How to interview potential employees – questions to ask

interview questions

Deciding who to employ is a big decision and one you want to get right so how do you get the most out of an interview? What sort of questions should you ask to see if the candidate can do the job and whether or not they will fit into the team? Are there any ineffectual questions not worth asking and, importantly, any questions that are illegal to put to potential employees?

Ask the right questions

  • Assuming you’ve already ensured the candidate has the required skills, technical ability, specialist knowledge or experience to be considered for the job, the face-to-face interview is an opportunity to evaluate the candidate on a more personal basis. It’s always a good idea to have a few standard questions plus some more searching ones prepared in advance. Here are some examples:
  • What attracts you to this particular role? This is a fairly standard question and one the candidate should have been expecting. A good question to get the ball rolling. The response can tell you how the candidate aligns his or her skills and ambitions with the role. It can also reveal how much research they’ve done on the company and the opportunities for career advancement they think exist.
  • What are your strengths? The candidate may expect this one too, but rather than accept the answer at face value, follow up by asking how these strengths can help them in the new role.
  • Any weaknesses/areas you need to improve on? Admitting a weakness can be a strength in itself so the answer can be revealing in more ways than one. If they say they’d like to get better at something, enquire about the steps they are taking to improve.
  • What has been the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in your career to date? A searching question that not only shows what the candidate perceives to be a challenge but also how they dealt with it.
  • What have been your main career achievements so far? This can tell you what the candidate is proud of and whether or not they’ve set clear career goals to date.
  • What sort of work environment do you thrive in? Another probing question to help you assess whether they can cope with the demands of the job, and how they may fit into a team. Are they willing to think for themselves and take the initiative, or do they always wait to be told what to do?

Weak questions

  • Tell me a bit about yourself: This is a poor open-ended question that can leave the candidate not sure where to start – or finish! Instead, ask something more specific, such as what made them choose this particular career or type of job.
  • Why should I choose you and not someone else for the role? Even if the interview is with a staff member looking to fill a vacancy elsewhere in the company, he or she won’t be comfortable saying what makes them better than a colleague. Besides, it’s your job to decide who is the best candidate for the position. Instead, ask them to talk about the specific skills they can bring to the role.
  • Where do you see yourself in three years? This is more likely to prompt an answer that aims to please (I hope to still be here making a valuable contribution) than any meaningful answer. Instead, ask about how they think the role can help them to develop and progress in their career.
  • What sort of salary are you looking for? You should make it clear what the job pays in terms of salary, bonuses, share options, pension etc., rather than put a candidate on the spot with this type of question.

Some questions you can’t ask

There are some questions you can’t ask a candidate, even if you’re just making small talk to put them at their ease. For instance, you can’t ask candidates about their personal circumstances, this includes questions such as:

  • Are you married?
  • Do you have children?
  • Do you plan to start a family?
  • Do you intend to get married?
  • Are you in a civil partnership?
  • What religion do you practice?

You can ask someone to state their date of birth, but only if it’s a legal requirement to do a specific type of job, such as serve or sell alcohol. And while it’s acceptable to ask for their date of birth for equality monitoring purposes, the interviewer can’t see this information.

Questions about health are allowed, but only when it’s relative to the job and a reasonable adjustment can’t be made to accommodate the candidate. You can’t ask whether someone is a member of a trade union or expect to know about any ‘spent’ criminal convictions. Knowing what you can’t ask is just as important as knowing what you can. Ask the wrong type of question and you could be accused of discrimination.

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