How to write great interview questions

These simple guidelines will help you maximize your interview time to choose the right candidate.

January 15, 2021
4
 Min Read

Hey, we’re not going to sugarcoat it; hiring is difficult. The most critical information to your hiring decision will likely come from candidate interviews—but interviews only work if you ask the right questions (and avoid the wrong ones: see What not to ask candidates in interviews). Whether you’re writing your questions or selecting them from WhoCo’s expansive library, these simple guidelines will help you maximize your interview time to choose the right candidate.

When deciding on questions to include in the interview, ask yourself the following:

Is the question job-related?

You want to hire for the job and avoid just having a conversation. There’s a place for that, like at a candidate dinner or during an introductory call, but every question you ask as part of a formal decision-making interview should link back to the job. Without a clear job link, you run the risk of perpetuating systemic biases and hiring people based more on your one-time connection instead of their ability to perform the job. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown how humans easily anchor their judgments around small amounts of information instead of seeing a full, and more accurate, picture. You want to avoid anchoring on cognitive biases and develop a more comprehensive, job-relevant view of each candidate.


How do you ensure your questions are job-related? Start by defining the job you’re hiring for by listing out skill requirements before you ever develop questions. Once you’ve identified skills, you can select or write questions to measure the skills you have in mind. Linking the job to skills and skills to questions ensures the questions are on point.

How important is the skill? Is it already adequately assessed elsewhere in the hiring process?

You have limited interview time, so maximize it by choosing questions evaluating the skills that matter most to the job. A job might occasionally require many skills, but unless the job’s success depends on it, you’ll probably want to spend your interview time focused on the more critical ones. Similarly, if you’re already using a well-designed assessment or work sample to understand a given skill, you may not need to spend time asking about it at all!


Meanwhile, remember to be considerate of candidates’ time too. They’re either busy at their current job or spending time looking for their next opportunity. So if you already assessed a candidate on a given skill and have signal on their aptitude, spare them (and yourself) yet another interview question that won’t likely change anything.

Does the question seek to understand past performance of the targeted skills?

There is an established HR adage, “past performance is the best predictor of future performance.” When you’re promoting from within your organization you’ll often have a great idea of who’s capable of doing a job because you’ve observed first hand how people perform. But you don’t always have that luxury, especially with external hires. Questions should get at relevant past performance as much as possible; to do this, you need to target past, job-related behaviors with your questions.


The best way to dig into past performance is to ask behavioral interview questions. These ask about what someone has done in relation to a specific skill or set of skills. For example, “please tell us about a time you worked with a hiring manager who was difficult to please. How did you handle that situation and what was the outcome?” seeks to evaluate relationship building by asking for an example of it.

You may also want to find out how someone would deal with something they may not have faced in the past. For example, asking a designer, “how would you bring visual art into the digital space for our company?” to learn how someone would handle a unique job-related situation. Situational interview questions like these are fair game as well. They’re still behaviorally-oriented as they seek to understand the work behavior you would expect someone to exhibit under a given situation.

Am I inadvertently discriminating against underrepresented groups?

You significantly reduce the chance of asking a frivolous question (and introducing bias into your decision-making) by sticking to job-related and behaviorally-based questions. A bit of legal review can help here as well. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has outlined topics you should avoid with your interview questions based on a whole host of EEO laws. Check out their guidance here; you might be surprised by some of the items you’re overlooking.

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