it’s an obvious skill requirement for some positions, such as graphic designers, photographers, or writers, creative thinkers are more likely to offer ideas and solutions that lead to quality outcomes in any project or role.
Top 3 creativity focused interview questions
Here are the most popular creativity-focused interview questions:
- Tell me about a time you gave a creative solution to a problem.
- How do you find inspiration to produce a piece of work?
- If I asked you to tell me one new idea we can implement into our product/website/services, what would you tell me?
Problem-solving skills questions
Candidates with superior problem-solving skills are often results-oriented employees who can adapt easily and perform effectively in stressful or unexpected situations.
The ability to analyze information and identify effective solutions to complex situations indicates that an applicant can predict potential issues, overcome challenges, and improve existing processes or workflows.
Top 3 problem-solving interview questions
Here are the most common problem-solving interview questions. Check our dedicated problem-solving interview questions article to see more.
- Tell me about a time you predicted a problem with a stakeholder. How did you prevent it from escalating?
- How do you know when to solve a problem on your own or to ask for help?
- Describe a situation where you faced serious challenges in doing your job efficiently. What were the challenges, and how did you overcome them?
Culture fit is a tricky concept. It’s not about wanting to have beers with someone, but you certainly need to be able to communicate and work well with them. Before you choose what interview questions to ask, think about what ‘culture fit’ means in your team or company.
For some teams, “working well” with someone means being able to leave all personal affairs aside and be effective at the task at hand. This can be beneficial in highly structured environments, like consultancies or auditor companies. For other teams, culture fit means being able to have fun and be open with each other (more common in startup environments). Try to formulate specific criteria that will help you determine culture fit for your own company.
Top cultural fit interview questions
Here are the most popular culture-fit interview questions to ask candidates. (Note that these questions can also help you identify common deal breakers, such as arrogance or unhealthily competitive behavior). Check our dedicated article to see more examples of culture-fit interview questions.
- Describe the type of work environment in which you are most productive.
- What’s one thing you like about your current (or prior) job and you’d want here as well?
- What do you hope to achieve during your first six months here?
- Which was your favorite team to work with in your current or previous jobs and why?
Making decisions is part of daily life, both personally and professionally. From prioritizing tasks to solving unexpected problems, good decision-makers routinely use critical thinking skills to evaluate circumstances, consider alternatives, and weigh the pros and cons of available options.
Employees with excellent decision-making skills often work well under pressure and make good leaders or team members since they’re willing to take ownership of a potential solution.
Top 3 decision-making interview questions
Here are the most common decision-making interview questions. Check our dedicated decision-making interview questions article to see more.
- Describe a time you made an unpopular decision. How did you handle the feedback? How would you have handled the situation differently?
- Do you usually make better decisions alone or with a group? Why? When do you ask for help?
- You want your manager to buy a new software that will help your work and you’re trying to choose between two options. The first is more expensive, but has better reviews and the second has fewer features, but is within budget. Which one would you recommend and how?
Candidates with critical thinking skills routinely employ the use of analytic reasoning and logic to make sound decisions. Critical thinkers often have an independent mindset and are likely to improve processes instead of simply performing the tasks associated with their position.
Critical thinking incorporates a broad range of valuable skills, including adaptability, creativity, objectivity, decision-making, and problem-solving abilities, which makes employees with strong critical thinking skills an asset to any team, role, or project.
Top 3 critical-thinking interview questions
Here are the most common critical-thinking interview questions. Check our dedicated critical-thinking interview questions article to see more.
- Tell me about a time you had to make a decision with incomplete information. What did you do?
- During a live presentation to key stakeholders, you spot a mistake in your manager’s report, but your manager isn’t at the presentation. How do you handle this?
- Describe a time when you had to convince your manager to try a different approach to solve a problem.
Although work experience and history is undoubtedly important, it’s often soft skills like communication, adaptability, and collaboration that become the deciding factor between two equally proficient candidates.
Hiring candidates that are a good fit for their team, and for company culture in general, helps build lasting rapport and can reduce turnover rates. Choose soft skill questions that will help you assess aptitude in a few different areas to get a better perspective of an applicant’s personality.
Top 3 soft-skills interview questions
Here are the most common soft-skills interview questions. Check our dedicated soft-skills interview questions article to see more.
- What would you do if your team rejected all of your ideas?
- If you’re presenting ideas during a meeting and your audience seems disengaged, what would you do to get their attention?
- Describe a time you fell behind schedule. What went wrong and what would you do differently next time?
Technical interview questions
These questions are at the core of technical interviews. If you’re the hiring manager or a team member who does a similar job as the position you’re hiring for, you’ll want to ask these questions. Note that “technical” does not mean tech-related – in this case, it means specific and job-related.
Technical questions are usually part of the second interview questions to ask candidates who have been shortlisted after the initial interview or screening call. In this stage, you’re evaluating the candidate’s ability to actually do the job.
To find the best technical interview questions to ask potential employees, search for the role you’re hiring for in our vast library of 390+ interview question samples.
Here are some examples of position specific interview questions:
Interview questions for Management
If you’re hiring team leaders, you want to make sure they can answer the above types of interview questions well. But, hiring for each managerial position will entail an additional set of questions specifically to judge the candidate’s management skills (such as setting and tracking goals or training and motivating team members). Depending on the seniority of the manager’s role, there are different interview questions to ask managers.
Top 3 Management interview questions
Here are the most common interview questions for managers.
- What’s your approach to delegating work to employees? How do you ensure that tasks are completed?
- How would you describe your management style?
- Tell me about a time you had to deal with a team member who constantly opposed your ideas. How did you handle it?
Other interview questions for Management positions
Check our dedicated managers interview questions articles for more questions depending on the position you are hiring for.
- Team Leader interview questions
- Administration Manager interview questions
- Business Manager interview questions
- Operations Manager interview questions
- General Manager interview questions
Interview questions for Accounting and Finance
When interviewing for accounting and finance positions, you’re searching for a motivated, detail-oriented individual with work experience that’s relevant to your company’s specific needs. Situational and process-based questions can provide insight into the kind of work they did in prior positions.
Accounting-related tasks are often routine and repetitive. Hiring a candidate with critical thinking or problem-solving skills is more likely to lead to improved systems and an increase in productivity.
Top 3 Accounting and Finance interview questions
Here are the most common interview questions for accounting and finance positions:
- Describe an accounting process that you developed or improved.
- Describe a time you helped your company reduce costs.
- How would you set up an internal control system for processing invoices?
Other interview questions for Accounting and Finance positions
- Accountant interview questions
- Finance Analyst interview questions
- Risk Analyst interview questions
- Finance Clerk interview questions
- CFO interview questions
Interview questions for Administration
Administrative positions cover a broad range of important operational duties. Work history requirements will vary depending on the available position, but the best candidates for administration-related roles are diligent, organized, and have strong verbal and written communication skills.
Combine operational, role-specific, and behavioral questions to get a better understanding of what attributes each candidate may bring to the position.
Top 3 Administration interview questions
Here are the most common interview questions for admin positions:
- In what ways have you improved efficiency at work? (e.g. finding a cheaper vendor for office supplies that reduced costs)
- What does “managing up” mean to you? In what ways have you done that?
- How would you prioritize your work if different managers assigned you tasks due at the same time?
Other interview questions for Administration positions
- Administration Manager interview questions
- Assistant Director interview questions
- Secretary interview questions
- Administrative Assistant interview questions
- Office Administrator interview questions
Interview questions for Customer Service
The people you hire for customer service positions ultimately become the face and voice of your business, so it’s important to choose candidates with strong communication skills and a genuine desire to help others.
Operational or role-specific questions are an excellent way to evaluate a candidate’s prior experience or judgment, but keep in mind that it’s easier to train someone to do the tasks associated with the job than it is to change personality. Behavioral questions are a valuable way to gauge their potential success in interacting with customers, and it’s particularly helpful to pay close attention to non-verbal cues such as body language during the interview process.
Top 3 Customer Service interview questions
Here are the most common interview questions for customer service positions:
- Let’s say that the customer you’re talking to is complaining about a well-known problem with your product. How do you diffuse the situation?
- Describe a time you turned a negative situation with a customer into a positive one.
- Are you familiar with our products/services? What do you think are the most common issues we face with clients?
Other interview questions for Customer Service positions
- Customer Service Representative interview questions
- Customer Service Manager interview questions
- Customer Care Representative interview questions
Interview questions for IT and Tech
Hiring for IT and tech roles is unique because the roles are so reliant on hard skills and experience. Being proficient is often critical to the functionality of the business—it’s rarely a role where you can successfully “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Although a formal education is valuable, hands-on experience and a genuine interest in the field is often even more important since technology changes so rapidly. Strong candidates should have a desire to learn and an interest in acquiring new knowledge.
Top 3 IT and Tech interview questions
Here are the most common interview questions for IT and tech positions:
- How would you spend your first week on the job?
- You have an idea you want to try out quickly enough. What tools would you use to prototype it?
- Describe a commercially successful product that you like. What makes it so successful?
Other interview questions for IT and Tech positions
- Software Engineer interview questions
- Product Manager interview questions
- Front End Web Developer interview questions
- Data Scientist interview questions
- System Administrator interview questions
Interview questions for Human Resources
Hiring accomplished HR professionals has a wide-ranging ripple effect of advantages for your employees and your company. The ability to attract, identify, and retain top talent can reduce costs, increase profits, improve company culture, and optimize every aspect of your business.
Strong candidates for HR positions are organized, analytical, detail-oriented, and possess good decision-making and communication skills.
Top 3 Human Resources interview questions
Here are the most common interview questions for human resources positions. Check our dedicated HR interview questions article to see more.
- Describe a time you successfully resolved differences between an employee and upper-level management.
- Talk about a hiring process from a previous company. What worked well? What didn’t work well? What would you change?
- What benefits would you suggest offering to help improve our employees’ work/life balance, but maintain each team’s productivity?
Other interview questions for Human Resources positions
- HR Assistant interview questions
- Recruiter interview questions
- Recruitment Manager interview questions
- HR Manager interview questions
- HR Specialist interview questions
Interview questions for Marketing
Promoting your brand and engaging customers is essential to the overall success of a business. Marketing requires a mix of critical thinking, problem-solving skills, creativity, and communication.
Strong marketing candidates will be independent thinkers who have a genuine interest in your product and intended audience, along with an ability to think outside of the box.
Top 3 Marketing interview questions
Here are the most common interview questions for marketing positions:
- Who do you think is our biggest competitor? What differentiates our companies?
- What strategies would you suggest to increase our market share?
- Describe a time when you worked with a team to create a campaign on a tight budget. What did you have to prioritize?
Other interview questions for Marketing positions
- Marketing Manager interview questions
- Marketing Specialist interview questions
- Social Media Manager interview questions
- Digital Marketing Manager interview questions
- Product Marketing Manager interview questions
Interview questions for Sales
Sales professionals represent your business to the public, so it’s important to hire candidates who are interested in learning about your customers and products, enjoy working on teams, and are motivated to set and meet individual goals and sales quotas.
When interviewing applicants for sales positions, seek out candidates who take initiative, seem results-driven, and communicate clearly and with confidence.
Top 3 Sales interview questions
Here are the most common interview questions for sales positions. Check our dedicated sales interview questions article to see more.
- What’s your biggest professional success so far? What do you want to achieve next?
- Imagine I’m a prospective client. Sell me this object or close a deal with me in 3 minutes.
- Tell me about the most difficult sale you’ve ever had to make.
Other interview questions for Sales positions
- Business Development Representative interview questions
- Business Development Manager interview questions
- Sales Executive interview questions
- Sales Assistant interview questions
- Key Account Manager interview questions
Interview Questions you should not ask
There are certain interview questions that should be avoided, either because they’ve outlived their usefulness or because they’re illegal under U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) guidelines.
Cliche interview questions are unlikely to add any real value or insight—candidates expect these questions and have prepared for them in a way that makes answers inauthentic, or the questions lead to answers that simply lack substance.
Illegal questions should be avoided for obvious reasons, however, it may be easier to accidentally stray into EEO violation territory than you realize.
Cliche interview questions
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 you’re 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.
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
Brain teaser 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.
Illegal interview questions
This goes without saying. Using one of these illegal interview questions to ask the interviewee can damage your employer brand at best and, at worst, you might actually run afoul of the law or even get sued.
The problem with illegal questions is that they often crop up in an interview without the interviewer (or even the candidate) being aware that they’re illegal. But, often, these questions are also personal and not job-related, so it’s easy to learn to steer clear of them.
Here are some examples of illegal questions:
- How old are you?
- Are you a native English speaker?
- Do you plan to have children?
- Are you married or plan to get married soon?
- Have you ever been arrested?
- Have you ever used any drugs?
- When did you graduate?
These interview questions have the potential of illegally disadvantaging a protected group. For example, in the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) warns against making decisions based on arrest records because this may cause you to unwittingly discriminate against protected groups.
Similarly, in the UK, age is one of the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010. This means that a direct question about age, or even an indirect one (such as “When did you finish school?”) might get you in trouble.
As a general rule of thumb, don’t ask anything about a candidate’s past that’s not job-related and don’t ask for details about a candidate’s personal life. If you want to make sure a candidate doesn’t use illegal drugs, for instance, inform them you’re going to conduct a legal background check.
But, if a candidate is a recovering addict or is taking necessary prescription drugs because of an illness, they may be legally protected from adverse employment decisions. Make sure you learn about the applicable laws beforehand.
Tips for better interview questions
Interviewing is a skill that can (and should) be refined through planning and practice. Identifying which questions to ask requires not only an in-depth understanding of the role you’re hiring for, but also of the nuances of communication and human nature. It’s possible to ask the “right” question the wrong way; make sure your questions are open-ended enough to give candidates the opportunity to elaborate.
It’s also important to conduct the interview in a way that puts candidates at ease for a more accurate insight into their personality.
Prepare your interview questions
We can’t talk about how to conduct an interview or interview questions if we don’t know the specific skills we want to assess.
Interview questions will determine whether you’ll get enough useful insight to judge candidates’ suitability for the job. This means that your questions must be directly related to the job requirements. Otherwise, it will be challenging to compare one candidate to another on the criteria that really matter.
To do this, first determine what qualities you want to see in your new hire. Start with the job description (by the way, if you don’t know where to start writing your job ads, we have a vast library of job description templates to help you). Ask yourself:
- Which requirements do I want to assess during the interview? Make a comprehensive list and select those qualities you can assess through interview questions. Some of your requirements can be evaluated more effectively at previous stages (such as the testing phase or initial screening call).
- What requirements carry the most weight? For example, you definitely want your salespeople to have great communication skills, but they might not need to have extroverted personalities. So, your interview questions should focus on communication skills, instead of extroversion.
Example: Content Writer position
Let’s look at the complete list of requirements for the role of Content Writer.
These exclude experience and education, which can vary considerably depending on the role and are elements you can evaluate directly from the job application phase.
Some companies may have other or additional requirements, but this list covers the most important qualities.
- Writing skills
- Editing skills
- Researching skills
- Communication skills (including clarity of expression and vocabulary)
- Learning skills / Openness to feedback
- Problem-solving skills
- Culture fit
The first three skills can be classified as hard, tangible skills and they’re the absolute minimum candidates should possess to be considered qualified for the job. That’s why you can evaluate them via an assessment or a work sample (in fact, the work sample is one of the most effective methods of predicting job performance.)
You can ask content writing candidates to submit their answers to an editing exercise. For other roles, it might be a simulation or a presentation (for instance, you can ask a salesperson to prepare a short presentation for a fictional product).
Assessments will give you a strong measuring stick to evaluate candidates: you can shorten your candidate pool to ensure that only the best candidates make it to the interview phase.
There, you can start evaluating the soft skills, along with culture fit, attitude, and other intangibles that aren’t as easily measured. Some skills (such as communication skills) can also be evaluated during initial screening calls.
It’s important to consider nice-to-have skills. These skills are additional qualities that would help each candidate do the job at the highest level. They aren’t strictly necessary, but they can be effective tie-breakers when you have to choose between equally qualified candidates. For example, here are some nice-to-have skills for the role of Content Writer:
- Knowledge of SEO and keyword research
- Experience with WordPress
- Familiarity with the Chicago Manual of Style
When evaluating candidates, look for those nice-to-have skills, but make sure you don’t use them to decide on a candidate at the initial stages. If you find yourself with two awesome candidates at the offer stage, then you can use nice-to-have skills to choose ‘the one’.
Now that we have determined the desirable skills and requirements, we can dive into interview questions.
Structure your interviews
Structured interviews are effective methods of predicting job performance. Their three main characteristics are:
- You ask all candidates the same questions.
- You ask questions in the same order.
- You evaluate answers based on standardized rating scales.
The first two characteristics are easy, yet critical for success. If you ask different questions of each candidate, it’s impossible to objectively compare their answers. This will result in you trying to make a hiring decision on your gut feeling which potentially leads to harmful biases and discrimination.
So, when you decide which interview questions to ask, spend some time putting them in order. To do this, use the format of an interview scorecard; your applicant tracking system may have a function to help you build scorecards and share them with your team.
Rating scales mitigate bias
The third characteristic of a structured interview – the rating scales – is immensely helpful in ensuring you’ll hire objectively. You create a scale and then you evaluate candidates’ answers with that scale. To do this right, define what exactly each item on the scale means.
For example, you might choose 1 to 5 scale for organizational skills and say “1” is “poor organizational skills”, while “5” is “excellent organizational skills”. Make sure though that your hiring team is aligned for what “excellent” or “poor” or anything in-between means. One way to do that is to describe behaviors that a person with “excellent organizational skills” would show, such as “they’ll be able to know at any given time what tasks they have and when they should finish them.” If you want to give these scales a shot, download our complete structured interview guide.
Alternatively, you can use a simpler scale, such as “Yes,” “No” and “Definitely” (which is the system that the Workable platform uses in the built-in scorecards.)
Make natural transitions between questions
Having a list of interview questions to ask is good practice, but it has an inherent difficulty: it might make the interview seem more robotic and inflexible.
For example, imagine you’re listening to a candidate’s answer. When they finish talking, you may suddenly feel awkward, so you nod and say something akin to “OK, interesting” and then you move on to the next question. This isn’t how a natural conversation would flow, and it might make the experience less pleasant for the candidate (and yourself).
There are some things you can do to make the transition easier:
1. Group the questions according to topic
For example, if you want to ask about writing skills, list all these questions together. Then, if a candidate answering one question touches on another question in your list, you can easily say; “Actually, I was planning to ask you about that. Tell me more about…”. This applies to similar skills as well – for example, list organizational interview questions and leadership interview questions one after the other.
2. Ask prompting questions
Candidates will use their experiences, knowledge and thoughts to back up their answers. Most of the time, you’ll have something to ask about those that’s relevant to the role. For instance, you can say something like; “You mentioned that you did this project with a team of designers. We actually have a great team here that you’ll be working closely with should you be hired. How would you feel about this?”
3. React like you would in a social situation
If somebody told you at a party that they’re currently working on a cutting-edge face recognition program, how would you react? You might say something like “That sounds fascinating. Tell me more!” or “What’s the program like?” It’s OK to respond this way during an interview, as long as you make sure the conversation doesn’t stray from the job you’re hiring for.
For all these to work though, you need to be a good interviewer with two skills of your own: 1) active listening and 2) good preparation.
Read and learn your questions before the interview, and think about what answers you’d like to hear. Then, give the candidate your undivided attention during the interview.
How to evaluate candidates’ answers
Asking great questions is just the beginning; now you’ll have to tell whether the candidate’s answer was good or not (and how good compared to other candidates’). Before you dive into the answers, make sure you:
Remember what the candidate said
To do this, take a few notes, either during the interview or right after. This will help you recall the answer and analyze it. Inform the candidate beforehand that you’ll be doing this. Avoid writing down generic judgments, but write down something that will help you recall the candidate’s answer or behavior. For example:
- Don’t write: He’s not a good communicator (too general and abstract)
- Do write: He strayed off topic several times (very specific)
Get all the information you need with the STAR framework
For example, imagine you asked a candidate a behavioral question. Well-prepared candidates may (wittingly or unwittingly) compose their answers around the STAR framework (Situation – Task – Action – Result).
You can use this, too, to make sure you get complete information since a good answer should touch on each of the four STAR elements. Here’s an example:
- Question: “Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult colleague.”
- Answer: “When my team took up the launch of a marketing campaign for a new product, we had to work with a senior designer to prepare some graphics.”
This designer, because he was very talented and experienced, disagreed with a lot of our requirements and refused to make the changes we asked for. My boss said I had to find a way to work with him.
So, I arranged a 1:1 meeting with him to find out how he envisioned the graphics, why he objected to our requirements and what he would like to do instead. I also explained the reasoning behind what my team wanted, too.”
- Question: “And what happened in the end?”
- Answer: “The designer appreciated my effort and we managed to find common ground. The end result was really high quality and received the praise of our CEO.”
You can see that this candidate initially touched on situation, task, and action, but didn’t mention the end result. Knowing the STAR framework would give you a cue to ask for the missing information.
7 factors to evaluate candidates interview answers
Now, consider these factors to help you evaluate candidates:
1. Concreteness and simplicity
We all know people who can ramble on and on about something. If the candidate does this without answering your questions, that’s a potential interview red flag. This also applies if they include a lot of irrelevant information in their answer.
2. Staying on topic
It’s one thing to go off in tangents on a topic, and another thing to deliberately avoid answering a question. This might happen inadvertently, so try to bring the conversation back on topic or ask a more specific question. If the candidate still seems unwilling or unable to answer, it’s a red flag.
Yes, the tone of each answer matters. If someone is condescending or arrogant when answering, consider whether they’re a good fit – even if the content of their answer is appropriate.
Answers to some questions might be similar among candidates. Look for those who stand out and have unique and honest answers.
Candidates who listen give the most relevant answers. If a candidate constantly interrupts you or misunderstands the meaning of your questions, that can indicate they aren’t very good listeners.
6. Using examples
Pay attention to the quality and details of examples that candidates give. The outright lack of real examples is a red flag, while vague examples might be embellished or even made up. Ask follow-up questions to get clarification.
If a candidate says they have excellent communication skills and yet they struggle to complete their sentences, that’s a red flag, too.
Be prepared to answers candidates’ questions
Now that you have a complete overview of the best interview questions to ask, there’s one last thing to do: be prepared to answer common questions from candidates.
They’re interviewing you too, after all. That way, candidates can also get useful insight on whether your company is a good fit for their skill set and motivations – and hopefully, you’ll get to convince the best among them to join your team. Happy interviewing!
Frequently asked questions
What are three good interview questions?
Here are three great interview questions to ask candidates during an interview. How did you hear about this position? Why do you want to work here? What do you know about this company/organization?
How do employers give good interviews?
There are several key points to remember when conducting an interview, like putting the applicant at ease, making eye contact, and establishing rapport by finding a shared topic to talk about before you get down to the hard questions. This will help you learn more about the candidate throughout the interview process.
What are the most common interview mistakes?
Pay attention to the top mistakes candidates make during an interview, like arriving late or too early and not doing company research. These points will let you know if the candidate has good time management skills and is interested in the position.