How many golf balls can you fit in a limousine? Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? Who’s your favorite Disney Princess? Some of today’s hiring managers rely on some pretty unconventional questions to identify top talent.
While these examples may be a little wacky, it does pay to be a little creative when you’re speaking to applicants, as you need to dig deep in order to determine skill, cultural fit, and levels of intelligence.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a collection of 25 top interview questions that will show you whether any candidate is a fit for your organization.
Some of these might seem boring or “obvious”, but they serve a purpose. They’re the perfect way to ease candidates into the interview and get the background information you need.
1. How did you hear about the role?
While seemingly innocuous, this question serves an important purpose. Your company is probably spending significant budget every year on employer branding, advertising and candidate attraction. It’s important to understand what is working!
You need to know whether the messaging your company is investing in is resonating with the right candidates. Make a note of the answers to see whether specific trends emerge. For example, maybe high quality candidates all come across your brand on Twitter, suggesting you should invest more in that medium.
It’s true that you can rely on analytics, providing you have them in place, to tell you where traffic is coming from, and that many applications have a ‘how did you hear about us’ section. However, hearing the answer directly from candidates, and spotting correlations between promotional channel and candidate quality, will give you deeper, more useful insights.
2. What do you know about the company?
This is simple but effective: it shows you how much research a candidate has done.
In an ideal world, you just want to hire candidates that are genuinely excited about a job at your company, not just a job in general. Don’t dwell too long on answers to this question.
The goal is simply to find out if a candidate has put a little time in on your website and looked through online materials. If they have, move on.
3. Why did you apply?
We all need to pay our bills, but it’s important to check that this is not the sole motivation for a candidate. They’re likely to be a more productive and happy employee if they identify with your company in some way.
It might be the projects you’re working on or the direction you’re heading in. It could be the fact that you’re a 2-person startup and they’re interested in increased responsibility. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve just signed some big customers. Hopefully the answer aligns with the type and level of the role you are filling.
4. What are your key professional strengths?
It’s important to know the things that the candidate does well so you can understand how they might fit into your team. Arrogance is never attractive, but candidates who are confident in their abilities and how they might be able to impact your organization are exactly the kind of people that you want to hire.
The best answers focus on one or two skills, and provide direct examples of occasions where they demonstrated these skills and had a demonstrable impact on the business/project.
5. Why should we hire you?
What’s in it for the organization? If a candidate isn’t going to add value (or can’t explain what value they might add), you shouldn’t bring them on board. This might be a slightly intimidating question for candidates, so be careful about how you use it – it’s best used towards the end of an interview when you can tell a candidate is more comfortable.
When deployed correctly, however, it can be a great one to separate the best from the rest. Good answers will cover three key bases: Candidates should articulate that they can not only do the work required, but can deliver great results, and also fit in with the team and culture. Can they stand out from other candidates?
6. Do you have any questions for us?
The classic way to finish an interview, this question is important for a number of reasons. It gives the candidate a chance to follow up on any talking points from the interview, it lets them dig into issues that you haven’t covered in enough detail (no interviewer can explain everything), and it shows you how much research a candidate has done about your company.
You should expect every candidate to have some questions; if they don’t, it’s definitely a red flag.
Remember: Hiring is a two-way process. Today, candidates may have plenty of options on the table. They are using this opportunity to assess YOU as well, and you should be prepared to represent the brand well when answering their queries.
After you’ve got a few “basic” questions out of the way, it’s important to try and challenge candidates and make them think. Here are a few thought-provoking interview questions that force more agile thinking.
7. What’s your definition of hard work?
Some companies move at very different paces: projects that might be allocated one week at a large corporate might be expected in a few days’ time at a fast-growing startup.
This question is a great way of telling you whether a candidate can keep pace with your team and fit in with your company’s definition of hard work.
Look out for the “hard worker in disguise”: a candidate who is currently operating at half capacity at a slow-moving company and is keen to (or at least able to) ramp up.
8. Why are you leaving your current job?
The goal here isn’t to find out if candidates have any major skeletons in their closet when it comes to their last role – reference checking is a more efficient way to find this out. You can tell a lot by how people speak about their previous employer.
It’s a great way to spot “the victim”. For these candidates, everything is someone else’s fault. Their previous boss hated them. Their old company was out to get them. They were ignored for promotions. The list goes on…
You should also look out for candidates that are leaving their previous company because there’s “nothing left to learn”.
While this might sometimes be a legitimate complaint, it’s usually a red flag. There is pretty much always something to learn.
Whatever your company size (and no matter how mundane the work) there are opportunities to learn and improve. If you find yourself faced with a candidate that does nothing but complain, ask yourself how happy they’d be at your company and how much they’d have to ‘learn’.
9. In five minutes, could you explain something to me that is complicated but you know well?
This is one of the best tests of intelligence (far more effective than a college education or test score) and a great way to gauge passion.
The “something” in question doesn’t have to be anything to do with work; in fact, often the answer is better if it isn’t. The key thing to focus on is the way that the candidate breaks down a complex idea and the way that they articulate it to someone who doesn’t understand it.
I’ve heard a few really interesting responses to this question, with answers ranging from how to make an oak cabinet to the way that homemade rockets work!
The best candidates manage to make difficult concepts simple. Depending on the role you are hiring for, it may be useful to rate how well they “present” the story. (Remember: not everyone needs to be able to present, and you could lose out on great talent if you expect them all to be salespeople!)
10. Tell me about a time you messed up
This one pops up in many of the most popular interview playbooks and guides, and it’s a great test of humility and self awareness. No one is perfect; everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is what happens next.
Does the candidate learn a valuable lesson and use it as a motivation for self improvement? Or do they point the finger and blame colleagues? Could they see what went wrong? Did they try again?
The answer to this question should show whether a person is willing to take ownership of their work or will be quick to shirk responsibility when the going gets tough.
11. If you woke up and had 2,000 unread emails and could only answer 300 of them, how would you choose which ones to answer?
We’ve all been faced with the seemingly unconquerable inbox, but even for high flyers 2,000 unread emails is significant. Despite the subject matter, though, this question isn’t about email.
The point of this question is to see how candidates approach work and how they prioritize tasks. You want to understand their process for attacking a project that, on the face of it, seems difficult to deal with.
How would they divide the task up into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks? How would they prioritize which emails to answer first? How would they decide which ones to ignore entirely? What is important is their reasoning and thought process, not what they say.
12. Who is the smartest person you know? Why?
This is a great way to see what a candidate values and aspires to. By forcing them to think of someone that they know personally, you avoid a stream of people praising Steve Jobs and telling you how much they aspire to be like him.
Instead, you’ll see answers that praise specific traits that a candidate’s friends, family or former colleagues have exhibited.
There are no perfect answers here, but the best should focus on a specific characteristic. Candidates might praise a friend’s thirst for knowledge or their networking ability. It would be useful here to see which candidates reference attributes that align with your organization’s values and desired behaviors.
13. What’s the biggest decision you’ve made over the past year? Why was it such a big deal?
This shouldn’t be seen as a way of delving into a candidate’s personal life. You don’t want to find out why they’ve just broken up with their partner!
Instead, interview questions like this show you how the candidate approaches the decision-making process. Do they make choices impulsively, or do they conduct painstaking research? Did they make a plan, or did they talk it through with friends?
The answers to this question will demonstrate if their style of decision making and their thought process fits the way you do things at your company.
Determining if a candidate has the relevant skills and experience is only half the battle. You need to make sure that they’re a good cultural fit for your company if you want to make good hiring decisions. Here are a few questions that can help you find this out:
14. What made you excited to get up and come to work at your last job?
It’s true that many people dislike their jobs. For the companies that want to have the best culture and employer brand, however, it’s important that employees are emotionally invested in coming to work. No doubt you have many employees for whom this is the case, but your goal should be to swell their ranks!
Explore why candidates found their last role exciting and what motivated them to keep digging deep when things were tricky. If they didn’t find their last role stimulating, find out why.
Are they likely to find work at your company interesting? This is more important than you think. It can be a great motivator for those late nights and lengthy projects.
15. What’s your management style?
Obviously this question is only applicable to people that you are interviewing for senior or management roles.
Bad management techniques can kill company culture and employee happiness in the blink of an eye, you need to know that anyone you hire isn't going to really mess up the culture.
Ask candidates about specific examples of times when they feel like they displayed a positive management style, as well as times when they got things wrong.
Good traits to look out for include a willingness to take feedback and make time for employees. A clear indicator of this would be a manager running monthly or weekly one-on-one sessions with their team.
16. Is there anything about this interview process that you would change?
This is a question that no candidate can prepare for and it takes some by surprise (which is no bad thing).
It will give you an indication of how candidates are feeling about the process and forces them to think on their feet.
If you’re hiring for a management position, it can also show you how a candidate thinks about process efficiency and illustrate the thinking style that they may apply to other areas of your business if hired.
This can also be a great way to get constructive criticism and improve your interviewing process and boost candidate experience.
17. What’s your favorite non-professional activity?
It’s important to try and understand what kind of person a candidate is, and finding out what they enjoy outside of work is a great way to dig into this.
While it may not impact their work at all, it can help you understand someone’s character. This kind of interview question helps to relax candidates and encourage them to open up and speak about their lives.
It’s also pretty interesting to know that you have a budding kitesurfer or a weekend chess aficionado in your team!
18. Talk me through a bad professional relationship you’ve had. Why didn't it work?
Everyone has had a boss that got on their nerves or a colleague that irritated them. Offices are high pressure environments, and emotions often run high.
Ask this question to understand the root cause of the bad relationship. What was the bad feeling based on? Did the candidate work to overcome the issue and recover the relationship?
Most candidates are hesitant to badmouth their bosses and colleagues, so this question always prompts a few interesting answers.
Watch out for weaker candidates who will cite problems like being passed over for a promotion or blame for project failure as the reasons for bad relationships. This kind of blame culture is probably not something that you want in your organization.
19. What would your former colleagues say about you if you weren’t in the room?
Hopefully nice things! Everyone wants to be thought of highly by their friends, family and colleagues… but if a candidate has significant drive and ambition, it’s possible that not everyone was their biggest fan at their last company.
Most candidates will probably answer this awkwardly; it’s an uncomfortable idea, but the best responses will be balanced. Something like: “My colleagues would probably say that I'm pretty passionate about my work but that I can occasionally overlook small details.”
If everything goes to plan, your new hire will be at your company for many years to come. With that in mind, you should ask a few interview questions that give you an idea of how candidates see their career evolving and how they handle strategic decisions.
20. What would your first 30, 60, or 90 days look like in this role?
The goal for every new hire should be to hit the ground running. The best answers will be well thought out.
Before diving in, top candidates will talk through the things that they’ll require to get ramped up. In the first 30 days, they’ll need to familiarize themselves with your process, sit down with key employees and stakeholders, and get acclimated to their new surroundings.
60-90 days should give them time to make key contributions in a number of different areas and bring at least one major initiative through to fruition. This is a pretty complex question, so feel free to break it up into 3 separate questions if you prefer.
21. Pitch [This Company] to me as if I were buying your product or service.
This is a slightly different, and more challenging, alternative to our earlier “What do you know about the Company?” question. Not only does it make candidates reference material from their research, but it forces them to come up with a compelling message on the fly.
Focus less on the delivery here. Sales and marketing candidates have an unfair advantage as they should be accustomed to this kind of task. The key to a good answer is thorough research and clear articulation of benefits your business does (or could) offer to customers.
If you are hiring for a customer-facing role, this is also a great way to gauge how they’d deal with the curveballs that customer meetings often produce.
22. What single project or task would you consider your most significant career accomplishment to date? Walk me through the plan, how you managed it, how you measured success, and what the biggest mistakes you made were.
Lou Adler, one of the world’s foremost recruiting thinkers, considered this question to be the most important and useful of all. He believes it’s the best indicator of whether you should, or shouldn’t, hire someone.
Interview questions like this are the whole package. Candidates have an opportunity to give you a behind the scenes tour of the professional accomplishment that they’re most proud of. You’ll get insights into how they plan and run projects, as well as how high they set the bar for success.
Top candidates will also use the “biggest mistakes” part of the question to display a sense of ownership for any weak points in the project.
23. How do you set goals? Outline the process.
Most of your best employees will be highly goal-oriented and results driven. It’s hardly surprising, then, that hiring managers want more of the same!
This interview question is great for ensuring that candidates are going to match up to the goals that you set for them, and should show you whether they have sufficient initiative to set their own targets.
The best candidates will articulate their exact goal-setting process. This should involve: how they select goals, how they split these lofty goals up into smaller tasks, how they plan to tackle these tasks, and ultimately how they measure success.
24. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
To succeed and prosper, companies need ambitious new hires who want to drive the business forward, and this question lets you separate those people from the rest of the pack.
Interview questions like this should make it easy to differentiate between candidates that have given career progression at your company serious thought, and everyone else. It’s also a great chance for the candidate to outline the role that they really want within your company – now you know what they’re working towards.
25. If I gave you £50,000 to start your own business, what would you do?
“Hold on a second, I thought we were trying to hire them, not invest in them!” Relax: this question is a great way for candidates to illustrate business acumen and creativity.
£50,000 is not to be sniffed at, but when it comes to starting a business it’s not loads. As a result, candidates should think carefully about how they would spend it and what early hires or decisions would give them the best ROI.
The best answers will get specific. They might touch on logistics, hiring, product decisions and services. You’ll also be surprised at how creative candidates can get when you challenge them like this. Again, the ideal answer will depend on where someone is likely to be placed in the company, and what skills you need from them when they arrive.
Read more insights about talent attraction and how top recruiters hire the best people.