The Best Way to Get to Know a Candidate During a Job Interview

2 minute read

Instead of asking a long list of unrelated questions, take a moment to listen and build with a follow-up.

"What are your greatest weaknesses?"

"Where do you want to be in 10 years?"

"Tell me about a time when you overcame an obstacle."

You've likely encountered questions or prompts like these during a job interview, or asked them yourself. In theory, they're supposed to reveal a candidate's true personality and help determine if he or she would be a good fit for the position. In reality, the answers to these questions are not that telling.

According to Richard Davis, a management psychologist and partner at RHR International LLP, getting a good read on someone is all about the follow-up questions. Yet most managers simply accept the first answer and move on to the next question.

"In my experience conducting interview-based assessments for the last 12 years, I have found that this is because the first answer to one of these questions is only marginally helpful and may even be irrelevant," Davis writes in Harvard Business Review. "Yet most askers simply accept what they hear (good or bad) and, without asking any follow-ups, move on to the next topic on their list."

The thing about follow-up questions is that it requires that you pay close enough attention to the candidate's answers so that you can build on them. But the payoff is worth it, Davis writes. The follow-up question is what will really uncover what you're seeking to learn.

In case you're still apprehensive about asking a follow-up question, Davis presents three different types of questions you can ask:

1. Repeat your original question and just tweak it a bit. If the candidate deflects the question or doesn't give you the answer you're looking for, try using a phrase like "Let me ask you this another way." That gives the candidate another chance, while at the same time allowing for the possibility that the first question wasn't clear enough. Just be wary of overusing the same phrase and switch it up with similar options.

2. Connect their answer to something they said earlier on. Say something like, "Oh, that's like what you said before about…" Not only does that help you get a better understanding of the candidate but it also shows that you are paying attention. Again, be wary of using this too much; you don't want to make it feel like an interrogation.

3. Ask about the implications of an answer. If the candidate says that his biggest weakness is being a perfectionist, ask how that plays out in the workplace.

The specific questions you ask aren't crucial as long as you're forwarding a meaningful conversation that reveals a candidate's personality. It's about going beyond the first question to turn a stock answer into something more significant.

"Coming up with a great list of questions is only the first step in conducting an in-depth interview," Davis writes. "It's the follow-up questions that will really tell you who you're dealing with."

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