Interviewing Candidates: Stale Questions Get Stale Answers

Interviewing: Stale Questions Get Stale Answers

One of my former lab mates, who has been interviewing for a job, recently remarked that her interviews are typically boring because interviewers tend to ask identical questions.

The main objective of an interview is to discover more about a candidate’s credentials and objectives to see whether the candidate is a good fit for an available position. An interviewer who asks cliché questions or uses tired language typically leads a dull question-and-answer session. He/she loses the attention of the candidate and fails to acquire comprehensive information about the candidate.

Avoid cliché questions

Job seekers have access to a number of books and websites that describe canned ‘best’ responses to the most popular interview questions. One response to the oft-asked “What are your weaknesses?” question is the predictable “I work too hard and ignore my social life.” Avoid old standby questions and ask incisive questions that make the candidate think.

  • Instead of “Do you like your boss?”, ask “What do you think your boss’s weaknesses are? How do you complement her weaknesses and support her responsibilities?”
  • Instead of “Tell me about yourself?”, ask “What aspects of your upbringing have contributed to your success at your current position as the leader of the risk management group?”
  • Instead of “Why does a career in sales interest you?”, ask “Can you name a few salesmen you admire? Over the years, what aspects of their talents have you incorporated in your sales approach?”

Personalize the questions

Interviewing: Personalize the questionsTo whatever extent possible, review a candidate’s résumé ahead of the interview and customize the discussion. Frame your questions to relate to the candidate’s experiences: “In you résumé, you mention that you led a team of technicians that worked during the weekends to meet an important deadline. Why do you think they cooperated with you and agreed to work during the weekends?”

Relate to the responses

Relate to one or two of the candidate’s responses by mentioning your own experiences: “I once had a customer who …”. Resist the temptation to start a conversation, empathize or add value to the candidate’s response. Be brief. Avoid talking too much about yourself.

Use a fresh tone of voice

On occasion, you may be required to interview several candidates in succession, e.g. while filling multiple positions or in a college recruiting session. After talking to a few candidates, your chosen set of questions may start to sound jaded due to repetition. Watch your tone of voice when asking questions; convey enthusiasm for the candidate’s details and engage in a lively conversation.

Maintain good rapport

Interviewing: Maintain Good RapportInterviewers often over-indulge in note-taking by recording minor details of a candidate’s responses and interpretation of these responses. Although the candidate welcomes the occasional respite from visual attention, too much note-taking can have a distancing effect. Record just an outline or use a graphical note-taking technique, e.g. mind mapping. Review this outline immediately after the interview and add details you want to capture for later review or a consensus meeting.

Pair up with a colleague

Conduct a tandem interview if possible; alternate asking questions and taking notes with the colleague. While one person takes notes, the other person can ask follow-up questions and maintain a rapport with the candidate.


The primary challenge for an interviewer is to see beyond the veneer of the candidate’s carefully-crafted résumé, on-the-surface details of past responsibilities and often well-rehearsed responses to interview questions. A lively conversation is essential to elicit thoughtful, candid responses and enable the interviewer to make an educated decision on the candidate.


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