Your questions answered: How do you dig to get real answers from a candidate?

In this series, we answer questions sent in to Recruiting Hacks by leaders who responded to our 2012 hiring research survey. Do you have a question for the Recruiting Hacks team? Send it in!



When you’re interviewing a candidate, your whole reason for being there is to determine whether or not this candidate will be a good fit long-term on your team. This process takes many forms — determining their technical expertise, asking about culture and personal habits, finding out about past jobs — but all of these questions ultimately have the same goal of finding out who this candidate really is, and if they’re a good match.

But here’s the problem with the normal interview: candidates want the job, and they know the key to getting the job is to make you feel like they are the best fit. They have an intense incentive to tell you whatever they think you want to hear in order to get the job, whether or not it’s exactly true.

So it turns out that these interviews are often not as revelatory as you need them to be, and you can easily end up with a candidate with a bad attitude, bad habits, or even just a different working style than the rest of your team.

Even with long interviews with lots of digging and probing questions, it can be hard to pin down candidates, especially when you have a few who are all well-qualified and you are trying to make the best culture fit. Candidates want to please you, so you can never be sure you’re getting an honest answer.

Well — unless you remove the consequences.

You see, as the interviewer, you have to find a way to de-incentivize lies and half-truths for the candidate. You have to make them feel free to be honest with you about what they want and who they are. And one of the best ways to do that is to take a couple of your questions and put them in the hypothetical.

Not all your questions, of course. You should still ask about what this person would do in the role if hired, and what they think they bring to the table. But ask a few hypotheticals too. Good ones include:

  • If you could hop in a plane on vacation anywhere right this second, where would it be?
  • Describe your dream job to me, if money is no object. 
  • What’s an ideal day off like for you?

Because these questions invite the candidate to imagine, they remove the consequences of asking about *this* job right now. They can’t say the wrong thing, because it’s their imagination, so they have less incentive to tell you what you want to hear.

But even though these questions don’t seem to apply to the position at hand, they can actually be quite telling *because* the candidate is less aware of how their answer will be judged. Listen closely to their answers, and look for telling signs such as:

  • How do they say they’d prefer to spend their time?
  • Are they alone? With others? A mix of both?
  • If they talk about a hobby or place, try to get a sense of what — if anything — makes them so passionate about those places or things over others.
  • Do they have abstract, vague ideas? Or do they know exactly what their answer is?

These little insights can tell you a lot about how a person will fit into your team. For example, it’s easy for an introvert who prefers working alone to say, “Oh, I love collaborating with teams!” when the questions posed to them by an organization well-known for encouraging group work is, “How well do you think you work in a team?”.

Their incentive to say they love working with teams, even though untrue, is huge — because they want to get the job. But if you ask them about their perfect day off and they describe reading a book, going to a movie alone, talking a long walk — suddenly you have a sharp insight into how this person really prefers to spend their time.

Does this mean the person won’t get the job because they aren’t naturally inclined to work on teams? Maybe. Or maybe it means you hire this person being a little more informed, and a little more aware. Maybe you’ll notice when this person you realized was an introvert in the interview gets a bit overwhelmed by too much team work, and you’ll take steps to help them because you already know how to help them avoid burnout.

Asking smart, consequence-removing questions can make all the difference between an okay hire and a great one. Think about how you can remove incentives for candidates to tell you what you want to hear. What question will you ask?

Tags: , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply