3 Overused Interview Questions That You Shouldn't Ask

July 19, 2018

It never ceases to amaze me how wide the gap is between the enormous importance organizations place on hiring great talent...and their actual skill in conducting high-quality interviews. Most companies are, frankly, terrible at interviewing. And, while poor execution comes in many forms, one key culprit is simply asking predictable, bad, or otherwise uninsightful questions.

For example, let’s picture two candidates for a critical role in your organization. The first one (let’s call him Adam) has been struggling greatly in his past three roles, taking on responsibilities that were too much of a stretch, lacking the energy and commitment to get the job done, and spending a lot of time in desperate job searches as a result. He reached out to you twice in the past few months, and his earnest pleading (and well-crafted cover letter) encouraged you to give him a shot.

The second candidate (let’s call her Sue) has been, and still is, on fire—widely exceeding expectations in her current role and working overtime to help drive her team to new heights. She took an interest in your company at the urging of a close friend, who encouraged her to take time out of her busy schedule to give you a look.

You bring them both onsite, and your interviewer asks them the following three interview questions:

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Why are you interested in our company/this role?
  3. What would you do in your first [X days/months] on the job?

Here’s how asking these questions will likely play out:

Adam (the weaker one) loves these questions. He’s had plenty of practice on #1, because he’s interviewed with 15 companies in the past two years alone. His self-pitch is smooth, efficient, and well-rehearsed. He nails #2 because he knew this one was coming and he’s had several days to prepare a brilliant response—one that even includes a tidbit he heard from your CEO in a recent keynote speech on YouTube. And on #3, he weaves a brilliant fairy tale of his future victories based on everything he completely failed to do in his last three roles.

Sue (the stronger candidate) wasn’t quite as smooth. She didn’t have as much time to prepare as Adam did, because she was busy delivering results for her current employer. She also hasn’t interviewed as much—only one recent interview for her current role, a process that was pretty lightweight given she was pulled into the opportunity by her happy former boss. She manages to muscle through #1, but because she's a passive candidate (i.e., not actively looking for a job), her “story” was not very smooth. On #2, she gives a very honest and fairly compelling answer, but one that did not involve the same depth of research into your unique mission and culture as Adam’s answer. And her response to #3 sounded fine, but it took her a few awkward seconds to formulate her response to your hypothetical question—again, she simply has not interviewed much in her all-star career.

The net result? You pass on the strong candidate and move forward with the weak one. A big hiring mistake, and a significant missed opportunity!

Why these interview questions don’t work—and what you should ask instead

What is most amazing about these three interview questions is not only how unreliable they are, but also the fact that they are arguably the three most common questions asked in interviews.

I typically see the “tell me about yourself” question in organizations where the interviewer can’t think of anything better to ask. It’s basically the interviewer saying, “I haven’t prepared any questions, so can you please fill the air for me while I form some gut impressions of you?” It’s the telltale sign of an interviewer without a clear goal or game plan.

I see the “why us” question absolutely everywhere—it’s not necessarily a terrible question, but it is the question that is most likely to give you a canned (read: inauthentic) response. And it is so pervasive that a candidate may be asked this same question three, five, or even more times during an interview process. Their response gets better and better with practice (and as they learn more about the role in each interview). By the time they make it to the all-important final rounds, their response is well-rehearsed and full of the things they think you want to hear. It’s fine to ask this question in the right context, but do it sparingly, and don't put too much stock in a great response.

“What would you do in your first X days/months” is arguably the most overused question with candidates at senior levels (particularly VP and above). If you were to ask me what I would do in my first 90 days on the job as your new CFO, I could probably weave a pretty decent story about using metrics to create transparency, installing much-needed operational controls, securing new sources of capital, and improving operating cash flow via working capital improvements. Unfortunately, I have never worked in a corporate finance role, and therefore lack the training and experience needed to do even 20% of what I am claiming. But my story certainly sounds good!

So if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

There are countless great questions to ask candidates, and it is important to maintain variety and understand what kind of information you are after. As a basic rule of thumb, however, your questions should meet three key criteria:

  1. They should be relatively short and simple.
  2. They should be open-ended (questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”).
  3. They should lead the candidate to talk about specific positive or negative situations from their past.

Two great examples, often used by professional assessors, would be: “What was your proudest accomplishment at [prior employer]?” or “What was your biggest mistake in [prior role]?” Of course, your initial question of a candidate is only the starting point—the real insight comes from diving deep into the candidate’s story via follow-up questions...a story for a future blog!

If you are interested in learning more about what questions to ask (and avoid) in interviews, try our online training at burtonadvisors.thinkific.com.

Jordan Burton is the founder of Burton Advisors LLC, a boutique talent advisory firm serving a select group of high growth companies and their investors to help them identify, attract, hire and retain top talent at all levels. He was formerly a Partner at ghSMART& Company and a Case Team Leader at Bain & Company, serving clients in the high technology and private equity industries. His website can be found at www.burtonadvisorsllc.com.

* Photo from Max Pixel

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