Should you ask all candidates the same questions?

My very first job as a school governor (equivalent to a school board member) was to recruit a new deputy head.

It was quite clear who the best candidate was and I can say, without doubt, that we recruited the wrong candidate. I arrived at the meeting and was given a piece of paper with my question on it. I had to ask all the candidates this one question. My other eight colleagues had their own questions, which they also put to each candidate.

The candidate was sat on a chair in front of the long table where we all sat.

I could not believe that people were still using this process.

When I asked the other governors about their method they told me that this was ‘fair’ and we had to treat all candidates the same. This is to completely misunderstand the whole recruitment process.

The purpose of the interview

In this case (because the process was so poor and the interview was the only screening we were using) the purpose of the interview was to identify if the candidate could do the job.

Instead of asking about actual experiences and finding out what the candidate had achieved, we were asking “What would you do if…?” questions whose answers were completely unreliable (this was clear from the performance of the individual we recruited).

How can it be fair to ask different questions?

Your objective in this kind of interview is to identify if the candidate has specific skills and behaviours. To do this you need to employ your investigative skills. Many candidates have excellent experience, but are poor at letting you know. So you have to dig.

Now it may be that you start off with the same question. Here’s a recent example:

Have you made any unpopular decisions?

Depending on the answer of the candidate, you really need to follow this up with very different questions:

Candidate: Yes

Interviewer: What was the most difficult?

Candidate: I don’t think so

Interviewer: What about decisions that your team or boss did not immediately like?

Candidate: Unpopular with whom?

Interviewer: With your team.

Now it may be in this case the interviewer thinks the job is going to involve lots of unpopular decisions because that’s what it would be like if he did the job.

But usually you are asking about unpopular decisions because it is likely to lead to examples of the specific skills you are looking for. These could possibly be negotiation skills, resilience or communication skills.

But let me take you back to some recruitment I did where we were looking for managers with just such skills. My client defined “resilience” and being able to keep calm and to your course of action in the face of hostility. I had designed a very robust process for these candidates.

They had to take part in various activities and role-plays while we observed them. Every now and then we would see candidates where we could find no examples of resilient behaviour through the entire day. Not because they weren’t resilient, but because they were such good negotiators that they never encountered the hostile behaviour that other (often more argumentative) candidates seemed to attract.

So a really skilled candidate would have found ways to make “unpopular decisions” palatable and may not even see them as “unpopular”, which would mean you would not get very useful evidence from this question.

Different questions

You need to have a selection of questions so that if you do not get examples of the behaviours and skills you are looking for from the first question, you have plenty more areas to search in. This is not cheating and it is not treating people unfairly.

When I prepare lists of questions for clients to ask their candidates in the final interview, I make sure there are alternatives if first one doesn’t give you the information you need. This is much fairer to the candidate who just hasn’t had the experience you are asking about. It’s also fairer to you, because it means you are more able to find the candidate you need.

What happened to the candidate who should have got the job?

In case you are wondering about my original example here, the candidate who should have got the job, Liz, was already head of science at the school. She didn’t get the job because she was “too good in her current role, we can’t afford to lose her from that”.

Of course we did lose her – she went to another school as their deputy head and I’d be very surprised if she didn’t go on to be an excellent head teacher. She did well but we lost a very good member of the team.

How To Find Out What People’s Values Really Are

Values tell you how people are likely to behave

When I am working with clients on objectives, it often helps to clarify the difference between Values, Behaviours and Objectives:

  • Objectives are what you need to achieve
  • Behaviours are how you do it
  • Values are why you do it that way

Know what their values are

When we are recruiting or dealing with new people it can be very helpful to find out what their values are. The key is to ask the right questions.

Just ask the right questions

Most people will happily tell you if you just ask. This is because we all tend to think that our values are right and are shared by everyone else.

How to ask questions to discover values

Get the individual talking about something they have done, preferably in a difficult situation. Then ask them why they did it that way. It’s a very useful interview technique.

An example of how to find out values

I once observed a candidate, a woman called, Esme, doing a role-play, a task that formed part of an interview process. She wore a bright red suit and matching stilettos. She was playing the role of an administration manager dealing with a surgeon, Dr Kildare, her task was to persuade him to meet the new targets.

Within a few moments she was shouting and screaming at a surprised Dr Kildare. Then she lifted him up by his lapels. His feet were dangling in the air.

After the task the director and I interviewed her. Up till this point she had been the leading candidate. I asked her why she had handled the meeting with Dr Kildare as she had.

She would have got the job

Had she responded that she was very sorry for the way she had behaved, she was just nervous and it had not gone as she had planned, she probably would have got the job. However, that was not what she said.

‘You can’t negotiate when you only have 25 minutes with someone.’ She told us authoritatively,

This told us all we needed to know about her values. She didn’t get the job.

Another example of how to discover values

More recently I was interviewing candidates for a client and we asked one of them why they had lied to a client. ‘Well, they’ll never know.‘ She said with a shrug. The candidate who got the job, when asked about her behavior in a rather difficult situation had quite a different response: ‘Once you’ve promised something to someone, that’s it. You must keep your promise.’

Find our more about questions and which ones to ask in this booklet:

Questions made easy

The more experienced I get, the more I realize that questions are the answer to most problems and difficult situations. Using questions instead of telling people things is more effective in most communication situations from negotiation to learning, from interviewing to coaching and in virtually all difficult situations with anyone who is behaving badly.

This booklet, for just £6.25, contains my top 22 questions gathered over many years, variations on them and when and where to use them.
Armed with these you can deal with most situations. Some are gems that will work in many different situations (so you will find the same question in several sections); others are for more specific use.

In this booklet you will find:

  • Four questions to help you to identify objectives and goals
  • What not to ask in performance reviews and appraisals (and why)
  • Six questions to ask in performance reviews and appraisals
  • Questions to help you formulate development objectives
  • 31 questions for Coaching & Problem-solving
  • 2 questions to establish training needs and learning objectives
  • The questions not to ask when establishing skill levels
  • 10 questions to find out what someone can really do
  • Questions to help learning including a worked example
  • Questions for learning reviews
  • Questions for  when your mind goes blank
  • Questions for panics
  • Questions for dealing with situations when someone has behaved badly
  • Questions for Interviews to identify skills and behaviors
  • Questions for interviews to identify values
  • Questions for dealing with performance issues
  • Questions for when you need answers, action or help (and what not to ask)
  • Questions to get decisions
  • Questions to persuade others
  • Questions for sales situations (with a worked example)
  • Questions for negotiations
  • Tips on the easy ways to come up with the right questions and get the right answers
  • A summary of the 21 standard questions you can modify to suit your situation