There are no “holy grail” interview questions, but there are some good “commandments”


HR managers have long searched for the “holy grail” of interview questions—the most insightful set of questions that can predict which candidate will be the best employee—on search websites. jobs and in popular articles. However, the search for these Holy Grail questions is likely to be fruitless.

As the adventurers of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” discovered, the Grail is nowhere to be found (no matter how many French castles or internet sites you visit). We suggest HR professionals and hiring managers stop looking for the holy grail interview questions. Instead, here are some “commandments” (i.e., guidelines) for conducting high-quality interviews.

First, you will gather information about the job(s). Good investigators begin by researching the job in question. Review the job description and talk to subject matter experts (SMEs), such as current employees of the position and their direct supervisors. The purpose of these conversations is to get a list of important behaviors that constitute good job performance. This effort is not as daunting as it seems. We found it fun to talk to small businesses, and most small businesses enjoy talking to you about their work.

Point: Identify the behaviors that constitute good and bad performance in each job you interview for by asking SMEs questions such as: “What do high performers do in this job and what do low performers do?” or “What are the key elements of this work?”

Second, you will focus on questions that predict job performance. Tom Janz, a well-known interview consultant, said, “Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” This means asking about the specific occasions when the job seeker engaged in a certain behavior. For example, if following procedures is an important job behavior, a behavioral question might be “Tell me about the last time you had to make a decision about how to follow procedures.” The key question here is to focus on what people have done in the past to see what they are likely to do in the future.

Truly behavioral questions do not involve several types of commonly used questions, such as “Tell me about yourself”, “What are your strengths?” and “What are your weaknesses?” These are far too general and do not necessarily relate to behaviors at work. Behavioral questions also don’t involve probing personality or philosophies, nor are they “goofy” questions such as “If you opened your fridge and saw a penguin, what would you say?” Nor do they involve “puzzle puzzles”, such as “How many golf balls fit in a football stadium?” None of these questions are likely to be a holy grail as they are not proven to predict who will do the job best.

Point: Behaviors do not have to come from work to predict job performance. For example, you might tell students or people re-entering the workforce that their examples may come from classes or volunteer activities that seem similar to the work environment. The key issue is behavior.

Third, you will structure the interview. Essentially, this means standardizing the interview as much as possible for all candidates. The best way to do this is to ask everyone the same questions. This gives all candidates the same chance to demonstrate their qualifications during the interview. In other words, it’s the fairest approach you can take and you get better information for your assessment.

The good news is that the first three commandments will “predestinate” you for a legally defensible interview. When an interview is based on understanding the nature of the work in the job and the questions focus on work performance behaviors, everyone has an equal opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications. Thus, it can be said that each question is logically related to the job. It also minimizes the risk of discrimination claims, as everyone has been treated the same. This is especially true for “excessive subjectivity” suits where plaintiff’s counsel argues that a) investigators could ask anything they wanted to ask and b) they will seek to hire people similar to themselves (e.g. , white men). Research has clearly shown that these issues are largely mitigated or eliminated with structured interviews.

Point: Avoid the temptation to have a coast-to-coast interview to assess generic “fit”, like liking the candidate’s personality. Concepts like personality do not predict who will be a better employee.

Fourth, you will use the interview to gather new information. This means collecting unique insights and enabling in-depth analysis of past behaviors, with an instance for each question.

Many interviewers are tempted to start the interview by skimming through the candidate’s CV. Yet this often runs counter to the intention of focusing on employment-related issues based on information from SMEs. In fact, this approach allows some candidates to be treated differently from others and could expose the organization to allegations of discrimination.

Some experts suggest that interviewers only ask questions that can be answered quantitatively. For example, “How many math courses did you take in college?” “What was your cumulative grade point average in your major?” They believe that only these types of questions can eliminate racial or gender bias. However, these questions probably won’t provide enough information to reveal the best candidates. Moreover, the evidence suggests that this approach is, at best, unnecessary. At worst, it’s a waste of time because you could get this information from the transcripts.

Point: Realize that it is very difficult to predict the future behavior of someone you do not know. Stay humble by acknowledging that no one can do it perfectly, and use your limited interview time wisely.

Fifth, you will map the questions to the behaviors. In other words, there should be an inventory of the important behaviors that make up the job. Then, each interview question should be clearly targeted (or mapped to) one of these behaviors. This step helps to ensure that every important behavior is covered and that no behavior is overemphasized, and the mapping can be used to show the careful construction of the interview process.

Point: List important work behaviors in the left column of a document. List the interview questions in the right column and draw an arrow to the behaviors each interview question is designed to cover.

Building a quality interview is hard but rewarding work. There is no quick fix because there are no holy grail interview questions. Instead, there are good commandments that can greatly help us choose the best employees. Commandments emphasize learning about the nature of the job by talking to SMEs, asking high-quality questions, structuring the interview, and gathering new information. We should also map out how the questions relate to job performance before conducting an interview.

Following these commandments will give you the best chance of finding the best employees.

Philip L. Roth, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Management at Clemson University’s Powers College of Business. John D. Arnold, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Management at the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr., College of Business at the University of Missouri.


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