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Recruitment: questions to ask in an interview

Asking the right interview questions can’t be left to chance. You need to prepare. We look at the different types of question to ask, and the thinking behind them.

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An interview gives you a short space of time to assess potential candidates to see whether they will be the right fit for the role and your business. As with any task, you need the right tools to get the best result. In the case of an interview, that means asking the right questions.

You may choose to split the interview process into a number of meetings, or a phone call plus a single session. While you want to put your candidates at ease and give a positive impression of your business, you need to get beyond the pleasantries to really find out about the person in front of you.

There’s a number of different types of interview questions that can help you do that – standard, behavioural and situational questions. We’d suggest using a combination of these to help you find out about a candidate’s past experience, personality and aptitude for the role.

See our general interview tips for advice on how to conduct the interview, or read on for examples of different interview questions.

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Standard interview questions

These are the old chestnuts that most of us have faced in interviews at one time or another. A prepared candidate may well have thought about questions and have answers ready. Either way, it’s probably a good idea to include one or two of these – at least in a first interview – to find out how interested the candidate is in the role, and a bit about their background.

What interests you about this job / role?

This is a chance for the candidate to show you what they know about your business. Their answer can help you gauge their interest and enthusiasm for the position, as well as seeing how much preparation they have done for the interview itself.

Tell me about yourself / your past job experience.

This gives candidates a chance to demonstrate their strengths, and tell you about their experience and qualifications. You’re looking for them to highlight the skills that will translate into the new role.

Why are you leaving / have you left your job?

This should give you some context to the candidate’s job search, and help you determine whether they’re the right fit for your role.

Situational questions for job interviews

HR experts advise against asking simple questions about strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is going to honestly admit to a tendency to irritate customers, or having trouble with paperwork, in a job interview. Instead, situational questions that relate to real work issues the candidate could face, and how they would deal with them, are likely to give you more insight. Situational questions relate to how a candidate could work in the future.

You can ask situational questions around any skill area you like, but common ones include:

  • people skills – handling difficult customers or colleagues
  • organising workflow – juggling different priorities
  • communication skills
  • problem-solving skills.

It can be helpful to take real examples of issues your business has faced, and ask how the candidate would deal with them. For example, if you run a small plumbing business, you could ask something like:

You receive a call from a customer who has a problem with their boiler. They have no heating or hot water. It’s the middle of winter and they have a small child at home. You receive a call from another customer who has water leaking through their kitchen ceiling. All your staff are already working on other jobs. What would you do?

There isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong answer, although you might have an opinion on the best way of handling this situation. You’d be looking to see how the candidate would deal with the issue – two urgent queries, with a lack of resource – as well as how they would communicate with colleagues, reassure the customers, prioritise the work and so on.

Behavioural questions for recruitment

Behavioural questions relate to experiences candidates have had in the past. They will cover similar areas to situational questions, but you’re asking candidates to talk about their own experience, rather than giving them a specific theoretical example based on your business.

Some commonly used examples include:

Tell me about a time when you had to work with a difficult customer.

Answers to this question should give you an insight into how your candidate deals with conflict. You don’t need to like everyone, but you need your candidate to be able to work effectively and remain professional with colleagues, customers and yourself – even if they don’t always like how the other person is behaving.

Describe a problem you faced at work and how you dealt with it.

This should give you an idea of your candidate’s problem-solving skills. Look at how they approach problems – for example whether they collaborate with others, research, use their own initiative – as well as their actions.

Have you ever had to work to a deadline? Can you tell me about it?

This is a question about how the candidate organises their time and prioritises tasks. Your candidate can describe how they plan processes, communicate with others, and collaborate with colleagues to finish a project.

Describe how you work with new colleagues or a new team.

This question should give you some idea about how your candidate will fit into your business, how flexible they are, and how easy they’ll find it to adapt to a new working environment.

Have you ever made a mistake at work? How did you handle it?

Everyone is human. Someone who won’t admit to a mistake is probably lying. You want to hear how your candidate took steps to put things right, and what they learnt as a result.

Questions you should NOT ask in an interview

You cannot ask certain questions in an interview, as they could be a means of illegal discrimination against certain candidates under the Equality Act 2010. Steer clear of asking questions or attempting to make decisions based on any of the following criteria.

Nationality, race, religion, native language: You are obliged to check whether any prospective employee has a legal right to work in the UK. However, you have no right to ask questions about a candidate’s race, religion or native language.

You are allowed to gather information on ethnicity for diversity-monitoring purposes, but this information should be kept entirely separate from the recruitment process.

Marital status, children, lifestyle choices and sexuality: Any questions around these areas can be considered discriminatory, for example asking a woman about her plans to have children to help you work out whether she’s likely to want to take maternity leave.

Illness, disability, height or weight: You are not allowed to ask how much time a candidate has taken off sick in a previous position, unless there is already a conditional job offer on the table. You have a duty to make reasonable adjustments when considering a disabled person for a job they’re applying for.

Age: You cannot ask how old a candidate is, or when they plan to retire. In specific circumstances you can ask about age to check a candidate is old enough (for example if they’re working with alcohol, they need to be at least 18).

If in doubt, there’s more information about equality legislation on the ACAS website.

If you feel a candidate has not really answered a question fully, you can always improvise a little and ask them a follow up question or two and let the conversation flow. But preparing your list of interview questions in advance should ensure you cover all the areas you need to in order to assess the candidate’s merits and, ultimately, offer the job to the best person.

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