Rules for Job Interview Questions

Some of the long-held ideas about how to conduct job interviews are no longer accurate there’s no such thing as a surprise question anymore. Candidates can use the Internet to identify and prepare for each of your likely interview questions ahead of time.

Google’s research proves that “brainteaser questions” can contribute to a costly miss-hire. Having candidates meet more than four interviewers doesn’t increase new-hire quality. Grades, test scores, and schools attended don’t predict success in the position.

So it’s time to rethink your interview questions and focus on work-related questions that are harder to prepare for and to fake an answer to.

Avoid easy-to-practice questions. If you work for a major corporation, most of your interview questions and their recommended answers are publicly posted. Eliminate overused questions with a low predictive value, like “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” and ”Why are you the best candidate?” and ”Where would you like to be in five years?”

Use less historical questions. Behavioral interview questions (“Tell me about a time when you led…”) require a candidate to describe how they performed in the past. These are problematic in a fast-moving world where yesterday’s approaches quickly become irrelevant. According to professors Frank Schmidt and John Hunter, these questions predict success only 12% better than a coin flip.

Assess their problem-solving skills. If you were hiring a chef, you would ask them to cook a meal?. Taking a “job content” approach, by having an applicant do some of the actual work, is the best way to separate top candidates from average ones. Consider asking them to:

Identify problems on the job. Say something like: “During your first weeks, how will you identify the most important problems or opportunities in your area.”

Solve a current problem. The ability to solve current problems is often the best predictive factor of job performance. Describe an actual problem that they will face on their first day. Then ask them how they would solve it in broad strokes.

Identify the problems in our process. Hand them a single-page description of a flawed existing process related to their job. Ask them to examine the process and identify the top three areas where they predict serious problems are likely to occur.

Evaluate their foresighting abilities. In fast-evolving environments, employees must anticipate the future. Consider asking these questions to assess how well a candidate can do that:

Outline your plan for this job. The very best develop a plan before they begin a major project or new job. Ask them to outline the elements of their plan of action for their first 3–6 months. Have them highlight key components, including goals, who they’ll consult with, how they’ll communicate with their team, and the metrics for success.

Forecast the evolution of the job. Anticipating major shifts is critical. Ask them to forecast at least five ways that their job will likely evolve over the next three years as a result of changes in the business environment.

Assess a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt, and innovate. If the job requires any of those factors, consider these questions:

Learning: “How would you continuously learn and maintain your expertise your field?.”

Agility: “How would you adapt to dramatic unexpected changes in technology or customer expectations?”

Innovation: How would you improve your team’s innovation in response to stiff competition or new technologies?”

Interviews are tough to get right. Carefully selecting questions and determining acceptable answers ahead of time greatly increases your chances of success.



John Sullivan, Ph.D., is a professor of management at San Francisco State University and an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management.