Coburg Banks | Multi-sector UK recruitment agency

6 Essential Interview Questions Every Employer Must Ask

By Anthony Hughes | Feb 10, 2015 | Assessing Applicants

It’s all well and good adopting a scientific and rigorous approach to finding candidates, whittling down and separating the wheat from the chaff.  But without the right interview questions the whole hiring process can fall apart right at the very last hurdle.

Aside from the upheaval, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recently revealed that hiring the wrong person costs between £8,200 and £12,000.  So having gone to the trouble of assembling the right shortlist, you owe it to yourself and your staff to make sure the interview goes to plan.

Don’t overscript your interview.  You should be prepared to feed off the answers and simply talk to your candidate.  A checklist of 100 questions can be worse than none at all and might lead to a nervous exchange of pre-prepared answers to questions they’ve run into time and again.

Follow-up questions will help you go deeper and reveal far more about the candidate, including any chinks in their perfectly prepared interview armour.  Make sure you know how to spot a liar in your interviews too.

So feel free to chat and make the candidate feel comfortable and at ease.  After all you need to see whether they’re culturally right for your business.

But make sure you weave these essential questions into the interview.  They’ll reveal a lot about the individual and ensure that you get the right person for the job.

1. What happened the last time you made a major mistake and how did you deal with it?

It’s a twist on the old favourite: “What is your biggest weakness?”

Instead of inviting candidates to pontificate on serial ‘weaknesses’ such as perfectionism, trying too hard and just loving their work too much, or a number of hateful alternatives that have been more rehearsed than a show at The Old Vic, make them give you a real example of them overcoming adversity.

Or not as the case may be.

Nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes.  How we react to them is the critical part of the job and can prevent a bad day at the office turning into a real crisis.

How they answer this question will also reveal a great deal about the candidate in front of you.

What to look out for

Red flags include the obvious, refusing to acknowledge any mistakes at all, or trying to focus on blame and deflect it on to others.  Their very response will speak volumes for their ability to deal with this small amount of manufactured pressure, too.

If the candidate goes to pieces when faced with this question, it’s a fair indication that the same thing will happen when a crisis hits at work.

A good response will cover a relevant problem, focusing on the actual issue, rather than the blame and how the candidate systematically overcame the individual issues to prevent a drama turning into a full-blown crisis.

Also look for the candidate’s level of self-awareness, humility and ability to acknowledge and learn from past mistakes.

2. Can you give me example of when you exceeded expectations?

This is the chance for the candidate to shine, to tell you about that time they won ‘Employee of the Month’ or blasted their co-workers off the sales room floor.  At least that’s what they might think.

In fact, if you listen carefully, the answer to this question will reveal a great deal about the candidate’s core values.

Insight like Mystic Meg…

The answer could reveal a competitive, ruthless streak that could be perfect for a Sales Executive, but a potential nightmare clash in the making with your Office Manager.

Some potential recruits will immediately launch into a diatribe about their own personal achievements compared to their peers, which can be a sign of glaring insecurities that could mean they’ll struggle to work within a team.  Others will use the opportunity to describe working closely with their colleagues to meet and beat the goals set for them as a team.

Every position is different and you might need a certain type of character.  This one question will go a long way towards determining the candidate’s true goals and defining traits, for better or worse.

This question can also reveal a serial slacker that simply doesn’t understand the meaning of going above and beyond.

Either way, it will give you a huge amount of insight into the individual you’re interviewing and should in turn help you to form an more informed opinion about whether or not they’ll work in your business.

3. Why do you want to work for our company?

All that talk of canned questions and this old favourite still crops up.  Why?  Precisely because it’s one question that every candidate should have considered in advance.

Unless the person in front of you has applied for every job on Monster (and can’t remember your role from every other they’ve applied to), they should have prepared for this question.

That means they should have researched the company, taken the time to understand the role and then tailored a satisfactory answer (preferably a brilliantly convincing one) to make sure that they ‘seal the deal’.

It’s all in the preparation

Of course, presentation skills aren’t the most important factor with some jobs, but the majority of skilled workers will, at the very least, have to present their ideas or arguments at some point during their working life and this is a clear chance for them to ‘pitch’.

You’ll learn a great deal about the candidate’s level of preparation, background research and their ability to present themselves and a reasoned argument with this one tried and trusted question.

See if your shortlisted prospects found the time to look in to your firm and assess the quality and depth of their research with this old stalwart.  More impressive candidates will have done their homework.

4. Where do you see yourself in five years?

It’s another tried and trusted question, and for good reason.

Assuming you’re not just looking for a warm body to fill a space and you want to invest in your staff, it’s comforting to know that the candidate has a clear vision for themselves too.

Of course be prepared to look past the standard flannel and look for a candidate that wants to progress within a structured framework.

What you should be looking for

This question should reveal the goal-oriented individuals, as well as the dreamers with no clear plan and a general feeling that greatness will find its way to their door.

If a candidate takes this opportunity to ask about training and career progression, it’s a good sign that they’re looking for a mutual commitment that can help take your company forward.

A surprising number of candidates will openly tell you their plans to travel, though, or switch paths completely, too, which might colour your judgement when it comes to investing tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds in their future development.

5. Tell me about the last time you had to hit a tight deadline.

This open-ended question will reveal a number of things about the prospect in front of you:

First, you’ll find out if they’re used to working under pressure, which is a skill that can only come through experience.

It will also broach the subject of anti-social hours, and your prospect’s attitude towards them and how well they work with a team.

Can they cope with pressure?

Any company, no matter how well it is run, will have high-pressure situations.  It’s good to know that a potential employee has faced everything you might throw at them before and can face the most testing times without losing their cool.

Listen carefully to the response. How the individual worked as part of a team will be an essential element of the answer.  In most instances, employees rarely exist in a vacuum.  Therefore, a candidate that claims all the credit for a team effort could prove to be more destructive in the long term than an employee who’s plain lazy.

Occasionally, you’ll even get a surprise answer, an admission that the prospect does not like working under intense pressure, which may make for an easy hiring decision.

6. Do you have any questions?

It sounds simple, but a lot of candidates and employers are so drained by the interview process that they simply don’t take the final logical step and turn the tables.  In my experience, the most impressive candidates are ones that turn up with a prepared list of questions, some of which can be very challenging.

The questions the candidate has about the company, the ethos, the working conditions and day-to-day operations can reveal more about their character and commitment than the rest of the interview.

A prospect that has prepared thoroughly will know about your company and will ask probing questions about their role and so many other subjects that it could, in fact, double the length of the interview.

If it does, it’s a good sign, and it’s exactly what you want to see as an employer – someone who has taken the time and effort to actually think about the role, the company, and the impact that they can personally make.

It means you have a sharp candidate that will go the extra mile, is confident enough to speak up and communicates well enough to deal with team members and customers alike. In short if they don’t ask questions, it isn’t a good sign, but some will not break out a list without an invitation to do so.

So offer them the floor and be prepared for questions that are just as tough as any you have thrown their way.


Interviewing someone isn’t an exact science – it would be a lot easier if it was.  The list above isn’t an exhaustive list of questions to ask, and I’m sure if you searched on Google you’d find a lot more advice.  In fact, we’ve got a few more written here by Charles Trivett which could also help.

However these are questions that have worked for us at Coburg Banks over the years and continue to serve us well.

At the end of the day you need insight and clear information that can make your hiring decision an easy one to make.  Hopefully these questions will help you get one step closer to making that happen.

- Anthony Hughes

Anthony Hughes

Anthony is a recruitment veteran of 18 years and is also one of the original founders of Coburg Banks. He now trains recruitment consultants on the best methods to utilise when sourcing and assessing applicants for their clients. 


> More blog posts by Anthony Hughes

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