When you’re interviewing a candidate, you want to make the most of this brief window in time to get to know them and work out if they’re the right person for the role.
Choosing the right questions to ask can help you to get the most value out of an interview, by giving you important insight into how a candidate can put their skills to use in the role and respond to situations that might arise on the job.
There are four main types of common interview questions – behavioural, motivation-based, situational and skills-based (sometimes called ‘competency based’). Here we cover when and how to use these question types, examples of questions to ask, what to listen for in a candidate’s answer, plus the questions to steer clear of.
Behavioural interview questions
These types of questions can help you understand how an individual has behaved in a past situation, giving clues about how they might perform or make decisions in a future role.
“Our interviews tend to follow the format of behaviours-based interviewing,” says Sarah Beck, SEEK’s Director of Talent Acquisition.
“Questions typically start with, ‘Tell me about a time when …’. We are looking for evidence that the candidate has done this before and hence can do it again.”
Examples of behavioural questions:
Tell me about a time when you faced a challenge at work. How did you handle or solve the challenge?
Tell me about a time you didn’t deliver according to expectations. What did you learn for the next time?
Tell me about a time when you had to collaborate with someone to get things done.
The best responses to behavioural questions provide concrete examples of how specific situations may be handled based on how they were resolved in the past.
“Try to understand what the complexity was of that situation and how the individual navigated through that situation,” says Justin Boots, HR Business Partner at SEEK.
Situational interview questions
Situational questions target specific issues and challenges that may occur in the workplace, particularly those where a solution is needed.
“Situational questions are a good way to see how a candidate responds to a question in the moment because they are often hypothetical,” says Manisha Maligaspe, Recruitment Lead for Oceania Transaction Advisory Services at EY.
“This type of question draws out a candidate’s problem-solving skills and their analytical skills. These are ‘What would you do if …,’ questions.”
Because they’re often hypothetical, asking situational interview questions is useful when candidates don’t have experience in a particular area or with a certain organisation, Boots says.
This style of questioning is handy if you’re hiring for a role, moving into a new product, or you’ve acquired another business, Boots says.
“You’re testing a candidate to see whether their reaction to a new situation that you’ve never been in before as an organisation, is something that would fit in and would be valued within your organisation.”
Examples of situational questions:
You realise your manager has made a big mistake on an important project. What would you do?
What would you do if you thought your workload was too heavy?
What would you do if a team member wasn’t pulling their weight on a group project?
The best responses to situational questions provide tangible explanations that highlight specific steps that candidates could take to resolve an issue. “There’s no right or wrong answer,” says Maligaspe. “You’re looking for how the candidate backs up their ideas and reasons.”
Motivation-based interview questions
These questions seek to uncover the drive and enthusiasm behind someone’s job application. They can help to reveal a candidate’s reasons for applying and whether their values align with the organisation’s values.
“This type of question is key,” says Jodette Cleary, Chief People Officer at hipages. “Motivation and drive are often subconscious, but they play a big part in predicting job satisfaction,” she says.
Cleary says while her go-to motivation questions below may seem basic, they are proven in highlighting patterns in drive and motivation. “These questions reveal if someone is introspective and recognises what has motivated them previously, or if they have never really thought about the ‘why’ of their career choices.”
Examples of motivation-based questions:
What are your biggest aspirations in your life – work or otherwise?
Walk me through your career from when you left high school. Why did you study what you did or take the path you did?
What do you enjoy most / least about your role / current company?
The best responses to these questions address internal and external motivations and the work environment in which candidates are most productive and happy.
Skills-based interview questions
Skills-based questions aim to uncover whether an individual’s skillset matches what the organisation is looking for. These questions require candidates to discuss their existing skills as well as those they’d like to develop.
Skills-based questions usually centre on technical or professional skills that the candidate needs, but Maligaspe says it’s also important to consider soft skills.
“I use the HATS approach,” she says. “It stands for Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill. We want a candidate who will get along with the team and live the organisation’s values. They can usually be brought up to speed on technical skills, but cultural fit is very important.”
Examples of skills-based questions:
Which of your skills do you think will be particularly relevant for this role?
What is one professional or technical skill you would most like to develop?
How have you used your skills to resolve problems in past roles?
The best responses consider soft skills (such as adaptability and communication skills) as well as hard skills (skills that can be taught – e.g. technical skills).
What employers can’t ask in an interview
When it comes to what you can and can’t ask candidates, some questions are off-limits. If in doubt, make sure you only ask questions that are relevant to the role.
“The purpose of an interview is to understand if the person has the right skills and capability to do the role that you’re hiring for,” Boots says. “Any questioning that goes beyond that scope is off the table for any interview.”
If you’re asking a candidate about their marital status, sexual orientation, religion or disability, those answers are irrelevant to an employee’s performance.
“The answers to those questions are not going to help you ascertain whether or not someone has the skills and capabilities to do the role,” Boots says. “I would steer away from those questions and not ask those in an interview situation.”
How to identify great interview responses
“Clarity, evidence and relevance are all key to answering interview questions,” says James O’Reilly, Talent Acquisition Manager at Xero.
“Candidates need to provide articulate answers through well-structured sentences, and the answers need to be relevant to their previous experiences and to the role or business they are applying for.”
“I like candidates who answer using the STAR approach,” Maligaspe says. “That stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result.”
Situation/Task: Is the candidate giving you a real-life example or just their opinion?
Action: Has the candidate clearly explained the action they took? “Look for the ‘I’ not the ‘we’ in an answer. You want to be sure they did it, not someone else,” says Beck.
Result: How did the situation end up? It’s ok if it didn’t work out, as long as they can say what they learned from it.
“If someone can articulate how they’ve defined a situation and can explain what the issues have been, the actions they took or would take, and then the result, they’ve got a good, clear way of thinking through problems,” says Beck. “And that goes a long way in a job interview.”
What candidates should ask employers
If candidates are given the opportunity to ask questions, that’s when you can gain insight into their knowledge of the organisation, such as its market performance and main competitors.
“What would impress me if I was a hirer interviewing a prospective candidate for a role is if they were asking questions that deepen their already built-out knowledge of my organisation,” Boots says.
“Anything that shows me that they’ve already done a little bit of research into the organisation or into the role that they’re coming in to, I think would be really impressive from the hirer’s point of view.”
Get ‘interview ready’
Ideally, your interview questions should cover a mix of different styles, with particular focus on those that best suit the information you need to uncover.