How to Tell if Your Job Interview Questions Suck (And What to do About it)

Written by
Euan Cameron
Last updated:
Created on:
July 21, 2021

Somewhere along the way, HR thought leaders started to believe that more complex and esoteric questions equated to more telling answers, so recruiters ended up asking questions like “How would you curate the Louvre museum for Autumn this year?” On the flip side, we have the open-ended nightmare: “Tell me about yourself.” Neither style tells you much about the candidate’s qualifications for a job, but the middle-ground isn’t much better. 

There is a better way to ask job interview questions. In this blog post, I’m covering how to tell if your interview questions suck - and what to do about it.

The three traps of sucky interview questions

The point of an interview is to assess a candidate’s qualifications for the job, both technical and behavioural. So questions that “suck” are questions that don’t help you reach that goal. And usually, these questions fall into one of three traps.

1. The too-complex trap

As much of the Western working world evolved from manufacturing to brain work (even in manual labour jobs), recruiters needed a new set of job interviews. Unfortunately, pseudo-psychology thought leaders ruled the day, which led to incredibly complex questions, each supposed to reveal something deeper about a candidate. A process that was meant to bring a candidate’s creative mind out turned into functionally useless and overly complicated questions like: “If you were the President, what would you do on your first day?”

2. The too-open trap

Recruiters are smart people and soon realized that highly complex questions confuse people more than they open people up. Unfortunately, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, and HR thought leaders recommended open-ended questions that were a bit too open. Originally intended to give people a chance to respond in a way that felt authentic to them, too-open questions prompted a sense that each question was a game and that there was a “right” answer the candidate needed to say. By the way, tell me about yourself?  

3. The generic Google trap

Worried about being either too open-ended or too complex, recruiters looked to blogs and other thought leadership posts in an attempt to find a middle ground, but the result was a list of generic questions (about one billion of them from a standard Google search). 

Questions like: 

  • Why do you want this job?
  • Why should I hire you?
  • What is your greatest strength? 
  • Tell me about a time you were a leader?

Not bad, but not necessarily the best either. You might get a good story or you might get nothing, and there’s almost no way to control for quality.

Finding better questions

At Willo we wanted to see if these were really the most commonly asked questions, and also find out what the best questions to ask in an asynchronous job interview are. After all, the best answers are prompted by the best questions. 

So we came with a question: What really are the most commonly asked - and most impactful - questions in a job interview? 

We looked at over 15,000 recent interviews created in Willo to identify what employers are actually asking.

Here are some of the most popular questions:

  • Why are you open to a new position?
  • Why do you feel this role is a good next step in your career?
  • What sets you apart from other candidates in your field?
  • In your current or most recent position, walk me through your day-to-day duties. What does a typical day look like?
  • Tell us about a time that you faced a challenge on a particular project you were working on, and how did you overcome that challenge?
  • Tell us a little bit about yourself. How would you best summarize your background and experience?

These questions are impactful because they have a specific direction, but an open end. They inform the candidate what kind of information you’re looking for (which eliminates the “game” mentality), but it also leaves the end open enough that a candidate can tell a story or share a fun anecdote (meaning you get humanity and authenticity).

Tips for writing great interview questions

After assessing 15,000 interviews, we took the most commonly asked 50 questions and spoke with our employer partners. We wanted to see if commonly asked questions, like the ones above, resulted in deep candidate insight. They all said better questions led to better interview answers, and provided these tips for writing great interview questions:

  • Be generous with time: Give the candidate enough time to answer the question - this reduces stress and avoids candidates being cut off.
  • Focused, but open-ended: Ask open-ended questions but at the same time not as vague as ‘tell us about yourself’ which seemed to result in a wild mix of responses that are hard to compare.
  • Offer context: Provide context at the start of the interview. For example, do you want to learn more about their personality or is this more of an opportunity to understand their technical abilities? Why are you asking the question is also useful context.
  • Don’t duplicate: Avoid asking things you already know - if a candidate has already provided a CV or completed an application form, do not ask the same questions such as location, experience etc., as this frustrated candidates and resulted in poor responses.
  • Know the law: Keep things legal - be careful about asking certain questions which could be considered bias or in some cases illegal. Questions to avoid include asking a person's age, sexual orientation, number of children, or marriage status.

“I love these hints and tips!  It’s so important to remember an interview is a two-way process and, especially right now, in demand candidates are interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them.  So, asking great, engaging questions is crucial to building rapport.  Don’t presume you hold all the cards!  
I also like having follow up questions ready, in case the candidate doesn’t give you everything you’re looking for in their answer and I want to probe a bit further (without interrogating them…)  One that’s great to use is, “Is there anything you’d have done differently?”.  It tests for self-awareness and growth mind-set”. Susan McRoberts - The Curated Consultancy

Try these tips out for your next interview and build your best team!

Euan Cameron
LinkedIn profile

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