The five questions to ask applicants in an interview

Editor’s note: Brad Remillard is cofounder of Impact Hiring Solutions and coauthor of You’re Not the Person I Hired: A CEO’s Guide to Hiring Top Talent. For more information visit

Do other people in your organization interview candidates who will end up working directly for you? Just about everyone answers yes to this question. The follow-up to that is, have you ever sat in on the interviews with these co-workers and assessed if they are competent interviewers? I don’t mean co-interview with them but specifically be there to gauge their interviewing abilities. Most answer no to this question.

Think about it: You are relying on their opinion to hire someone who will play a role in your success, yet you don’t even know if they are competent interviewers. So you cross your fingers and hope everything works out. Crossed fingers and hope make a poor hiring process.

There are two reasons interviewing fails:

1. Few people are naturally good interviewers. Just as few people are natural at music, sports or math, most would be considered amateurs when it comes to interviewing. Do you want to have your success based on the work of amateurs?

The vast majority of people learn to interview from the people who interviewed them. That is not a training program. Interviewing is a skill that needs to be developed and honed. Most people have either had no training or it was one short class years ago and they’ve long forgotten what they learned. Given that fact, how can anyone expect their managers to be competent interviewers? Skills need to be practiced or at least kept up-to-date to be effective.

A lack of training and practice creates one major flaw that poor interviewers make over and over again: They don’t probe deeply enough into what the candidate tells them. They tend to just accept or reject what they are told without asking for facts, times, data, outcomes, challenges, team issues, names, etc. It’s not that the person doesn’t want to probe, they just don’t know how or they are uncomfortable asking these types of questions.

2. Vague questions equal vague hires. Can you guess what percentage of hiring managers actually review the details of the job description with the co-workers who will be interviewing the candidates? Less than 10 percent.

Oftentimes, those in the second or third round of interviews really don’t understand the position. They interview every candidate much the same way regardless of position. It is the one-size-fits-all interviewing syndrome. The problem is, once the person comes on board the job expectations by their new manager are rarely vague and generic.

So that means the other people interviewing simply assume they know what is important in the job, what specific issues need to be probed and what questions they should ask to determine if the person is qualified for the job they themselves don’t even understand. Is it any wonder interviewing fails?

Interviewing doesn’t have to be all that complicated. It doesn’t have to be so sophisticated that a person needs to go through extensive training every time they have an interview. In fact, interviewing should be simple, thorough and easy for everyone to understand.

Well-trained interviewers can get about 80 percent of the information they need to decide whether or not the person can do the job with just five questions. If job candidates can’t sufficiently answer these five core questions, then all the other questions are irrelevant. In fact, for most hires at the manager level and higher, if the candidate can’t get past the first three, you should move on.

The five questions are:

1. Give me an example where you demonstrated high initiative. Just about every position requires initiative. The degree of initiative may change based on the position but if they don’t have it at the level you need, do you really need to continue?

2. Give me an example where you successfully executed on a critical project. If you have critical issues you need addressed and they haven’t shown an ability to do so, you may not have the right person.

3. Give me an example where you led a cross-functional team on a complex project. Leadership is something managers must possess. The cross-functional aspect is important, because motivating people over whom one does not have authority is just one difference between managing and leading.

4. Give me an example where you have done X in your current company. Aligning past experiences and accomplishments with regards to scope, size and organization is important.

5. When you come on board, how would you accomplish X within X period of time? Getting them to describe how they will do the job in your company, with your resources and your culture demonstrates their ability to adapt to your company.

Once the interviewer asks each of these questions, then simply probe deeply with who, what, when, where, why and how. Ask follow-up questions. If the candidate really did what they claim to have done they will be able to describe it in great detail. Probing deeply is what will separate those who did it from those who are merely claiming they did it.

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