How to ask better questions in your job interviews

This post is inspired by the work of Tom Foster, a renowned management consultant from Florida. He’s a known authority on the concept of behavior-based interviewing. 

Better interview questions lead to better candidate data, which can lead to better hires. But how do you ask them?

First, these questions don’t qualify

Can you tell me why I should hire you? 

“I’m a professional and my references will attest to that fact. I have the right skills for this role. Like in the past, I will put in 100%.”

May the best boaster win. Might work for a sales job but not for technical roles. Rarely gives workable data on skill, culture or mindset fit.

Can you tell me a little about yourself? 

“I’m an innovative IT manager with 10 years experience managing all aspects of back-office IT function for Fortune 500 companies.”

Gives experts in humble bragging an unfair advantage. Opens the interview up to unwanted “that’s impressive” bias.  

Do you think teamwork is important? 

“Why yes, I sincerely believe teamwork is important. I have been a team player all my working life. Totally committed to teamwork.”

Innocent question about culture fit until you figure out that you’ve told the job candidate what you want to hear. 

What’s the risk with the above questions?

They don’t tell you anything about how the person worked in the past roles; only embellished high-level work summary.

They don’t tell you what values the job candidate drew upon when they faced key situations in their past work.

They don’t contribute greatly to interview structure. A more structured approach lets you drill into how the candidate really operates.

What’s a better kind of question?

Not many questions can result in a strong interview structure like when you ask behavior-focused questions.

Here’s the key benefit from asking such questions: they help you see if job candidates will align with your culture. 

“We identified the behaviors we want to see connected to our Core Values. Developing and asking questions around those behaviors has definitely helped us hire people who are a better match for our organizational culture.”

Becky Halvorson, Road Runner Food Bank

Here’s how you ask a behavior-focused question

I’ve broken down the groundwork needed to ask behavioral questions into detailed steps.

Step 1 – Audit competencies

Identify 3-4 key competencies for the role. These can be:

  • Technical (e.g. data modelling)
  • Work-relevant personal traits (e.g. self-starter)
  • Interpersonal skills (e.g. teamwork)

Step 2 – Pick ONE competency

Ideally pick the number 1 criterion that would lead to success in the role. I’ll use teamwork as an example.

Once you are comfortable at working with one competency, you can repeat this process for lower priority competencies.

Step 3 – Identify related behaviors

What behaviors show good teamwork? Cooperation. Support. Constructive feedback giving. You’ll look out for evidence of these behaviors. But how?

Step 4 – Create a scenario then drill deep!

You’re going to drill deep into a situation where the candidate was heavily involved in teamwork.

Setup the scenario

“Think of a time when teamwork was critical to your work.”

Ask background questions

“Why was teamwork required for the task?”

“What was your role?”

Seek a little more detail

“Who else was on the team?”

“What was their role?”

Start drilling for gold

“How well did the team work together?”

“What do you think the team did well?”

“What was your role in pulling the team together?”

Finally, drill down to the core

“How did you react when the team faced roadblocks?”

“How did the team deal with someone not pulling their weight?”

“What was the end result of your contribution to the team?”

“How would you do things differently if you had a second chance?”

Final thoughts

It’s tempting to cut to the chase and ask job candidates if they share the same values as your team.

It’s even more tempting to ask common interview questions like “Tell me about yourself” and call it a day.

But resist the temptation because these questions won’t give you the solid interview data you need to make a great hiring decision.

Ask better interview questions by having a behavior focus that lets you dig deep into the candidate’s ability and values.