Job interview: Planning, structure and good questions
[This is part 8 of PeopleTools’ article series on the optimal recruitment process. You can find an overview of the other articles here: “The Ultimate Guide to Recruitment”]
Once the applications have been sorted and the candidates selected, it’s time for the candidate and company to meet.
The next stage in the recruitment process is the interview.
Overall, job interviews are about getting to know the candidate in areas that are relevant to the job – both professionally and personally. We need to dig deeper from the CV and cover letter and uncover the candidate’s professional and personal competencies.
The conversation can range from loosely structured conversations with an “organic conversation” feel to a highly structured process where the content and questions are predetermined. But how you plan and conduct the interviews has a big impact on its value as an assessment tool!
Although you may have already formed a picture of the candidate field and have found a few favorites, it’s important to try to view job interviews as new capital and not bring preconceived attitudes and perceptions to the table.
In this article, you’ll learn how to plan and prepare for a job interview, examples of good and bad questions and what to look out for.
Planning and preparation before job interviews
Before conducting the job interview, it is important to determine the overall framework and approach of the interview. You may want to consider the following points:
- Schedule: How long should the interview and each part of the interview last? How much time should there be between each candidate so that the hiring committee has time to note relevant statements and score the candidate? How long of a break should the hiring committee have?
- Participants: How many candidates should be invited? How many people should be on the hiring committee?
- Rooms/location: Where does the interview take place, both geographically and in the room where the interview will take place? Where/who should the candidate contact upon arrival? How do applicants get to and from the room to avoid bumping into each other?
- Contact details: Who should be contacted in case the candidate is unable to attend?
- Roles: Who does what in the hiring committee? Who is the main person responsible for the interview and ensuring the flow of the conversation? Who takes notes?
- Question framework: What conditions should be highlighted? What and how to evaluate?
Which interview format should I choose?
Of course, there are several ways to conduct an interview.
In general, we distinguish between three types of interviews: the structured interview, the semi-structured interview and the unstructured interview.
The unstructured interview is by far the most common in recruitment: there’s no real plan for what to find out and how. Instead, this form is more like a “regular” conversation.
While this type of interview may seem appealing, there are significant risks associated with it: important issues are not uncovered, less important issues get too much focus, and the interviewer may lose focus during the interview. In addition, you can’t compare the different applicants afterwards.
Therefore, the unstructured interview has very little predictive validity. In fact, the outcome of this interview style is as random as if you had rolled a die.
In addition, there is no basis for comparison between candidates, as they are most likely not asked the same things in the same ways.
In contrast to the unstructured interview, we have the structured interview.
This type of interview is characterized by the fact that the same questions are generally asked to all candidates in the same way and in the same order. The answers are systematically summarized and the subsequent assessment is based on the weighting of the competencies in the job.
The advantage of the structured interview format is that you ensure that candidates are asked the same questions and thus get a comparable basis for assessment. Next, make sure you cover all the essential and relevant areas that need to be covered. Last but not least, you also help minimize the risk of bias (link to own article).
The more structure there is in interview form, the more its value as an assessment method increases.
Between the unstructured and structured interview, we have the semi-structured interview. This interview style is a great ‘middle ground’ where you ensure all candidates are asked the same questions, but still have room to dig deeper into the stories and statements that follow.
How to create a question guide for the job interview
A good recruitment process relies on getting as valid and comparable data on candidates as possible. As mentioned, the value of the interview as an assessment method increases the more structured the interview is. To ensure this, you should prepare a question guide before the interview.
The question guide should be formulated based on the job analysis and the job and person profile to ask about the most important professional and personal competencies relevant to the position. Since you most likely won’t be able to cover all the competencies described in the job and person profile, you should select the 3 to 5 most important ones.
Not only do you ensure that you stay focused on the essentials and don’t go off on a tangent, you also minimize the risk of bias. When you follow a question guide, you avoid the interviewer asking questions that they find appropriate in the moment.
Next, it’s important that you use the interview to “get examples of job-relevant behavior from the applicant” (Kahlke, 27). You don’ t by asking the candidate to assess themselves, for example, with questions such as “What do you do particularly well?”, “What are your strengths?”, “What are your weaknesses?”. There is not necessarily a connection between how a person sees themselves and how they will actually act in reality. Instead, ask about the behavior exhibited and ask the candidate to concretize and give examples. To dive deeper into the behavior, you can ask how the candidate acted in a given situation, etc.
Conversation structure and suggested questions
As mentioned, there are different ways to structure an interview and the more structured the interview is, the higher its value and validity as an assessment method and basis for comparison.
As mentioned in the article “Screening”, it’s a good idea to phone screen the candidate in advance so you don’t spend unnecessary time matching expectations with a candidate whose expectations for start-up, salary, etc. don’t match your company’s.
Think of the conversation and your questions as a funnel, narrowing your focus more and more. Start with open, broad questions and then move on to more closed, focused questions.
During the interview, it’s important to ask for examples, situations and get the candidate to elaborate. One way you can do this is by using the following “questioning technique”:
- “Can you describe a situation where you…”
- “What were you thinking in that situation?”
- “What exactly did you do?”
- “What was your role?”
- “How do you think others experienced the situation? And your actions?”
Below you’ll find a suggested interview structure that you can adapt to your industry.
Most candidates will be a little nervous before the interview, so it’s important to spend the first 5 min. of the interview to let down the candidate’s guard and create a pleasant and comfortable atmosphere.
Welcome and introduce the people participating in the interview and what their roles will be.
Next, explain how the interview will go, how long it will take, what you’ll be going through and in what order. Also make the candidate aware that the hiring committee will be taking notes along the way in order to evaluate and compare the different candidates afterwards.
Examples of introductory questions:
- Can you tell us a little about yourself?
- Why have you applied for the position?
- Where did you see the job ad?
Presentation of the candidate
The next part of the interview should focus on the candidate and their experience and professional skills. Use your CV and cover letter as a starting point – and ask questions to dig deeper and explore the information that is not immediately apparent from the CV and cover letter. Ask for concrete examples.
Examples of questions:
- You write that you have experience with [x]. Can you elaborate?
- I see that you have been employed as [x] in [virksomhedsnavn]. Can you tell us a bit about your role and your tasks there?
- What did you like best about [virksomhedsnavn/arbejdsopgave/osv .]?
- You mention that you are [e.g. analytical/results-oriented, etc.]. Can you give an example?
- What do you do to keep your professional skills up to date?
- What are your favorite things to do?
- What was the best thing about your previous/current job?
- What was the worst/worst thing about your previous/current job?
- Which tasks in the job posting sounded the most exciting? Why?
- Which tasks in the job posting sounded less exciting? Why?
- Can you describe how you have used/worked with [faglige kompetencer fra job- og personprofilen] in your previous positions?
- What do you see as your professional development areas?
- What do you consider to be your best professional qualifications for this position?
- What goals and results did you achieve in your previous positions?
- Can you share a success story from a previous position? For example, something you are proud to have been a part of or accomplished?
- What has been the best experience of your working life so far?
- What has been the worst experience in your working life so far?
- What are you looking for in a new job?
Collaboration and behavioral issues
Once the professional and experiential part is covered, you can move on to the more behavioral questions. Since a new hire affects the entire department/company/team, it’s important to check if they will fit in socially and collegially.
Ask for specific situations or create scenarios from your workplace to gain insight into whether the person fits in with the company culture and how they work and think.
Examples of questions
- How are you a good colleague?
- What does it mean to you to be a good colleague?
- What is a good working environment for you?
- What makes a good day at work for you? What makes it good?
- What work situations motivate you?
- What work situations drain you?
- What does it take for you to function optimally in the workplace?
- In your application you describe yourself as [e.g. enterprising, analytical] How is this expressed? Can you describe some specific situations?
- Under which work mode do you work best?
- In which work environment do you thrive?
- When was the last time you felt under pressure? How did you deal with it?
- How would your former manager/colleagues/employee describe you? What would they say are your strengths and weaknesses?
Motivation and the future
The next part of the interview should address the candidate’s motivation for the position and how the candidate sees the future of the position. It’s easier to retain employees whose motivation matches what the company and position offers.
Examples of questions:
- What are your dreams for the future?
- What are your dreams for the future career-wise?
- What would you like to work with in the long term?
- What are your ambitions for the role?
- What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
- What will make you successful in the role?
- What requirements do you have for the company in order to succeed in the role?
One of the hardest things to identify in a job interview are the “soft values”. But as the expression “hired on professionalism, fired on personality” attests, the “soft values” are also some of the most important to investigate and uncover.
Again, remember to start from and ask about the personal qualities you have defined as the most important in the job and personal profile. Ask about situations and ask for concrete examples.
Examples of questions:
- What are your key personal strengths?
- What are your main personal weaknesses?
- What do you see as your personal development areas?
- What is most important to you in your work?
- What would you rather be doing?
- What makes you happy about going to work?
- What makes you stressed/pressured? How do you react?
- What makes you irritated? How do you react?
In the last part of the interview, the candidate should be allowed to speak up if they have questions about you, the company and the position or if there are topics/areas they want to talk about.
It’s also a good idea to ask if the candidate has any concerns or doubts about the job if you haven’t already asked this in a phone screening. This gives you the opportunity to discuss any challenges or misunderstandings that may have resulted in the candidate dropping out later in the process.
Talk about the next steps in the recruitment process and wrap things up so that the candidate goes home with a good feeling and no doubts about the next steps.
Examples of questions
- Do you have any questions for us?
- Is there anything you think we haven’t talked about?
- Is there anything you would like to add?
- What are your expectations for salary, pension, benefits, etc.
- When do you expect to start?
What can/shouldn’t you ask?
First of all, it’s important to point out that there is a difference between questions that you are legally not allowed to ask the candidate and questions that you shouldn’t ask because they don’t add value.
Let’s start with the questions you’re not legally allowed to ask:
- Religion, sexuality, age, ethnic origin: according to the Danish Discrimination Act, it is illegal to ask about and emphasize the following characteristics or attributes: race, skin color, religion or belief, political conviction, sexual orientation or national, social or ethnic origin. You can ask about age and disability, but you can’t use this information when deciding which candidate to hire.
- Child and criminal records: You may only request child and/or criminal records if it is relevant to the position. If the candidate’s child and/or criminal record is not clean, do not use this alone to reject the candidate. If so, an assessment must be made of whether it has a risk in relation to the specific position the candidate has applied for.
- Health information: Do not ask about the candidate’s general health. You may only ask about health conditions that have a direct bearing on the candidate’s ability to perform the specific position.
- Pregnancy: Do not ask about the candidate’s future family wishes, e.g. if the candidate is pregnant or plans to become pregnant in the near future. If you ask, the candidate has every right to lie. Therefore, you cannot use the reason that the person lied in the job interview if you terminate their employment due to pregnancy/maternity. This is in violation of the Equal Treatment Act.
- Trade union: In Denmark, we have freedom of association, so an employer cannot require an employee to be a member of a specific trade union to get the job.
And what questions should you not ask the candidate?
There aren’t really any questions (other than the legally ‘forbidden’ ones) that you shouldn’t ask. But be aware of whether the question is relevant to the specific position and how you ask the question.
- Leading questions: For example, if you ask the candidate the question “Collaboration and working across departments is really important to us. Do you enjoy collaborating with others?”, you’ve put words in the candidate’s mouth and revealed the “right” answer.
- “What is your biggest weakness?”: You’ve probably heard thousands of ‘positive’ answers to this question. Therefore, it’s all about rephrasing questions so that you instead ask about a specific situation that has been a challenge for the candidate and how they solved the situation.
- “What have you worked with in the past?”: This is a great question, but to the candidate, it may seem like you haven’t looked through their resume and prepared for the interview. Instead, rephrase the question to ask “You have been employed at [virksomhedsnavn] for 3 years. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the tasks you did there?”
Remember to assess the candidate right after the interview
Once the interview is over and the candidate is sent out the door, you should finalize your notes about them. It’s important to do this immediately after the interview so that no nuances, information or details are lost.
It can be valuable to have an evaluation form and give the candidate a ‘grade’ during/after the interview, e.g. on a scale of 1-5. This can be for each individual focus point in relation to the job and personal profile and the candidate in general. This makes it easier to assess and compare candidates once all interviews have been completed. Secondly, it forces you to stick to the essentials and assessment criteria instead of being led in the wrong direction.
Secondly, it’s also “easier” to assess and compare candidates based on quantitative data (such as a numerical score) than qualitative data (such as subjective descriptions and observations).
What else should you pay attention to during the interview?
What challenges can arise?
Sometimes a job interview can be a difficult and challenging process, where you may have lost track of each other, struggled to stay focused on what’s relevant or something else entirely.
We’ve gathered some of the most common challenges and concrete suggestions on what you can do about it.
What if the candidate…
- … is shy or quiet? Start with small talk, offer coffee/tea/water and try to make the situation “less dangerous” for the candidate.
- … give evasive/derogatory answers? You can insist on getting an answer to your question. For example, say. “… to make sure I understand you correctly, could you elaborate on what you explained?”
- … going off on a tangent? Here you can interrupt the candidate and say something like “I’m not sure I understand your answer. What I asked was…”
- … want your assessment of whether they are a good fit for the job? Here you could say “I can’t say anything about that at the moment” and possibly talk about the process and what will happen next.
What if you as an interviewer…
- … struggling to control the conversation? A clear outline and question guide can be a great help here. Start the conversation by explaining the structure of the conversation. Practice beforehand with a colleague and practice interrupting the candidate if they go off on a tangent.
- … talk too much? Practice formulating short questions and listening to the candidate.
- … can’t distinguish the different candidates from each other afterwards? Your evaluation form is the key here. Take notes on the form along the way and summarize them right after the interview so you can distinguish the respective candidates from each other.
One of the biggest pitfalls and challenges in recruitment is bias.
To be biased means to lean (consciously or unconsciously) towards a certain assessment. Unconscious bias affects the vast majority of our decisions and has the consequence that we form an image and opinion of another person without thorough prior knowledge. As the name suggests, this is usually done unconsciously.
While we all have biases, you might think that because you know about them, you’re not affected by them. But it’s actually also a bias, namely blind-spot bias. This bias is the tendency to believe that because we know about bias, we are not biased.
While we can never make a recruitment process or job interview 100% unbiased, we can minimize the risk of bias and achieve greater neutrality:
- Acknowledge bias: We all have biases that affect us and how we make decisions. It’s only when we know about them and are able to identify them that we can work with them and try to free ourselves from them.
- Job and personal profile: The hiring committee should use the profile to [udarbejde spørgeguide og] assess candidates on a concrete and comparable basis.
- Interview format: Use the same interview and question framework for each candidate. Although they can feel more rigid, structured interviews with predefined questions provide a fairer basis for comparison.
- Evaluation sheet: Prepare an evaluation sheet with the most important criteria for candidates to be assessed on a predetermined scale, e.g. 1-10. Make notes on the evaluation sheet during the interview.
- Hiring committees: Involve multiple people in the evaluation, assessment and interview process. Have a diverse hiring committee and an organizational culture that encourages open dialogue and a focus on bias.
- “What can employers ask at the job interview?”. Legal Desk. August 3, 2022. https://www.legaldesk.dk/artikler/hvad-maa-arbejdsgiver-spoerge-om-til-ansaettelsessamtalen
- Kahlke, Edith. Short & sweet about the EMPLOYMENT AGREEMENT. Danish Psychological Publishing, 2022.
- Kahlke, Edith and Schmidt, Victor. Better hiring. Børsens Forlag, 2007.
- Kahlke, Edith and Schmidt, Victor. Job and person assessment – increasing accuracy in personnel selection. Børsens Forlag, 2000.
- “Job interview rules: Everything you need to know”. NemAdvokat. November 17, 2021. https://www.nemadvokat.dk/loven-forklaret/regler-for-jobsamtaler/
- Theisen, Charlotte Bryldt. The job interview. How do you select the best candidate? Transparent Publishing House, 2014.