Coburg Banks | Multi-sector UK recruitment agency

7 Essential Interview Questions Every Employer Must Ask

By Anthony Hughes | Oct 12, 2015 | Assessing Applicants

describe a time when you missed a deadlineIt’s all well and good, spending hundreds (or thousands) of pounds, attracting candidates to apply for your job vacancy.

But what happens if you ruin it all during the interview?

You see, interviewing is a delicate balancing act; you want structure and a plan of action, but it’s also really important not to over-script; you should always be prepared to feed off each interviewee’s answer.

However, there are a few essential interview questions that you simply MUST somehow weave into any type of interview.

And we’ve highlighted them below, for you to pinch and deploy…

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

We always condemn those horrible old clichés, yet this question crops up over and over again. Why?

Because it’s one question that every single candidate should have considered in advance.

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

It’s all in the preparation.

You can 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 interview question.

  • Did they take the time to look into your firm?
  • Do they truly understand what you do?
  • Or did they just take a quick glance at the ‘About Us’ page?

More impressive candidates will have done their homework.

(Of course, just because a candidate is prepared, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best person for the job. But at least they’re passionate.)

2. Describe a time when you exceeded expectations…

crystal ball with question - describe a time when you missed a deadlineThis really is your candidate’s chance to shine, boasting about that time they won ‘Employee of the Month’ or completely smashed it in a sales challenge.

In fact, if you listen carefully, the answer to this essential behavioural question will also reveal an awful lot about the candidate’s core values.

Insight like Mystic Meg…

Some candidates might reveal a competitive, ruthless streak that could be perfect for a Sales Executive, but a potential nightmare for an Office Manager.

Others might use the opportunity to describe working closely with their colleagues to meet and beat the goals set for them as a team.

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

Recruiter Pro Tip.

Every position is different and you should always assess candidates on the role, rather than your personality preference.

On the other hand, it’s important to ignore the stereotypes; not all salesmen and women are arrogant and not all marketers are “quirky.”

Unless there clearly have some sort of glaring personality defect, assess on skill first, personality second.

Use your initiative. You need someone who’ll excel at their job, but also get on with the team.

3. Tell me about a time when you made a major mistake?

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

But rather than asking this awful cliché and thus receiving an awful response like ‘I’m a perfectionist,’ this question will yield a real example of overcoming adversity.

Or not as the case may be.

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

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 onto others.

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 and how the candidate overcame it to prevent an even bigger drama.

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

4. Describe a time when you missed a deadline…

Man looking stressed with question - describe a time when you missed a deadlineI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… people miss deadlines. (I do – don’t you?)

This pretty harsh question will reveal a number of things about your candidates…

Can they cope with pressure?

It’s important to know that a potential employee can cope with pressure, without losing their cool.

Listen carefully to the response and watch out for anyone who clearly panics, gives up tasks easily, lays the blame on others or runs straight to their Manager at the first sign of trouble.

Would they go the extra mile?

A great interviewing candidate will show their commitment to completing all of the critical tasks and keeping the relevant people up to date, without upsetting the delicate balance between work and home life.

These interviewees will exhibit flexibility, work ethic and time management.

Would they go too far?

You will want some level of commitment displayed from an employee (you don’t want someone who’s going to head home, leaving the entire company in disarray.)

However, you don’t necessarily want someone who’ll put their job above all else, leading to no social life or relaxation and risk of burnout.

You might 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.

5. Where do you see yourself in five years?

I know, I know, yet another bloomin’ cliché! But it works!

Recruiter Pro Tip.

For a company to grow and flourish, you’ll need two types of employees:

  • Creative, innovative and ambitious staff, always seeking to improve and grow.
  • Competent staff that work hard, but are happy and secure in their current position.

Think about it; if every single member of your team were ultra-competitive and constantly striving for new opportunities, you’d end up with a highly intense and competitive environment, without enough progression to go around!

If you want an ambitious linchpin for your business, then look out for positive answers that show real commitment to growth and progression.

If you want a more laid back candidate, look for uncompetitive answers that show a willingness to settle down into a role.

You will need to watch out for candidates who state their desire to be in your position are clearly very confident (if not arrogant) and are exhibiting a dominance that could cause trouble in the future.

6. Describe a time when you dealt with conflict at work…

Describe a time when you dealt with conflict at work...You definitely want to know whether a prospective candidate is more of a trouble-maker or a conflict-resolver.

One of the most common reasons for new employees failing probation is because of an argument with colleagues, that shows that it happens a lot more frequently than you would think!

And considering the real cost of hiring a new employee, the monetary consequences should be enough to put you off a gamble.

Anyone who shows a willingness to accept some responsibility and goes about solving issues fairly, sensitively and calmly is a keeper!

Look out for anyone who attempts to scapegoat and badmouth others.

7. Do you have any questions?

This is my all-time favourite interview question.

There’s a reason why recruitment guides, blogs and consultants always advise you to end with it.

What to look out for.

A candidate who’s passionate and committed to taking a role will already have a bank of sincere and investigative questions ready for you.

They’re likely to ask things that reveal how well they’d fit into the position, the team and the culture and will attempt to find out more about the depths of the business.

In fact, the most impressive job candidate I’ve ever interviewed actually ended up doubling her interview, by asking good compelling questions and therefore engaging me in conversation.

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.

Interviewees who ask about perks like holidays, hours and pay are clearly more interested in the benefits than the job itself.


Hopefully, this post will have given you some of the tools you need to sharpen up your interviews!

Recruiter Pro Tip.

Remember, the essential interview questions we’ve included are merely a starting point.

So it’s important to remember that the above list isn’t exhaustive; follow up questions are essential, to find out everything you need to know about a candidate.

In fact, we’ve got a whole range of blog posts devoted to this very topic.

If you’d like to keep up to date with the latest interview questions and recruitment techniques, feel free to sign up to our blog here.

At the end of the day you need insight and clear information that can make your hiring decision an easy one to make… so the more questions you ask (naturally, as well as structured) the more insight you’ll get.

Good luck interviewing.

- 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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