The candidate interview is a vital component of the hiring process. To hire the most qualified candidates, human resource professionals and hiring managers must be well informed on how to conduct interviews effectively. This article provides an overview of various interviewing methods, both structured and unstructured. It discusses the most widely used types of interviewing—telephone prescreen, direct one-on-one and panel interviews—and explains the objectives and techniques of behavioral, competency-based and situational approaches to interviewing.
Employers must be aware of federal and state prohibitions on asking certain types of questions during employment interviews. This article presents some basic guidelines for interviewers to follow to avoid claims of discrimination or bias in hiring, and it lists examples of questions not to ask job applicants.
With careful preparation, HR professionals and hiring managers can make the most of employment interviews and obtain the information they need. Preparatory steps include selecting a method of interviewing, drafting useful questions, phrasing questions properly and sharpening one’s listening skills.
Interviewing is an important step in the employee selection process. If done effectively, the interview enables the employer to determine if an applicant’s skills, experience and personality meet the job’s requirements. It also helps the employer assess whether an applicant would likely fit in with the corporate culture. In addition, preparing for an interview can help clarify a position’s responsibilities.
Moreover, to the extent that the interview process leads to the hiring of the most suitable candidate, it can help contain the organization’s long-term turnover costs. Applicants also benefit from an effective interview, as it enables them to determine if their employment needs and interests would likely be met. See Stop Lying to Job Candidates About the Role.
Types of Interviewing
In implementing an accurate and fair selection method, the employer can select from a variety of interviewing techniques. The choice depends on considerations such as the nature of the position being filled, the industry, the corporate culture and the type of information the employer seeks to gain from the applicant.
Interviewing techniques can be either structured or unstructured. The main purpose of structured interviewing is to pinpoint job skills that are essential to the position. The interviewer asks a specific set of questions of all applicants for the particular position. This straightforward approach makes it easier for the interviewer to evaluate and compare applicants fairly. Some interviewers ask the questions in a predetermined order, while others may not adhere to a strict order but still make certain they address all the planned questions.
Structured interviewing generally provides the interviewer with the information needed to make the hiring decision. It also can be crucial in defending against allegations of discrimination in hiring and selection, because all applicants are asked the same questions.
In an unstructured interview, the interviewer does not have a strict agenda but rather allows the applicant to set the pace of the interview. Questions tend to be open-ended, which can enable the candidate to disclose more than he or she might if asked closed-ended questions requiring only a brief answer. In addition, questions in an unstructured interview can be tailored according to an applicant’s skills and experience levels. However, the absence of structure may make it difficult to compare and rank applicants because they are not asked the same set of questions.
The most widely used types of interviewing are:
- The telephone prescreen interview.
- The direct one-on-one interview, which can take a behavioral, competency-based or situational approach.
- The panel interview.
Telephone prescreen interview
A telephone prescreen interview can be useful for assessing whether an applicant’s qualifications, experience, skills and salary needs are compatible with the position and the organization. Telephone interviews are often used to narrow the field of applicants who will be invited for in-person interviews. During the prescreen stage, the interviewer should ask the applicant enough carefully prepared questions to determine whether he or she is, in fact, a viable candidate for the position.
Telephone prescreen interviews can help the employer:
- Assess the applicant’s general communication skills.
- Clarify unclear items on the applicant’s resume.
- Ask about frequent job changes or gaps in employment.
- Have a candid conversation with the applicant about salary requirements.
Direct one-on-one interview
The traditional face-to-face interview with the candidate can be structured or unstructured, and it can be approached in one of several ways, depending on the types of information the interviewer seeks. The three most common approaches to one-on-one employment interviews are behavioral, competency-based and situational.
Behavioral and competency-based approaches. Behavioral and competency-based interviewing both aim to discover how the interviewee performed in specific situations. The logic is based on the principle that past performance predicts future behavior; how the applicant behaved in the past indicates how he or she will behave in the future.
In the behavioral approach—a traditional technique for assessing a candidate’s suitability for a position—the purpose is to review the candidate’s experience, personal attributes and job-related skills. The competency-based approach focuses specifically on skills needed for the position; job-related skills constitute the criteria against which applicants are measured.
In a behavioral or a competency-based interview, the interviewer’s questions are designed to determine if the applicant possesses certain attributes or skills. Instead of asking how the applicant would handle a hypothetical situation, the interviewer asks the applicant how he or she did, in fact, handle a particular situation in the past. Behavioral and competency-based interview questions tend to be pointed, probing and specific.
Following are some examples of behavioral questions:
- Describe a situation in which you were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone to see things your way.
- Describe a time when you were faced with a stressful situation that demonstrated your coping skills.
- Give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem.
- Give me an example of a time when you set a goal and were able to achieve it.
- Tell me about a time when you had to use your presentation skills to influence someone’s opinion.
- Give me a specific example of a time when you had to conform to a policy with which you did not agree.
If answers seem to be thin on detail, the interviewer can ask follow-up questions:
- What exactly did you do?
- What was your specific role in this?
- What challenges did you come across?
- Why precisely did you do that?
- Why exactly did you make that decision?
Competency-based interviewing can give the interviewer a sense of an applicant’s job performance and attitude toward work. Following are some examples of competency-based questions:
- Tell me about a time when you had to encourage others to contribute ideas or opinions. How did you get everyone to contribute? What was the end result?
- Tell me about a situation in which your spoken communication skills made a difference in the outcome. How did you feel? What did you learn?
- Tell me about a situation when you had to persuade others to accept your point of view when they thought you were wrong. How did you prepare? What was your approach? How did they react? What was the outcome?
Situational approach. The situational approach is an interview technique that gives the candidate a hypothetical scenario or event and focuses on his or her past experiences, behaviors, knowledge, skills and abilities by asking the candidate to provide specific examples of how the candidate would respond given the situation described. This type of interview reveals how an applicant thinks and how he or she would react in a particular situation. The following are examples of situational interview questions:
- You have been hired as the HR director in a 300-employee company and are struggling to perform the necessary HR administrative work by yourself. Your manager, the CFO, tells you that you need to be more strategic. How would you handle this situation?
- You learn that a former co-worker at your last company is applying for an accounting position with your company. You have heard that this person was terminated after admitting to embezzling funds from the company but that no criminal charge was made. You are not in HR. What, if anything, would you do?
- You are applying for a customer service position in a cable television company. If a technician visits a home to make a repair and afterward you receive a call from the customer telling you that the technician left muddy footprints on her new carpeting, how would you respond?
There are two types of group interviews—a candidate group and a panel group. In a candidate group interview, a candidate is in a room with other job applicants who may be applying for the same position. Each candidate listens to information about the company and the position and may be asked to answer questions or participate in group exercises. Candidate group interviews are less common than panel group interviews.
In a panel group interview a candidate is interviewed individually by a panel of two or more people. This type of group interview is usually a question-and-answer session, but a candidate may also be asked to participate in an exercise or test. Panel interviews can be either structured or unstructured. When organized properly, a panel interview can create a broader picture of the candidate than a one-on-one interview would produce. Even weaker interviewers can learn by observing. Panel interviews can also help less-experienced employees get involved in the hiring process.
The panel should include no more than four or five people; a larger panel could be intimidating and unwieldy. One interviewer should serve as the leader, and other participants should serve in support roles. While all the interviewers need to be involved throughout the interview, the difference in the two roles needs to be very clear. See The Ins and Outs of Team Interviewing and When would an employer use a group interview technique?
Preparing for the Interview
To help ensure the validity and effectiveness of employment interviews, the interviewer must prepare in advance. Before implementing the interview process for a given position, the HR professional who will be asking the questions should complete the following preparations:
- Determine the critical success factors of the job.
- Rank—according to the job specifications—the most important qualities, experiences, education and characteristics that a successful candidate would possess.
- Make a list of qualities, skills and types of experience to use to screen resumes and job interview candidates.
- Select specific questions to determine whether an applicant possesses the critical success factors.
- Decide the type of interview process that will be used.
- Review beforehand the job description and the resume of each candidate to be interviewed.
- Schedule a planning meeting with the appropriate attendees, such as co-workers, an indirect but interested manager or internal customers of the position.
- Determine who will interview the candidates.
- Plan the interview and the follow-up process.
- Decide on the applicant screening questions for the telephone screens.
- Identify the appropriate questions for the post-interview assessment of candidates by each interviewer.
Interviewers must know how to elicit desired information from job candidates. It doesn’t require a sophisticated technique, but it does require more than just asking candidates if they possess the required skills and attributes. The most recent thinking on how to conduct job interviews recommends that employers ask applicants about specific incidents in the workplace. Therefore, questions should be designed to show how the candidate has displayed the required skills in specific situations during his or her career. Responses to such questions can provide enhanced glimpses into applicants’ actual experiences.
Framing the Questions
For both the employer and the candidate to get the most out of an interview, it is essential to carefully consider the type of questions to ask. Despite the importance of preparing questions in advance, the employer should not go into an interview with a list of ideal answers in mind. It is unlikely that any applicant would come close to providing such answers. A better approach is to keep in mind ideal characteristics that a successful candidate would possess. See Sample Interview Questions.
Questioning should elicit information that will shed light on a candidate’s ability to perform the job effectively. Many experts say it is best to ask open-ended questions (“Tell me about your relationship with your previous manager; how could it have been improved?”) rather than closed-ended questions requiring only brief specific responses (“How many people reported to you?”). See Want to Really Get to Know Your Candidates? Interview for Emotional Intelligence.
Open-ended questions encourage candidates to provide longer answers and to expand on their knowledge, strengths and job experiences. For interviewers, such questions can provide greater insight into a candidate’s personality. They can also help employers gauge an applicant’s ability to articulate his or her work experience, level of motivation, communication skills, ability to solve problems and degree of interest in the job.
Open-ended questions can provide a sense of an applicant’s potential and whether the person would be a cultural fit. Following are some examples of open-ended questions:
- Tell me about your past work experience.
- What are you looking to gain from your next position?
- Why do you want to work for our company?
- Why did you leave your last job?
- Tell me about your relationship with your previous manager: How was it productive? How could it have been improved?
- Why was math your most difficult subject in school?
- Please describe your management style.
Closed-ended job interview questions can enable the employer to receive direct responses and specific information from the candidate, and they can help the interviewer control the direction of the interview. But such questions can have drawbacks:
- They do not encourage candidates to elaborate on their feelings or preferences toward particular topics.
- They limit candidates’ ability to discuss their competencies.
- They can leave situations unanswered or unclear.
- They can be frustrating for candidates who may want to explain or state relevant information.
Following are some examples of closed-ended questions:
- How many years of experience do you have as a team leader?
- Have you ever worked from home?
- When did you leave your last job?
- Did you have a productive relationship with your previous manager?
- What was your best subject in school?
- What was your most difficult subject?
- What was your GPA?
Along with choosing an interview approach and shaping the questions ahead of time, the interviewer should become familiar with the types of questions and statements that must be avoided in any interview. For example, interviewers should not make statements that could be construed as creating a contract of employment. When describing the job, it is best to avoid using terms such as “permanent,” “career job opportunity,” or “long term.” Interviewers should also avoid making excessive assurances about job security or statements suggesting that employment would last as long as the employee performed well in the position. In addition, to minimize the risk of discrimination lawsuits, interviewers must familiarize themselves with topics that are not permissible as interview questions. See These Interview Questions Could Get HR in Trouble.
Provisions of various federal laws affect the types of questions that organizations may ask an applicant during an employment interview. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin and religion. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits questions about a person’s age. The wide-ranging Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination in employment. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 prohibits employers from collecting and using genetic information. The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures of 1978, though not in and of themselves legislation or law, have been given deference by the courts in litigation concerning employment issues.
Questions relating either directly or indirectly to age, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, genetics or disabilities should be avoided entirely. If information needed about an applicant might fall into any of those categories, the interviewer should make sure that the question relates to a bona fide occupational qualification or is required by federal or state law to be asked. See Federal Discrimination Laws Training for Supervisors.
Employers should also be aware of some of the specific prohibitions contained in the ADA. Employers may never ask if an applicant has a disability. They may ask only if there is anything that precludes the applicant from performing—with or without a reasonable accommodation—the essential functions of the position for which he or she is applying.
State laws can be broader in scope than federal laws. For example, federal law does not cover sexual orientation, but many states do. In addition, all states have enacted at least one law pertaining to employment discrimination. Whether a particular state’s law would apply to a particular organization, however, could depend on the size of its workforce. In some states, employers with just one employee are subject to the state’s anti-discrimination laws. By comparison, only employers with 15 or more employees are subject to the most complex and comprehensive federal anti-discrimination laws. Thus, in some states an employer could be exempt from a federal law yet still be subject to a similar provision under state law.
It is important for interviewers to be familiar with the employment laws of the state in which they are operating and to be well versed in the federal and state legal provisions regulating the types of questions permissible in an employment interview.
Some questions that appear innocent on the surface may be considered discriminatory. The way they are phrased is key. Employers should determine in advance of the interview if the information sought by each question is really necessary for assessing an applicant’s competence or qualifications for the job.
Even if a particular question would not be barred under federal or state law, it should be omitted it if it is not essential. Asking irrelevant questions may offend an applicant or damage the organization’s reputation. Following are examples of questions not to ask during an employment interview:
- Are you a U.S. citizen?
- Were you born here?
- Where are you from?
- What is your ethnic heritage?
- What is that accent you have?
- How old are you?
- When were you born?
- Are you married?
- Do you have any children? What are your child care arrangements? (Questions about family status are not job-related and should not be asked.)
- When did you graduate from high school?
- What church do you go to?
- What clubs or organizations do you belong to?
- Have you ever filed a worker’s compensation claim? (You may not ask this question or any related question during the pre-offer stage.)
- What disabilities do you have?
- Do you have AIDS, or are you HIV-positive? (There is no acceptable way to inquire about this or any other medical condition.)
In addition, the interviewer should not ask questions about arrests that did not result in a conviction. Some states also prohibit employers from asking candidates about marijuana-related convictions that are two or more years old. And employers should never ask an applicant to submit a photograph—even if the request makes clear that providing a photo is optional, not mandatory.
Conducting the Interview
The manner in which human resource professionals and hiring managers interview applicants can be pivotal in identifying the top candidates for a job. A successful and effective interview is one in which both the interviewer and the interviewee receive accurate information and can make informed decisions about the applicant’s suitability for the job. See Basics for Effective Interviews training presentation.
The interview process can be stressful for both the interviewer and the interviewee. It is normal for an applicant to be nervous, so interviewers should try to put the person at ease from the moment he or she enters the room. By helping the interviewee feel relaxed and comfortable, the interviewer stands a better chance of obtaining a clear idea of the applicant’s abilities and personality.
Before commencing with prepared questions, the interviewer could ease tensions by encouraging the applicant to talk about a particular interest—perhaps something on the person’s resume. At this point the interviewer might also want to recap the position and what it entails. This can help the applicant answer questions more knowledgeably and consider again whether he or she is genuinely interested in the job.
Controlling the interview
For an interview to be as useful as possible in the employment-decision process, the interviewer must maintain complete control over the interview at all times. Establishing and maintaining control requires, in addition to good questioning techniques, effective listening skills.
Effective listening is challenging, partly because people are often more focused on what they’re saying than on what they’re hearing. The key for the interviewer is to speak as little as possible. One approach to effective listening is a paraphrase of the golden rule: Listen to others as you would have them listen to you. Here are some tips for listening effectively:
- Minimize internal and external distractions; focus only on what the applicant is saying.
- Listen to the full answer before asking the next question.
- Clarify the candidate’s answers if necessary and ask if more information is needed. Occasionally it may be useful for interviewers to restate an applicant’s reply in their own words.
- Watch the interviewee’s facial expressions and body language.
To gain as much information as possible from an applicant, the interviewer should create an atmosphere that promotes communication. Following are suggestions for building rapport and fostering discussion:
- Set aside a quiet place for the interview.
- Schedule enough time so that the interview will not be rushed.
- Inform the candidate well in advance about the location and time of the interview.
- Greet the candidate with a pleasant smile and a firm handshake. Introduce yourself and anyone else who will be involved in the interview.
- Ask for permission to record the interview or take notes.
- Begin in a manner that provides a comfortable atmosphere for the candidate.
- Outline the interview objectives and structure.
- Try to ask questions that will facilitate discussion. Avoid questions requiring only a yes or no answer. Keep the questions open-ended so that the applicant has the opportunity to speak freely.
- Ask only job-related questions. Steer clear of personal, private and discriminatory questions.
- Start with easier questions and gradually build to more difficult or searching questions.
- Ask only one question at a time.
- If necessary, repeat the question, but try not to rephrase it.
- Do not lead, prompt, interrupt or help the candidate find an answer.
- Avoid facial expressions that could lead to an answer.
- Listen carefully to the candidate’s answers.
- Probe for the applicant’s ability to manage and work in teams.
- Assess whether the candidate would fit with the organization’s culture.
Asking follow-up questions—also called probing—can be necessary when the interviewer does not fully understand a response, when answers are vague or ambiguous, or when the interviewer require more specific information from the applicant.
Probing questions inviting more detail often begin with “what” or “how.” Questions inviting personal reflection often begin with “do you” or “are you.” Questions beginning with “why” may put the respondent on the defensive or result in little useful information and require additional probing.
It is helpful to be familiar with some techniques of probing. Here are a few examples:
- Could you please tell me more about . . . ?
- I’m not quite sure I understood. Could you tell me more about that?
- I’m not certain what you mean by . . . Could you give me some examples?
- Could you tell me more about your thinking on that?
- You mentioned . . . Could you tell me more about that? What stands out in your mind about that?
- This is what I thought I heard . . . Did I understand you correctly?
- What I hear you saying is . . .
- Can you give me an example of . . . ?
- What makes you feel that way?
- You just told me about . . . I’d also like to know about . . .
Reflection questions are designed to help the interviewer achieve a deeper understanding of the applicant’s responses. Such questions rarely evoke defensiveness; applicants want the interviewer to understand their responses. Reflection questions might begin with phrases such as:
- Let me say back to you what I thought I heard you say . . .
- That made you think (or feel) . . . ?
- You mean that . . . ?
The potential pluses of reflection questions are varied. They can:
- Demonstrate to the applicant that his or her responses are understood.
- Rephrase the applicant’s response in clearer or more articulate language.
- Let the applicant know the interviewer is paying attention.
- Provide the applicant with an additional opportunity to elaborate on his or her responses.
Closing the interview
A popular method of closing the interview is to say the interview is ending and to offer the candidate the opportunity to ask questions. This will enable the candidate to gain clarification on aspects of the position and on employment conditions such as hours, salary and benefits. The interviewer should answer the candidate’s questions as frankly as possible. If it is not an appropriate time to discuss compensation—perhaps others are present—the interviewer can suggest a follow-up discussion. Interviewers should be prepared to provide documents describing the company and its benefits. See Recruiters Need to Be Ready to Answer These Candidate Questions.
In closing an interview, the interviewer may want to:
- Ask if the candidate is interested in the job based on the information provided during the interview.
- Ask about availability.
- Ask for a list of people who can be contacted for references.
- Explain the time frame for the rest of the interviews, the subsequent steps in the process and when a decision is likely to be made.
- Explain how to get in touch with the interviewer and when to expect to hear from him or her.
- Walk the candidate to the door and thank the person for the interview.
Such steps can ensure the applicant is left with a positive impression of the interviewer and the organization. After interviews, the interviewer should update the assessment grids for all active candidates. See Candidate Evaluation Form.
In addition to the general aspects of preparing for and conducting employment interviews already discussed, a few other issues bear consideration. These include the possibility that a candidate can be over prepared for an interview, thus affecting the impressions he or she creates; the question of whether and how to take notes during an interview; and methods of following up with candidates after initial interviews.
The overly prepared applicant can be a puzzle for hiring managers who are trying to determine if the applicant would be a good fit for the position and the organization. Job seekers can learn from books, magazine articles and websites not only what questions to expect but also what answers to give to those questions. Determining whether an applicant is providing a truthful response to specific questions can be equally as challenging for interviewers. There are, however, several techniques that may be useful:
- Do some research to determine if the questions you are asking are on popular interview preparation websites. If they are, but the interviewer still feel it is important to ask those questions, he or she can consider how to push applicants beyond their prepared responses.
- Ask follow up-questions. Keep asking questions until the applicant gives a response that sounds genuine and thoughtful rather than studied and coached.
- Do not go astray and ask irrelevant questions when trying to generate questions that do not elicit rehearsed responses.
- Consider that the rehearsed responses may be legitimate and informative. The fact that an applicant has prepared a response does not necessarily mean that the applicant is being insincere or untruthful.
There are various schools of thought on note taking during employment interviews. Some experts say it distracts the interviewer; others say that notes should be made both during and after the interview for documentation purposes. While there seems to be no consensus on this topic, many experts do advise employers to avoid the practice of writing notes directly on applications or resumes because they might be used to support an applicant’s claim of discrimination. See Is There a Problem with Writing Notes Directly on Applications or Resumes?
Notes about an applicant’s skills or experience that are related to the job in question can be recorded on a separate interview evaluation sheet to accomplish the goal of accurately recording information from an interview. However, notes should never be made about the physical characteristics or appearance of an applicant or any other area of potential legal liability. Note taking should be restricted to unobtrusive commentary about the applicant’s qualifications and skills relative to the position.
Organizations often bring certain applicants back for second or even third interviews for a number of reasons. Sometimes the employer may want to confirm that an applicant is the ideal candidate for the position, or the employer may be trying to decide between two or more qualified applicants.
An interviewer conducts first interviews to screen applicants based on their general qualifications. Once the interviewer narrows the selection to specific candidates, he or she then needs to apply additional screening methods at a follow-up interview level to further ascertain a candidate’s specific qualities and potential cultural fit. A follow-up interview is also an opportunity for candidates to do further research on whether the company is an organization they want to work for.
During the follow-up interview phase, the interviewer should have specific goals in mind and may want to invite other staff members to take part in the interview.
The follow-up interview is usually the final step before extending an offer of employment to a candidate. If the candidate passes muster, the employer will then extend an offer orally and in writing.
Communicating with candidates not selected
Following up with candidates who were not selected for a position, particularly those who were interviewed, is a professional courtesy that should not be overlooked. Providing those candidates with a respectful rejection letter can maintain goodwill and increase the likelihood a candidate will consider future job openings with your company that may be a better fit. See Why HR ‘Ghosting’ Wastes Company Resources and What should an employer tell a candidate who is not selected for the position?