I started this article wanting to give any interviewer a few great questions I use pretty much every time I interview for staff.   (Hat tip here to Rob Lambert at Cultivated Management, who taught me so much about hosting a great interview…and gave me SO much opportunity to learn and practice. One year, for one role-type alone I spoke to more than 500 candidates.I think we hired a handful, but I quickly got much more effective at interviewing for technical staff!)

I realised whilst writing that it might not be obvious why THESE questions are so important.  Perhaps, I thought, people might NOT be starting from the same point as me in their perception of the purpose of an interview.  I wrote recently about the changes to the way we have to approach recruitment going forward (and keeping staff too).  So, I stepped back in the process a bit, and included some “what problem are you trying to solve” type thoughts in here too. From the top then:

What is the purpose of an interview, really? Are you clear? 

If you think it’s primarily to test a prospective employee to see if they are good enough to work for you, I’d respectfully suggest you’re a bit off the mark. Getting a clear understanding of successful interview dynamics will increase your chances of a great hire. This will enable you to hire better people, and more likely to keep those people too. It will also help you become a more desirable employer in the future too, making recruitment a tiny bit easier than it has been.  This has the bonus of incrementally improving your hiring options over time.

Start with the Interview as You Mean to Go On

It is much easier to hire well at the outset, than to get rid of an underperforming employee further down the line. (Note: If your management practices aren’t quite up to scratch, and you don’t manage your staff effectively once you hire them either, a poor hire will hurt for a long time). 

Hiring incorrectly is very expensive.  Reasons include: lost capabilities, friction in staff relationships, and extra management time to address the misalignments (if you’re doing things right).   You also have the cost of another round of advertising, interviewing and decision making when the candidate leaves because they weren’t happy either.

I keep coming across people who are responsible for hiring (particularly tech staff) who don’t understand the purpose of an interview.  These people are then frequently disappointed with the staff they go on to hire . It’s as if it was nothing to do with them at all!   I am no longer surprised, instead I try and explain a better paradigm.  I have had mixed results so far, but my hit-rate is getting better all the time – I assume that means I am getting better at explaining why its a problem! 

What problem is an interview trying to solve?

When you interview someone, you are BOTH gauging alignment.  Alignment of the mechanics: of pay, of tasks to be undertaken, hours to be worked, location(s) the work can or could be carried out from.  Also alignment of  things like the values of all parties, the culture of the company etc.

It’s a conversation whereby everyone involved gets to see if there is a ‘fit’. I can not stress here enough: this is not just for YOU to see if the candidate fits the company.  The candidate needs to see if they can give up a third of their waking life, 5 days a week in the environment your are presenting. (Yes, I know: other working patterns are available).

What you want

Finding the right person is your ultimate aim. Someone who’s going to great at the role you are hiring for, but who you’ll want to keep and promote for many years to come (if you’re lucky) .  Assessing a candidate’s suitability for your company needs to focus less on the past than often thought.  It is more important to assess what they might be capable of learning.  What can they bring to your company in the coming months and years in terms of POTENTIALITY.  What could they become? 

Look for indicators that a candidate will be able to grow with the role as the company grows. Hiring someone perfect for right now, but who is not able to learn and develop quickly will limit that very ability of the company to grow.  (The degree depends somewhat on the role). The more people you have in place who aren’t able to learn and grow with their roles, the more so this will limit the company’s growth.

What they want

What about their side of things? I said it earlier: they are also assessing you and your company.  They are looking to see if they will ‘fit’ with your organisation too. Will they enjoy the work? The environment? The people? They’re also likely assessing whether they will learn valuable new skills for the future with this role.  After all, they have careers, so want skills that will either get them a better job in another company later on, or get them promoted in this one.

All this is going on in there heads as they are trying to impress you, the interviewer with how well THEY fit your role.

You can probably sense the weight of responsibility here: that your company is being assessed based on how well you present it. Are you doing it justice?

Casting the best light.

You need to be honest, obviously (I assume it IS obvious…?). If you present an untrue view of your company, any new hire is likely to be unhappy with the reality once they have joined.

Your candidate has probably dressed thoughtfully for the interview.  They will try to present themselves in a favourable light and you should be doing the same for your company too.

If you haven’t considered this before, a great starting place is to ask yourself:

  • Why do YOU currently work at your company
  • Why do you think the candidate chose to attended the interview with you? What attracted them to your company do you think?

If you think it’s because they want a job to pay the bills, it’s not the only one reason.  Whilst that may well be part of it – we all want to get paid for the work we do after all,  there is something that makes your company initially appealing.  Work out what it is.

What can you do to get the best result from this interview?


Help the candidate relax.

A tense candidate can’t show you who they really are on a daily basis. If you can’t see the real ‘them’ how can you be sure they will be a great hire? Or worse, that you aren’t letting a great hire slip through your fingers? Let’s be honest, interviews are stressful situations! 

Be prepared.

Have a set of questions ready.   (I have included some of my favourites below.  You also want to have an idea of why you want to ask that question & what sort of answers you would like.  Just a general idea about what insights you hope to gain.

Know that you need to sell the role. 

Understand what YOU like about working at your company for a start.  Try to present your company environment to the candidate in an attractive way.   

Do you have flexible working – great, mention that. 

Is there a great social scene – mention the next event, or reference the last one.

Is the company supportive of learning? Has a library of business books for staff to borrow? Is there a lunch-and-learn event that happens? Make a plan to tell the candidate as part of the interview.

Questions I Love to Ask Candidates at Interview

Before I give you the list I want to mention 2 things: 

Biases – we all have them, try and be aware of ways in which yours may sneak into an interview. Here is a talk by John Clapham where he explains how biases come about, and how creep in to our practices.

Behaviours – A candidates behaviours is what you should be interviewing for, rather than their skills set. I alluded to it earlier. As a general rule, try and have the candidate tell you of a time when they did something, rather than ask if they can do it.

  1. What was the last thing you learned (big or small, work or outside work)?
  2. Tell me about a time when you tried something new (and how did that go)?  This is especially insightful if they feel safe enough to share how they
  3. Can you tell me about a book or an article you read that made a big impression on you?
  4. How do you measure that you (personally) are doing a good job?
  5. Can you tell me about a time when you had to have difficult conversations with someone?

Notice here it doesn’t actually matter what the answers are, what matters is the way they answer.  Are they demonstrating behaviours you would like to have in your company?

Allow candidates the space to think and order their thoughts – don’t rush them. Dig in with follow up questions – this should be relatively easy if they are authentic with their answers.  Ask them why they chose that book/ audio book / ted talk / you tube video etc. to talk about.  What appealed to them about that (Did it raise a question in their mind? Did they recognise the topic from their own experiences?)

Tying Up Loose Ends

After the interview, take time to gather information from everyone  who was part of the interview process.  You want to be able to give the candidate meaningful and actionable feedback.  If they didn’t get the role, that’s fine, but be honest about why. Was it a lack of experience (really rubbish reason by the way – you should be sure they have the experience before you interview them – its on their cv after all, and if it isn’t, why are you interviewing them!).

Were they not able to demonstrate their adaptability sufficiently? Perhaps it was that they weren’t a great fit for the team they were going into, who need pragmatism and flexibility, rather than strict rules.

My point here is that they may be a great fit for your company in another role on another day.  You don’t want to lose the good will of a great candidate because they weren’t right this time.  Let them know why, and encourage them to come back another time. 

Good luck with your interviewing, and I hope you hire really great people who love working at your company for many years.

Related anecdote:

I once worked with someone who, despite loving where they worked and with no intention of leaving, went for an interview with other companies every month. This was specifically to keep their exposure to stressful interview environment up. This was specifically so that they could better handle it when it mattered and they really wanted to move roles. That person became a CTO in their 30s so it may well have been a good strategy for them! For me as their manager, discovering this was occurring was a light-bulb moment. I could not rely on ‘having’ a great member of staff, I needed to focus on KEEPING a great member of staff – and that’s whole other article!