How to write great interview questions

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

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, skill-linked library, these simple guidelines will help you maximize your interview time to make great hiring decisions.

Start with skills

You want to hire for job-related skills, not just who interviews well or is a good conversationalist. There’s a place for more open-ended chats, like at a candidate dinner or during an introductory call, but the questions you ask as part of a formal interview should link back to the job. (Check out our job description guide to ensure you’re clear about what you’re hiring for.) Without a clear job link, you risk perpetuating biases and hiring people based more on one-time connections instead of their ability to perform the job. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown the many ways humans 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 important is the skill? Are skills already assessed elsewhere in your hiring process?

You have limited interview time, so figure out which skills matter most for the job and then write or choose questions for those skills. And, 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! Prioritizing helps you 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 proficiency, spare them (and yourself) a redundant interview question.

 

Now you’re ready for questions

Once you’ve identified and prioritized skills, you’re finally set to write or select questions. 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 firsthand 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.

In an interview, the best way to dig into past performance is to ask behavioral questions. These find out how someone has used 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.

 

Starting with skills helps you avoid unintended discrimination

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 interview topics you should avoid based on all EEO laws. Check out their guidance here; you might be surprised by some of the items you’re overlooking.

PRO TIP

Don’t forget about candidates’ questions!
Be sure you make time for candidates to ask their questions as well. You want to be structured and job-related with your questions, but keep the interview human and open by building in time for candidate questions. Let candidates know they’ll have time to ask questions so they can prepare.