Designing good interview questions

These notes are adapted from a session run by Cathy Hamer at the Bodleian Libraries.

Why do we ask questions at interview?

The main purpose is to assess the interviewee’s abilities, so to be fair to all candidates, a consistent approach is necessary.  Careful planning of questions allows the candidate to do most of the talking, demonstrate how their skills and experience fit the role, and their responses to be assessed against the selection criteria for the role.

Open vs closed questions

Closed questions allow only short answers, such as ‘yes’ or ‘no.  Example: Did you have supervisory responsibilities in your previous job?
While closed questions may be suitable for confirming details at the end of an interview, they do not allow the candidate to elaborate on their experience.  Open questions use words such as ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘where’, ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. Example: ‘How do you set priorities in tackling your workload?’.  Using an open question increases the amount of information the interviewee can give you, and helps you learn about their opinions and attitudes.

Multiple questions

Asking more than one question at once causes confusion and often the candidate will only answer the last or easiest questions.  Example: ‘In your last job, what were your responsibilities in terms of monitoring the budget, and what was the system for balancing and checking the cash account?’.  Don’t ask multiple questions – separate out the questions and ask them individually.

Leading questions

A leading question is one which indicates the required response, for example ‘Presumably you will get on well with your work colleagues?’.   The interviewee can only provide a useful answer by interrupting or disagreeing, as they are unlikely to say ‘No’.  Instead, ask a more open question such as ‘Tell us about your experience of working in a small team’.

Discriminatory questions

Questions relating to the candidate’s sex, age, marital status, ethnic origin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or disabilities are an obvious no-no.  For example: ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Do you have any children?’.

Hypothetical questions

These are a type of open question, and can be very helpful in assessing a candidate’s thinking skills and how quickly they can respond to a new situation.  Example: ‘How would you go about planning the move of this unit/office to another building?’

Quantifying questions

These are a type of closed question which can be useful in ascertaining how many people the candidate has managed or the size of the budget for which they have had responsibility.  They are best used in conjunction with a follow-up question to allow the candidate to give a more descriptive response.

Behaviour-based questions

Examples: ‘Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision that involved a large expenditure’ or ‘Describe a situation in which you had to work to a tight deadline.’
Past job behaviour is a good guide to future performance, so asking for prior examples can be useful in predicting if the candidate will be able to demonstrate the necessary skills in the new job.

Probing questions

Every conversation is different, even though the main interview questions will be the same for each candidate.  Sometimes you will need to probe a bit further for more details, or to validate a claim.  Be careful not to lose the thread of the main question. Probing questions can also be useful to help the candidate back on track if they have gone off on a tangent in their answer.

Tips

  • Well in advance, determine which aspects of the selection criteria you are going to assess at interview
  • Design a question for each skill that you wish to assess
  • As far as possible, keep questions open and only ask one at a time
  • Avoid closed questions, giving away the ‘correct’ answer
  • Address any gaps on the application form
  • Use a combination of application form/letter, task and interview to assess each candidate against all the selection criteria for the job
For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.

How to shortlist

This follows on from my earlier post about how to write a job description

Selection criteria: essential and desirable

When preparing the job description, the selection criteria will develop as you define the role and decide which criteria are essential or desirable.  A quick test to see if a criterion is essential (E) or desirable (D) is to consider if the candidate must already have the skill or experience (E), or if it can be learnt on the job (D).

Criteria may be moved between the E and D categories depending on how many candidates you expect to have applying for the job: if you anticipate a large number of applications, you might consider moving some criteria from D to E in order to narrow the field.  However, you may only do this before the job is advertised: once it’s out there, the criteria must stay and E or D in order to be fair to the people considering applying for the job.

Shortlisting

All the people on the interview panel should be involved in shortlisting the candidates.  Use a shortlisting matrix to evaluate each candidate against the selection criteria:

A variety of scoring systems may be used:

  • Simple tick or cross to show the criterion is met or not met
  • Marks out of 10 for how closely the candidate and the criterion match
  • Different criteria may be weighted according to their relative importance

It can be helpful to have several rounds of shortlisting.  For example, applicants for a graduate trainee position are required to have an undergraduate degree.  The first round of shortlisting would assess all candidates on that single criterion, and subsequent rounds would involve the remaining selection criteria.

Interviews

Aim for about 5 interviewees.  Have a few reserve candidates in mind in case any interviewees drop out.  List the reserve candidates in priority order.  Allow at least 5 working days between shortlisting and interviews.

Tips

  • Remember to compare the candidates against the selection criteria, not against each other.
  • Keep a record of the shortlisting matrix.  This is very helpful if any candidates ask for feedback on why they were unsuccessful in being called to interview.
  • When advertising the vacancy, state clearly the closing date and time.  A cut-off time of 12:00 (rather than 17:00) can be helpful if any applicants have any last-minute problems with submitting their documents, and allows time in the afternoon for packs to be produced for the interview panel who will then begin shortlisting.

For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.