Asking Better Interview Questions Will Help You Land Better Candidates. Here’s How

UPDATED: May 20, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 16, 2024
job interview with two people exemplifying better interview questions

You buy a new blazer to ensure your top half looks great on Zoom. You test your audio multiple times. Your resume is polished, your cover letter impeccable and you have researched your potential new company extensively. Then, you are hit with a question out of left field, and you have no idea why. Maybe it’s, “So tell me about an embarrassing time at work and how you responded?” or “If you were a tree, what tree would you be?” 

Like any candidate, you wonder what the heck that has to do with your skills, talent and fit at the company—and you aren’t wrong.

“Transparency is important because the interview process is fairly opaque to candidates that are applying, because they don’t know what’s happening or why it’s happening, so they’re not able to bring their best self to the process,” says Laura Gassner Otting, a speaker, executive search veteran and author of Limitless and Wonderhell, who believes in asking better interview questions. She adds that many of us haven’t had career counseling for many years, often since high school or college, and it might no longer be relevant, either from changing times or an industry change. 

She thinks candidates should understand why a company is asking the question, what they are looking for and more details to give better answers. 

The topic was a source of conversation for Madi Baldwin, who works in entrepreneurship and innovation, when she posted about a refreshing interview process on LinkedIn:

I had an interview in June that completely changed my thoughts on how interviews should be conducted.
A week before our scheduled meeting, the hiring team sent me an email that said…
“To bring out the best in applicants, our philosophy is to be completely transparent about the process and its steps. The sole objective of the interview process is to get the best from candidates – we want you to be successful, so help us say yes by sharing your experiences, passions, etc. Below you’ll find the list of questions we’ll ask you.” 🤯
Not only did they list the questions but they detailed the WHY behind the questions. AND finished the email off with two linked articles that they suggested might be helpful reading to prepare.
And guess what? It was the best interview I’ve ever had.
It was also one of the shortest #interviews I’ve ever had. I was surprised when the calendar invite I received was only for 20 minutes. But because of how well the team had prepped – I was able to represent myself better than I have in previous hour+ interviews. It was clear that they weren’t just looking for a peg to fit into a board, but for the successful candidate to be someone who would thrive.
Moral of the story? Don’t judge applicants on how quick and witty they can respond to your interview questions. Give them the chance to prepare, and you may find incredible hidden #talent right in front of you 🚀

Her post garnered over 6,000 reactions and 100 comments for a reason—people wanted to be part of interview processes like that instead of what they’d been through.

Here’s how experts say interviewers, and interviewees, can improve the interview process to be more transparent and ultimately hire better talent.

How to be a good interviewer: Throw out the standard five questions

Anyone who has worked in HR, or served in a hiring role, has likely been handed a short list of basic questions to ask the job candidates they are meeting. Gassner Otting thinks this is a problem. 

“The person asks those five questions and has no idea what else to ask or where else to go or why they’re even asking it,” she says. “They also don’t understand that they’re allowed to ask follow-up questions.” She adds that it isn’t helpful to treat everyone exactly the same because all candidates aren’t the same. 

Instead, better interview questions need a next level, a level up or a wording swap. She says she wishes it went like this: Instead of “tell me a time something didn’t go well,” you could ask that and also “how did they take ownership of it? How fast was the distance between failure and fix? Did they ask for help early enough in the process? Who did they go to?”

Additionally, Leanne Mair, CEO and founder of Benefactum Consulting and author of Closing the Gap: How to Include Black Women in Any Gender Equity Strategy cautions avoiding “wayward” questions. These might include:

  • Questions about willingness to work long hours or overtime: “While dedication and commitment are valued traits in employees, framing this question in a way that suggests a candidate’s personal life may need to take a back seat can alienate female candidates who may have caregiving responsibilities or other commitments outside of work.”
  • Questions about balancing work and family: “While work-life balance is important, targeting this question specifically at female candidates implies assumptions about their caregiving responsibilities and may unfairly disadvantage them in the hiring process.”

Figure out your timeframe and metrics, and share them

“We’ll be in touch.” It’s the most dreaded phrase for an eager candidate to hear as they hope to find out soon how their interview went and, ultimately, if they will move on to the next round and/or be offered a position. Yet, it tells them nothing.

“Candidates often don’t know the timeframe for decision-making, and they don’t understand the metrics by which they will be judged,” Gassner Otting says. She adds that job seekers also might not know of the listed qualifications that are most important to emphasize.

“Interviewees tend to feel they’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall, darts on a dartboard, hoping something’s going to land, but they don’t really know,” she says. It makes sense—we live in a “litigious” society, she says, so companies feel they have to be very careful not to overshare in the process. Yet, companies can share some information about how they are valuing the metrics or requirements for the job, she says.

Write a more robust job description

Generic, AI-generated job descriptions barely describe the real day-to-day life, let alone specific qualifications a candidate might need to know about. 

“Writing a more robust position description also builds the culture of your current employees as well,” Gassner Otting says, as it helps them realize what the company values. “It’s actually reengaging employees in their work. It realigns people around the goals that are at hand.”

A good job interviewer doesn’t shy away from a bit of feedback

“Depending on how many interview rounds there are, having clear feedback collection as to why the candidates didn’t make it to further rounds, but also collecting information from the candidates on how they found the interviews,” says Mair. “This gives a full view on how the process can be improved in the future.”

However, Gassner Otting doesn’t advise giving too much direct, detailed feedback, as it can become “litigious.” “People will not hear what they say; they’ll hear what they feel.” However, if it came down to different certifications, or another black-and-white reason, she says, it can be worth sharing. 

Welcome and encourage candidate questions

“There was never a ‘good’ candidate who asked too many questions who made me think they were a ‘bad’ candidate,’” Gassner Otting shares. “It doesn’t change anything—in fact, it shows me they have skin in the game, that they are interested in the position.” She says that, of course, they shouldn’t overdo questions with frequent emails after interviews, but candidates can also be more transparent themselves by sharing their “why” behind questions as well.

Finally, candidates who don’t feel comfortable at any point in the process should take that as a sign that it’s possible the position and the company culture aren’t aligned with their values.

Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock.com