Coburg Banks | Multi-sector UK recruitment agency

9 Predictable Interview Questions You Shouldn’t Be Asking and 24 Unique Alternatives

By Mark Wilkinson | Jul 27, 2015 | Assessing Applicants

Have you ever felt like an interview was going a little too well?

In our previous blog posts, 6 Left-Field Interview Questions and 7 Interview Brainteasers, we discussed the importance of unpredictability during interviews.

It’s SO easy to find example interview questions and answers online these days that most of your interviewees are bound to be over-prepared, offering you scripted, rehearsed answers.

That’s why you need to mix those interview questions up a bit!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s OK to ask a couple of the more common questions during your interview, but it’s equally as important to ask unexpected, perhaps more specific, ones too.

Below, we’ve outlined 9 of the most predictable interview questions (you’ll recognise them) and 24 alternatives, to help you get a better, more honest picture of your candidates.

Predictable Q1: Tell me about yourself…

Most interviewers start with this question and thus, most interviewees will be prepared for it.

Mix it up a little bit…

Alternative Question 1: What’s your story?

Perhaps not the most unconventional twist on an old classic, but sometimes, it’s the minor changes that make a difference and force your candidates to really think.

‘What’s your story?’ will also reveal what your candidate considers the most important highlights of their life.

Alternative Question 2: Describe yourself in three words…

Limiting your candidate to three words, will save time and quickly reveal what your candidate thinks are their 3 most relevant skills – without waffling on.

Of course, you can use follow up questions to dig further… ‘Can you give an example of that?’ will ensure they’re not just saying what that they think you want to hear.

Alternative Question 3: When I call your referee, how will they describe you?

This cheeky little interview question is difficult, but it is the most likely to get you an honest answer from your candidate, for fear that you will actually call their referee.

(Even if you have absolutely no intention of doing so!)

Predictable Q2: What do you know about the company?

Any sensible candidates will do at least a little research about your business; all it takes is a ten-minute scan of your website.

But what will a generic repetition of your ‘About Us’ page really tell you about a candidate?

Be more specific…

Alternative Question 4: How would you describe our company values?

If a candidate has thoroughly researched the business, they’ll know your values and culture and therefore, be able to answer this question easily. Lazy interviewees probably won’t even have considered it.

For example, perhaps you’re openly engaged in environmental issues? Or charity work?

Alternative Question 5: Tell me something about the company that you can’t see on our website…

OK, this one is a bit unfair so use it wisely.

I wouldn’t completely discard someone if they can’t answer this question…but you could use it to reveal the more passionate candidates in the process.

Predictable Q3: Why should I hire you?

Your candidates will have read the job description prior to interview and (if they’re clever) they’ll use it to answer this question.

But what use to you is a regurgitated job description? Wouldn’t you prefer something a little more original?

Alternative Question 6: What can you offer, that our other candidates can’t?

man pulling a scared face gifThis question is pretty ruthless.

You’re basically giving your interviewee a few seconds to try and come up with an answer that they think no one else will give (definitely too risky to start reeling off the skills written on the job description).

This is a test to see how well they react under the pressure and whether they’re creative enough to come up with a good, unique answer.

Alternative Question 7: What’s your USP?

Particularly relevant in creative industries (like marketing and sales) this question will force your candidates to think beyond the ‘I’m hardworking, creative and dynamic’ type clichés.

Alternative Question 8: Tell me something about yourself that I don’t know.

Your interviewee’s answer could range from an appealing and funny habit or hobby to a slightly inappropriate personal fact, but the more savvy of the bunch will state something that supports how great they will be for the role.

Section Two

Predictable Q4: What’s your greatest weakness?

Although excruciatingly predictable, this question does cause trouble for interviewees.

If you take a look online, there’s a lot of advice for candidates, telling them to ‘be honest’ but positive – but no one really knows what a good answer to the question looks like; it varies.

Panic often settles in and candidates end up spitting out cheesy clichés like ‘I’m a perfectionist.’

Alternative Question 9: What would you say was your biggest failure?

Failure can often reveal weaknesses, so whilst listening to your candidate’s answer, assess…

Why did the task fail? Was it due to a lack of commitment, passion, skills, communication etc.? Or just “unfortunate circumstances?”

Alternative Question 10: Tell me about a time when you were assigned a task, but didn’t know how to complete it…

You are looking for candidates who can admit to to their weaknesses and knowledge gaps (we all have them) but who are also willing to learn and grow from them.

You don’t want candidates who give up, pass the buck or who muddle through, without making the effort to learn.

Alternative Question 11: When I call your referee, what will they say is your greatest weakness?

This is another one of those cheeky little questions that holds a threat of discovery should your candidate dare to lie!

Recruiter Pro Tip.

Shaggy saying 'it wasn't me' gifIf an interviewee answers a weakness question by citing experiences that weren’t necessarily their fault, whether outwardly or discreetly laying the blame on others, then they’re simply avoiding the question.

Be wary of such people, this could show an unwillingness to take responsibility for their own mistakes and weaknesses.

Predictable Q5: What are your greatest strengths?

Remotely sensible candidates will express skills relevant to the role at this point (again, telling you exactly what you want to hear).

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being honest.

Alternative Question 12: What has been your greatest achievement?

Just like our alternative question 9 – you’ll have to use your critical skills and intuition to work out exactly where the candidate’s strengths lie.

Why were they successful? Was it due to their commitment, passion, technical skills, communication etc.?

Alternative Question 13: When I call your referee, what will they say is your greatest strength?

You really can start most interview questions with ‘when I call your referee’ for a better chance of getting an honest answer!

Predictable Q6: How do you handle conflict?

There are a few variations of this old gem, but each and every one of them basically boils down to ‘show me how you’ve resolved conflict in the past…’

You can expect a generic answer along the lines of ‘I had two colleagues who were arguing about X, Y and Z, so I stepped in and calmly spoke to them both until the issues were resolved.’

Great answer – but is it even true?

Alternative Question 14: Tell me about a time YOU were involved in a conflict… What happened? What did you do?

Shift the focus onto the interviewee’s experience, not as an outsider looking in, but within the conflict.

It’s important to look out for body language, as well as any signs that they might have caused the conflict in the first place.

Alternative Question 15: Tell me about a time when your manager asked you to do something you didn’t want to do…

This directly leads into a conflict resolution question…there’s no way out of it (unless the candidate says ‘that’s never happened to me’ – which is a cop out).

Did they have a good reason for not wanting to do the task? How did they let their boss know? Did they get angry? Did they simply refuse to do it?

Good candidates will reveal that they got the work done anyway (and well) brought up relevant concerns with their manager at an appropriate time and encouraged their colleagues to do the same.

Alternative Question 16: Tell me about a time when you were the cause of a conflict at work. How did you accept responsibility and solve the problem?

Straight to the point: ‘when have you upset someone (client or colleague – hopefully not a manager) and how did you sort out your mess?’

People are bound to face conflict at some point in their career; it’s inevitable (especially in fast-paced and competitive industries).

As long as the candidate can explain how they resolved their mistake professionally and admit to their mistakes, then don’t be too judgmental.

If you’d like to read more about workplace conflict, check out this interesting fact sheet from acas.

Predictable Q7: Describe a time when you lead a team…

Candidates with leadership skills are appealing (no matter what the level of vacancy) because they’ll have a natural ability to rally, inspire and motivate others.

Alternative Question 17: Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a troublesome staff member?

This question should be used exclusively for managers and obviously, it ties in with conflict resolution – but on a managerial level.

A good leader will know how to inspire their team – but will also know when and how to get tough.

Alternative Question 18: Have you ever had to take the reins on another team’s project?

A good leader will be more than willing to take on tasks that are out of their comfort zone and will lead the team to victory, without stepping on their toes.

Beware of candidates who appear to get too involved in another team’s projects – micro-management can be just as disruptive as no management.

Alternative Question 19: Have you got any personal experience of leading people?

If you’re aware that your candidate doesn’t currently have a lot of experience (for example, they’re a graduate) then this is a good question to assess whether they naturally take the lead outside of work.

Look out for candidates who run social clubs, are the captain of a sports or leisure team, charity event planners etc.

Recruiter Pro Tip

There are 7 key attributes that make up a great leader.

So, if leadership is the most important skill you’re looking for then we recommend you assess for those 7 attributes (rather than asking the cliché question above).

See our recent blog: 21 Tough Interview Questions That Reveal True Leadership Potential to discover more.

Predictable Q8: Describe a team task you’ve completed…

The ability to work as part of a team is an absolutely essential skill for a good employee.

(Even if they don’t directly work with others, you don’t want to hire someone who gets on everyone else’s nerves).

Alternative Question 20: How do your colleagues describe you?

This should be quite enlightening, especially if you watch the candidate’s body language.

Do they suddenly appear emotional (angry, upset, superior)? Do they squirm nervously? Are they, perhaps, lying? Chances are they don’t get on so well with their colleagues.

Or do they warm to the topic, citing natural attributes like ‘friendly’, ‘a good sense of humour’ and ‘a bit of an agony aunt’ etc. ?

Alternative Question 21: What aspects of teamwork do you find challenging?

This question completely turns the topic on its head.

You’re not giving your candidate a chance to explain the positive teamwork attributes that they think you would want to hear; instead they’re going to have to think on their feet.

Beware: this is quite a difficult question for your candidates to answer and it might put them off their stride.

(No one likes to admit to their weaknesses!)

Predictable Q9: Where do you see yourself in five years?

This is a very loaded question, used to assess whether an interviewee will be around for the long haul or if the position (and business) is merely a stepping stone on their career path.

However, most candidates are wise to it and will therefore have a carefully sculpted answer prepared.

So why not ask something a little different?

Alternative Question 22: What 3 things do you want to achieve in the next 5 years?

Being specific frames the question and you’ll get a much more structured response, rather than an answer that avoids the question entirely (rambles on about ‘growing with the company.’)

Do they have a plan? Is their plan a good one? Are they after your job?

Alternative Question 23: What motivates you?

This really is a tricky interview questions and it might leave some of your candidates stumped.

They might say progression, stability, training…it’s unlikely that they’ll admit to being ‘in it for the money.’

When you’ve got your answer, you need to consider whether it’s something you can genuinely offer them; there’s no point hiring someone who you won’t be able to motivate.

Alternative Question 24: How does this job fit into your long term plans?

This question can work well to determine commitment…if you dig deeper.

Don’t accept cliché answers like ‘I want to settle down and work my way up the company.’

Ask “why” and “what’s your end goal?” “What if opportunities to progress don’t become available?” Adding extra pressure will reveal more about what they genuinely want from life.

Don’t be inappropriate!

Great interviews usually end up more like a conversation than a high pressure meeting, so don’t be too scripted (it increases pressure).

With that in mind, predictable questions do have their place in interviews but more as a tool to put your candidates at ease.

It’s definitely important to throw a few tougher questions in too!

Recruiter Pro Tip.

Of course, there are some questions that you absolutely MUST NOT ask.

Do NOT attempt to discuss any of the following:

• Age.
• Sexual orientation.
• Marital status.
• Cultural issues.
• Disabilities and illness.
• Previous criminal convictions.
• Inappropriate jokes, innuendos and anecdotes.

See our recent blog post: 6 Interview Question Topics Employers Should Avoid for more details.

Honestly, we’ve heard all sorts of inappropriate interview horror stories, from sexist jokes and outwardly sexual comments, to badly-masked questions like ‘so you’ve decided to settle down and have a family?’

Would you like to discover more top notch interview questions and what they can reveal about your candidates? Click Here to sign up and we’ll send you a weekly email to brighten up those terrible Tuesdays!

Good Luck.

- Mark Wilkinson
Mark Wilkinson

Mark Wilkinson

Mark is one of the founders of Coburg Banks and heads up the permanent recruitment division of the business.  Every day he helps companies with their recruitment projects, sourcing the very best individuals for their vacancies.  He understands recruitment inside-out.

> More blog posts by Mark Wilkinson

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