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Best interview questions to ask candidates (and how to evaluate answers)

The best interview questions to ask candidates

Whether you’re an experienced job interviewer or just starting out, you’re likely looking for the best interview questions to ask candidates. Determining the best interview questions involves comprehensive research, deliberation, and – occasionally – trial and error. But when you get them right, you’ll gain better insights into candidates and make smarter hiring decisions.

To help you find those effective and good interview questions to ask, we created this comprehensive guide.

When you’ve read this, you’ll know:

  • How to ask job-related interview questions and what the best interview questions to ask employees are
  • Which interview questions you should avoid
  • How to structure your interviews and make them flow naturally

Jump to section:

  1. Know what you’re looking for
  2. Types of interview questions
  3. Examples of interview questions grouped by skill
  4. Bad questions to ask
  5. Structure your interviews
  6. Make the conversation flow
  7. Ways to evaluate answers

1) First, know what you’re looking for

We can’t start talking 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.

For example, 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.

a) Must-have skills

Hard skills

    • Writing skills
    • Editing skills
    • Researching skills

Soft skills

    • Communication skills (including clarity of expression and vocabulary)
    • Teamwork
    • Learning skills / Openness to feedback
    • Creativity
    • Problem-solving skills
    • Culture fit

Some companies may have other or additional requirements, but this list covers the most important qualities.

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.)

For example, you could 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 by; 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.

b) Nice-to-have skills

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.

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2) The best interview questions to ask a potential employee: 5 types

You know what you’re looking for, so you know what interview questions to ask, or rather, what those questions should assess. Let’s take a look at the main types of interview questions to determine what kind of interview you’ll conduct:

a) General questions

These are questions that can take any form. They might be generic or clarifying questions to behavioral and situational questions, they could be role-specific or questions to determine culture fit. They could also be icebreaker questions or closing questions. You could also 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

  • What attracts you to this role?
  • 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. Could 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 can be adapted to any role or candidate. These questions are great as first-round interview questions to ask. Also, you could use some of them as phone interview questions to ask candidates before you bring them in for a technical interview.

b) Technical interview questions to ask candidates

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.

To find the best technical interview questions to ask potential employees, search for the role you’re hiring for in our vast library of 350+ interview question samples. Here are examples of jobs companies are often looking to fill:

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.

c) Behavioral 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.

d) Situational 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.

e) Interview questions for managers

If you’re hiring team leaders, you want to make sure they can answer well to the above types of interview questions. 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:

  • 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?

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3) Examples of good questions to ask on an interview by skill

By using the types of interview questions we presented below, you can craft questions for each specific skill you’re looking for. Let’s go back to our content writer example. We need to evaluate six soft skills in total during the interview:

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Openness to feedback
  • Creativity
  • Problem solving skills
  • Culture fit

These are very common qualities to look for in candidates, so we can use sample questions from our interview question library and mix technical, behavioral and situational questions. Examples for each skill include:

a) Communication skills interview questions

  • 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.

b) Teamwork interview questions

  • 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.

c) Learning and adaptability questions

  • 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?
  • Your manager hates your latest work. What do you do?
  • Describe a time you were assigned new tasks (e.g. due to job enrichment or promotion.) How did you adapt?

d) Creativity

  • Tell me about a time you gave a creative solution to a problem.
  • How do you find inspiration to produce a piece of work? (a question that fits creative roles, like writing or designing)
  • If I asked you to tell me one new idea we can implement into our product/website/services, what would you tell me?

e) Problem-solving skills

  • 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?

f) Culture-fit interview questions

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.

Here are some sample culture-fit interview questions to ask candidates. (Note that these questions can also help you identify common dealbreakers, such as arrogance or unhealthily competitive behavior):

  • 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?

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4) Interview questions you should not ask

a) Cliche interview questions

You might have noticed that many of the common questions to ask in an interview are missing. These are questions we’re all familiar with such as “What’s your greatest weakness?” or “Why should we hire you?” The biggest problem with these questions is that they’re some of the most– asked interview questions and candidates likely have prepared their answers ahead of time. There is plenty of content online for candidates instructing them how to answer these questions, meaning you may not get a truthful answer at all.

Plus, you can’t be sure what exactly the answers to these questions indicate. Granted, if someone says “I don’t have any weaknesses” or offers the covert brag of “I’m too hard-working”, you’ll know they may not have the attitude you’re looking for. But, most candidates will likely take the middle road naming a weakness that’s small and unimportant. So, how do you compare answers of different candidates? You probably can’t – at least not confidently.

So, every time you’re thinking of asking a well-worn, cliched question, consider a refreshing alternative – not to catch the candidate off-guard, but to get a more genuine answer from them. Here are some examples:

Old question: Why should we hire you?

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

Old question: What is your greatest weakness?

Better alternative: Describe a time when you failed in your previous job.

Old question: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Better alternative: What would be your priorities for the first 90 days if you were hired by us?

Old question: How many golf balls can you fit in a school bus?

Better alternative: [Here’s a problem]. What would be a potential solution you’d give?

b) 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.

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5) How to 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; it’s possible your applicant tracking system has a function to help you build scorecards and share them with your team.

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 could use a simpler scale, such as “Yes,” “No” and “Definitely” (which is the system that the Workable platform uses in the built-in scorecards.)

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6) 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:

  • 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.
  • 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?”
  • 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.

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7) 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)

Do write: He strayed off topic several times (very specific)

  • Get all the information you need. 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.

Now, consider these factors to help you evaluate candidates:

  • 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.
  • Dodging questions. 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.
  • Attitude. 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.
  • Authenticity. Answers to some questions might be similar among candidates. Look for those who stand out and have unique and honest answers.
  • Listening. 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.
  • 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.
  • Inconsistency. If a candidate says they have excellent communication skills and yet they struggle to complete their sentences, that’s a red flag, too.

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 skillset and motivations – and hopefully, you’ll get to convince the best among them to join your team. Happy interviewing!

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