How to Talk to Your Candidate about His Ambitions during an Interview

Often, you’ll want to talk to the candidate about his hopes and expectations of the future. Typical questions are:

  • Why do you want to join our firm?
  • What do you expect to gain from the job?
  • Where do you want to be in three years?
  • How do you see your future career developing?

Naturally, you’ll be hoping that the chosen candidate sees a long-term future for himself within your company; you don’t want to spend time and resources on training him only to have him leave after a short period. Question him carefully in this area.

Whatever topics and questions are covered within your interview plan, you should consider the different ways that those questions can be phrased and how they affect the success of the interview. Ques­tions can be grouped under the following headings:

  • l   open
  • l   closed
  • limited
  • hypothetical
  • leading
  • multiple
  • discriminatory.

Open questions

Beginning with words such as ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what’, open ques­tions encourage the candidate to talk at length. They will enable you to find out about his personality, views and feelings. Think how revealing the answers to the following examples could be:

  • How do you feel about your career so far?
  • Why did you leave your last job?
  • Why have you applied for this post?
  • What qualities are needed for this job?
  • How would you describe yourself?
  • What will your referees say about you?

It may not be a good idea to ask open questions early in the interview when the candidate, especially if he is an inexperienced interviewee, will probably not yet be ready to talk informally. Stumbling, hesitant replies and embarrassed silences will simply make him even more nervous. Wait until he appears to be relaxed before introducing them into the conversation. An appropriate moment may arise after you have described the company and job and have checked facts. From then on, ask them regularly so that you get to know the candidate well.

Closed questions

Closed questions need only a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ reply. Imagine what a candidate might say in response to:

  • Did you like your school?
  • Were you a school prefect?
  • Did you study chemistry at school?
  • Was your last job interesting?
  • Do you like football?
  • Do you enjoy reading?

Such questions have their uses. Early on, they are helpful for verifying facts (‘Is your Higher National Diploma the equivalent of a degree pass?’) and for keeping a tongue-tied candidate talking. Later on, they can bring a rambling conversation back to the point (‘So, do you like travelling then, Mr Jones?’) and force an evasive candidate into giving a direct response (‘Mr Jones . . . Were you dismissed?’) Try not to use this form of questioning too much. A self-assured candidate can always develop his answer to continue the conver­sation (‘Yes, I did like my school. I was particularly fond of . . .’) but a tense or less talkative one will not be able to. A dull, unrevealing exchange will be the result (‘Yes … no, not really … Yes … no, not at all . . .’). It will take a long time, which will seem like an eternity, to obtain all the information you want.

Limited questions

Starting with ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘which’, limited questions usually produce a short, limited answer. As examples:

  • Who was your housemaster at school?
  • Who ran that training course?
  • When did you obtain your certificate?
  • When did you join that company?
  • Where was your job located?
  • Where do you go rifle shooting?
  • Which club do you belong to?
  • Which type of rifle do you use?

Similar to closed questions, these can be used to establish facts and keep the conversation moving. The candidate should find them easy to handle – after all, he knows all the answers. Use them sparingly, though, as they will make the interview develop sluggishly. It is far better to re-phrase them by saying ‘Tell me about your housemaster at school, that training course . . .’ which will produce extra inform­ation for you, as well as making the conversation more pleasant and interesting.

Hypothetical questions

Hypothetical questions ask the candidate to place himself in a particular situation. He then has to say how he would react in the following circumstances:

  • What would you do if a client complained that one of your junior staff had been rude to her?
  • How would you handle a customer who demanded a refund on a product that had obviously not been looked after properly?
  • What would be your response to an employee who was late for work?
  • How would you cope with persistent, unauthorized absences from work?

These are worth asking because they will enable you to assess whether the candidate knows what he is supposed to do in various work situations. However, ensure that they are relevant to the job. Think about three or four problems that the new employee is likely to encounter on a regular basis and mention them during the interview.

Leading questions

Leading questions signal the answer that you are looking for. As examples:

  • We’re looking for an industrious person. Are you industrious?
  • You do have enough experience for this job, don’t you?
  • Can you deal with the pressures involved with this post?
  • You’d be happy to work overtime when necessary, wouldn’t you?

Such questions are never worth asking because the candidate, unless he is particularly honest and naive, will simply tell you what you want to hear. It is far better to rephrase leading questions into open ones (‘What are your strengths in relation to this job?’, ‘What has your previous work experience involved?’ and so on).

Multiple questions

Multiple questions contain several questions all rolled up into one. Consider the following:

  • Tell me what you did in your free time at college? Did you belong to any societies? Or did you prefer sports? Were you in any teams?
  • Tell me all about your first job after leaving polytechnic. What was it? Was it enjoyable? What did you learn from it?
  • I see from your application form that you enjoy playing hockey. Where do you play that? Is there a local club? Are you a member of it?

Individually, all these questions have a place in the interview, helping you to find out a little more about the candidate. Ask them separately; otherwise you will appear confused and bewildered, and the candidate may become mixed up, not knowing which one to answer first.

Discriminatory questions

However they’re phrased, there are some questions which should be avoided as they create the impression that you are discriminating against the candidate on the grounds of sex, marital status or race. Do not ask questions such as:

  • Do you think a woman could do this job well?
  • Will you be able to cope with the men working for you?
  • Are you planning to marry in the near future?
  • What will you do if your husband is transferred away from the area?
  • Are you likely to have a baby soon?
  • What will you do if your children are sick?
  • How do you think you’ll get on with our white employees?
  • What will our white employees think about you?
  • Are you going to want long holidays to go back home to the West Indies?
  • We’ve never had a Pakistani manager before. Why should we now employ you?
  • As an Irishman, don’t you think you’d be better suited to a manual job?

These questions will – quite rightly – be interpreted as treating a can­didate less favourably because of their sex, marital status or race than another candidate in the same circumstances. Having been asked such questions, a rejected candidate may decide to pursue a claim of unlawful discrimination at an industrial tribunal – and would deserve to win. Avoid thinking of and asking such questions. Judge a candi­date solely on his ability to do the job.

Filed Under: Work & Careers


About the Author: Vanessa Page works a career counselor in one of the leading firms in Los Angeles. She is also a blogger and gives tips on how people can tackle their work and career issues. She has 8 years of experience in this field.

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