Talent Acquisition

Interview Questions: Time for a Shake-Up!

What motivates you?

Where do you see yourself in five years?

What’s your biggest strength?

What’s your biggest weakness?

If you don’t recognise any of these questions, it’s probably because you haven’t been involved in a job interview recently. If, however, you’ve been either a candidate or an interviewer, there’s a good chance you’ll be all too familiar with these frankly clichéd posers.

Questions like these – and indeed these exact questions – have been a staple of interviews for years now. And yet they show no sign of dying off yet. They’re still used across multiple sectors, for a range of roles and specialisms. Strangely, they’re perceived as being suitable for almost any interview, and for any candidate.

But why?

Failing to rethink your interview questions is a serious oversight that leaves a weak link in your recruitment strategy.

Employers put a huge amount of effort into other stages of the recruitment process: employer brand; recruitment marketing; job ads; filtering and selection; all the way through to onboarding. But hidden away in that process is the interview, the content of which hasn’t benefited from an update or a serious rethink for far too long.

For example, candidates have been asked the ‘what’s your biggest strength?’ question for decades. Can you imagine an organisation failing to refresh their employer brand for the same length of time?

Of course, these questions are often only one part of an interview that encompasses other conversation and measurement, but perhaps it’s time to ditch them altogether, since they’re only taking up space that could be devoted to far better ways of gauging a candidate’s suitability.

The easy option:

In some ways, standard questions like these are a comfort blanket. It’s an unfortunate truth that some people don’t like interviewing candidates, whether it’s because they’re too busy to do the interviewing, because they don’t feel comfortable doing it, or because deep down they think somebody else should be doing it.

Let’s not forget that in many interviews, the person asking the questions might be a line manager or a future colleague of the candidate, but they might not be a professional recruiter or even an HR person at all. That’s why these standard questions, along with templated interview formats, are often seen as a useful resource. They give the interviewer something to lean on.

But the repeated use of these old chestnuts means candidates are able to second-guess you. The majority of jobseekers can predict an interview will contain at least one, possibly more, of these questions. That means they can come to the interview armed with pre-prepared answers that offer precious little insight.

It’s an interviewer’s job to get a full measure of the person in front of them. This means probing, scratching beneath the surface, to find out what makes the candidate tick and why they would be a useful addition to the workforce.

If the candidates know what to expect and are able to rehearse beforehand, it means you’re less likely to get a true representation of them during the interview.

It’s like giving a student an advance warning of the questions in a forthcoming exam. Sure, it’ll help them to deal with the pressure and pre-think some of their responses, but it doesn’t mean their answers will be a good reflection of their knowledge or ability. It’s a bit of a cheat.

Low value:

Besides, even in the unlikely event that a candidate is hearing these questions for the first time, what value would their answers offer? These questions are so generic and so broad that they don’t really allow you to gauge a candidate’s suitability for a specific role.

And let’s face it, they also allow the candidate to answer them with a relaxed approach to the truth. When you ask somebody what their biggest weakness is, are they really going to tell you they’re terrible at timekeeping, rarely get on well with colleagues, or that they get bored easily?

Of course not. Instead, they’ll say they’re perfectionists, or they’re sometimes guilty of taking on too much work.

And if you ask them where they see themselves in five years, will they tell you they’ll probably be working elsewhere because they see this job as a stepping stone?

No. They’ll tell you just what they want you to hear. And you’re enabling them to do that because they’ve been able to predict what you’ll ask them.

Avoid the wacky interview:

We’ve all read about some of the (possibly apocryphal) left-field interview questions posed during interviews at Google, Microsoft, and other blue-chips:

  • Why are manhole covers round? (Because manholes are round, duh.)
  • A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost all his money. Why? (Because he was playing Monopoly.)
  • What is 37 times 37? (Sure, it’s easy to work out while you’re sat reading this, but consider how much harder it would be with a couple of interviewers giving you the beady eye. And I’m not giving you the answer, by the way.)
  • Are you lazy? (Erm…)

But, while these might be eye-catching and entertaining, this line of questioning is not right for every employer. These are designed to gauge factors like logic skills, problem solving and emotional intelligence, rather than directly measuring aptitude or suitability for a position.

Pose questions or tasks that are appropriate for your sector, and for the role and candidate profile of the person you’re interviewing.

Ask questions that tap into their experience and skills. There is little value in asking generic, often-used questions if they offer little insight into the suitability of a candidate for the role you’re looking to fill.

And finally:

After considering all this, there’s one reminder.

The most important question to ask? Of course, it’s “Do you have any questions for us?

In one sentence, you give the candidate the opportunity to show how much they know about your company, how well they’ve researched the role, and also demonstrate their ability to work their way around a key piece of dialogue.

Sometimes it’s not the questions you ask, but the questions you’re asked that are most valuable.

Author: John Eccleston is a writer and editor who covers recruitment and HR topics for

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