If Your Company Sucks At Interviewing Candidates…

Here’s the thing about interviewing candidates, it’s an art. You can’t just hand your employees a list of questions to ask the candidate and expect that you’re going to get solid information. Sure, you might be able to do that in the early stages but the farther along the candidate gets the more likely it is that they are skilled at tweaking their answer to show off their best qualities while hiding their worst.

If you set the expectations for your employees that as long as they ask a basic list of questions during the interview process they’ll have enough information to make a hiring decision then you’re likely to be making bad hiring moves. Interviewing isn’t about asking questions and writing down answers. It’s about truly digging into the lives of the candidate you’re talking to. It’s about getting candidates to say things to you that they know they shouldn’t be saying in an interview because it’s too close to the truth about their weaknesses or shady past experience but before they can catch themselves they’ve already said too much.

Yet so many companies fail to teach their employees the art of interviewing. Instead of coaching them to be able to ask the tough questions, to dig into previous experience, and to get candidates to dish the dirt on what their biggest flaws are (the real flaws not those stupid interview answers) they encourage employees to spit-fire questions at the candidates.

Interviewing is not about asking a list of questions to candidates. It’s about knowing what specific traits you need in an employee and figuring out how the candidate ranks in these areas. For example, if you need someone who can handle difficult people well because this role happens to require that employees interact with difficult people (hey, that’s life) then you want to know about a bunch of situations where your candidate has had to deal with difficult people at work.

If your employees come right out and say “tell me about a time when you were dealing with difficult people and how you handled that situation” then they are going to get a BS interview answer because the candidate knows that dealing with difficult people is important in this role and then they are going to cater their answers to that factor. You’re going to like what you hear and then you

are going to hire someone who might actually suck at dealing with people.

Interviewing is about getting candidates talking about their past teams, the people they loved working with and what those characteristics were that they enjoyed. Guide their stories so they tell you about their least favorite team members, why they weren’t their favorite, what issues they had, how the candidate interacted with that person.

By showing some vulnerability on your end you can get candidates to say A LOT. For example, once I have candidates talking about big team projects, the people they like, the roadblocks they hit, I’ll say, “team projects can be really stressful and sometimes cause people to be at odds about what decisions to make” at this point the candidate is just nodding because…well, that’s what candidates do. So then I say, “I know there are people I’ve worked with in the past who I’ve really struggled to connect with because we’ve had such differing opinions. The candidate is still nodding. “Can you tell me about a team you’ve been on where you’ve had this kind of relationship with a teammate? Oh yea? What specifically happened? How did you resolve that issue?

Then I go in for the kill, “If I took that person to coffee what would they tell me about your work style? If I asked them to give me one piece of advice for how we could use this past experience as an opportunity for you to grow in your career, what would they suggest that you do differently next time?”

BAM the candidate has already admitted there were problems in the relationship, I know this past co-worker will have genuine feedback and the candidate can’t really get away with “I wouldn’t be so detail oriented” as an answer so I always get good information about areas of weakness from the candidate. Even as they are telling me what their ex co-worker would say about their flaws I know the candidate can’t believe they are being so candid with me. It’s awesome.

Being a skilled interviewer is about getting candidates to tell stories, about getting them to talk comfortably about previous situations, and about NOT directly asking them what it is you want to know. It’s about finding creative ways to figure out if your candidates have the characteristics you need in your future employees.


FOT Background Check

Marisa Keegan
Marisa is a Culture Coach for small and quickly growing organizations trying to establish the infrastructure required to create a company full of passionate, motivated, and engaged employees. She has held culture and engagement roles for two nationally recognized great places to work, founded the research and networking group Culture Fanatics, and is an industry recognized blogger. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and twin boys and is looking forward to the day she can bike across the country to raise money for MS research. @marisakeegan.


  1. Josh Tolan says:

    Interviewing candidates really is an acquired skill. Like you mentioned, you can’t just give someone a list of questions and expect they’ll perform a top notch interview. Whether the interview is in person or through online video, just spitting out questions doesn’t give any insight into the candidate or how they truly work. For one thing, follow-up questions can be just as important as the ones you’ve already planned to ask. Sometimes candidates will let something small slip, and if you’re so focused on the next question on your list you might miss the chance at a great follow-up question that can tell you a lot about the candidate.

  2. Roger Philby says:

    It’s not an art, it’s a science. The research shows that the “art” based approach as outlined in this piece is woefully inaccurate in determining the future performance of a candidate in role. The author is outlining how you get an individual to talk more openly, i.e. the art of conversation, this is somewhat different from the science of accurate candidate selection.

    • Marisa says:


      I’d love to hear more about your art vs science thoughts. I believe that by getting candidates to talk more openly it allows companies to get a true feeling for who that person is and how they will plug into a team. As you might know from my previous posts, I’m a huge fan of looking at fit when it comes to hiring and I believe that getting candidates to talk candidly is a huge part of finding out if someone will ‘fit’ into the position you’re looking to fill.

      Do you have examples of science based questions or processes that you prefer to use?

      Thanks for your thoughts on the post.


      • Therizasta says:

        I agree with Roger. There is a lot of research out there regarding the validity of selection techniques predicting job performance. Unfortunately, most companies only use one type of selection technique (i.e., interviews) and therefore their selection system in place is not a good predictor of whether an employee will be successful or not, good fit etc. However, for whatever reason, if your company can only implement interviews, or chooses to do so, there are a few ways to improve the validity of your interview.

        Cliff notes being, you need to do a job analysis for the job (which was sort of mentioned in the intro) so that you can identify the job duties and KSAOs involved. The interview is based off of this. Behavioral and situational questions improve validity. Behavior indicators should be developed beforehand and used for scoring based on your job analysis. Structured interviews predict job performance better than unstructured interviews (asking questions by your gut feeling). Dont quote me on the actual number (its been a while), but I believe it is a structured interview accounts for about 20% of variation in job performance, where as unstructured interviews accounts for only about 5%.

        So the underlying theme seems to be that the selection process is becoming standardized, how can this help validity of a selection system? Well, the reason being is because it removes subjectivity from the equation, and moves to objectivity (albeit, it can never be fully objective), thereby decreasing personal bias. If every person gets different questions (unstructured interview), your not rating everyone in the same manner. And this is true even if you start off asking everyone the same question, but then allow people to open up, the bottom line is the followup questioning will vary from person to person, and therefore they will be rated differently. Its no different then if I were to give different tests to students in my statistics class, then score them and compare their scores. I cant compare their scores and conclude that Jane did better than John because they were given different tests; maybe John would have done better if reversed. So I agree it is definitely a matter of science and statistics.

  3. Ron McManmon says:

    I would say interviewing is an art and a skill. The act of getting to know some one (and especially in a short time frame) is an innate talent that can be honed through years of interaction with others, and training. We have found that other “tools” can provide a great deal of support are Type programs. If nothing else Type is a great way to get the candidate talking about themselves from an objective stand point.

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