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Submitted by KateM on


BLUF: After using the Interview Creation Tool on candidates, I've noticed I've had to do some "dumbing down" of the questions to get answers.

Most of our hires are for receptionists or nurses, who might have 6-18 months of technical training after high school; a few have had a little bit of university, but virtually none have 2- or 4-year degrees.  None have management experience.

Example: an important question for nurses.  "Tell me about a time when you needed to follow instructions accurately. How did you ensure that your work was correct?"

Sample answers have included:

Answer: "I double-check everything."

Answer: "I try really hard to do it right."

Answer: "I had no mistakes on my patients in my last review."

This is it.  This is all I get.  If I sit quietly with a smile on my face, and wait for them to expand, they'll just sit there, or say a non-say, like, "Do you know what  I mean?" or "Was that what you were looking for?"  I'll repeat the question, and then get one of the other answers.  My interviewees rarely will ask for a clarification on the question if they need one before they start to answer it, and I don't believe anyone has ever taken notes on the questions while I was asking them.

In order to get multi-part answers to multi-part questions, I have to break down the large question into smaller chunks.   But this doesn't really test the interviewee as much as it tests my ability to spoon-feed or "lead the witness."

I don't know whether this reflects:

1) My inexperience as an manager/interviewer

2) The relative poor quality of candidates, in that we have a shallow labor pool (company is located in a rural economically depressed area of the US in which our county's high school graduation rate just recently exceeded 50%).  According to salary benchmarks, we're at the 75%th ile for salary and the 90th %ile for benefits, so I don't believe we're too stingy to attract at least average candidates for our area.

3) The relative inexperience of candidates, in that they are not used to this kinds of meaty "essay" questions in interviews; they are used to multiple choice questions ("Are you more task-oriented or people-oriented") or fill-in-the-blank questions ("What's your salary expectation?") or cheesy pseudoessay questions in which there is an unofficial official best answer ("What's your biggest weakness?")  


donm's picture
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Can I take the coward's answer of "All three of your suppositions are probably somewhat correct?" To your first suggestion, dealing with your inexperience: Ask follow-up questions such as these suggestions below.

For example: What did you do to double check? Did you ever find something was wrong when you did the double check? How did you insure the double check was accurate when you found discrepancies?

Example two: We all try to do things right. Trying to do things correctly doesn't verify accuracy. How did you verify the accuracy?

Number three: Your answer does not pertain to the question. How do you verify your work is accurate, not how well did your manager check your accuracy?

An interview is a two-way conversation. It appears you're going in with a list of good questions, then just recording the answers. You need to listen to the answers and respond accordingly to get to know what the candidate is capable of in just a few minutes.

To the quality of candidates: I interview entry-level engineers several times a week. Few even get a second call back. I usually ask several concrete questions, such as:

What projects did you work on? (After their answer, which usually sounds like: "We built the computer that was used as Data's brain on the Starship Enterprise.") What part of the project did you do? (Usually, "I plugged it in before we tested it.") I then go into technical questions such as: What is Ohm's Law? Can you tell me what these schematic symbols stand for? How does this simple circuit work? The questions get progressively harder. If they can't answer the first two of the first three, I am probably going to chalk this up to a poor candidate and cut the interview somewhat short. I get poor candidates all the time.

I keep asking questions until either the guy is a genius who knows more than I do - you have to learn something in 30 years of doing the same job - or he finally gives me the answer I'm looking for: "I don't know." It is very important in my line of work that one admits when he is unable to solve a problem or does not have the requisite knowledge. I need someone who can do this up front in a pressure-filled situation, such as a job interview. You would be surprised how many people will give you false answers rather than just admit "I don't know." They get bonus points for, "I don't know, but if I had to guess, I'd say XXX." Admit lack of knowledge, then give an option.

Other things you might do for a receptionist is have him do a mock telephone answer. Give him a piece of paper with the company name on it, and hand him a dead handset or headset. "Here is the name of our company. Pretend you are our receptionist and the phone just rang. Answer it and have a mock conversation with the client calling." Look for how professionally the telephone is answered, and most importantly whether or not the person is smiling while answering. I swear you can "hear" if the person on the phone is smiling when you call.

You said you were hiring entry-level. You must expect lack of experience. That's not lack of experience, though. It is the lack of bad habits taught by years of doing the job incorrectly. You're getting a blank slate to mold into the new position. You're getting an opportunity to put someone onto the right track.

"You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince." (paraphrase of someone's observation; too lazy to do the internet search to find the quote and author)

mattpalmer's picture

Like you, Kate, I got a lot of very poor answers to the interview creation tool behavioural questions when I first started using them.  I tried asking followup questions when I got poor answers, much as Don has described, and while the usefulness of the information I was getting improved, I still wasn't getting the results I really wanted.

What I found turned things around was changing the phrasing of the question.  Rather than starting with "Tell me about a time..." I instead spend the first sentence inviting the candidate to think about the situation, and *then* I ask them the question.  So for example, for your question, I'd ask, "Think of a time in your life when you needed to follow instructions accurately. How did you ensure that your work was correct?"  Surprisingly, just by changing those first few words, I went from a less-than-10% "hit rate" on getting an actual story to a better-than-50% hit rate.

You will still need to learn how to ask probing questions, though, and that just takes experience and practice.  Don't take it personally, we've all been there, and I can assure you that it gets easier with time.

My best tip when I'm teaching others how to behavioural interview questions is to keep an eye on the clock (which should always be in your natural eyeline), and if the candidate has been talking for 15 seconds straight, you're overdue for a probing question.  Yep, just 15 seconds.  I'd give them 30 on the *initial* response, where they're setting the scene, but only if they're giving you exactly what you need.  Otherwise break in (politely) and put them back on track.

If it feels weird to be interrupting someone (I'm a high D, and even *I* had to learn to stop people taking over in interviews), just remember that while an interview is a two-way street, if you don't get the information you need to be confident in saying "yes" to a candidate, you're not doing them any favours.  So when they go off-track, tell yourself that you're helping them by interrupting them and guiding them back to providing the information *you* need as an interviewer.

duplicate_account_MarkAus's picture

I think there's something very simple that will get you a better result - just flip the statements.   Your original example was:

"Tell me about a time when you needed to follow instructions accurately. How did you ensure that your work was correct?"

To a nervous candidate, that sounds like a When and a How question - they may process it as a two part question.   Interviews are tense and candidates will probably only hear the last part and/or focus on the easiest one to answer - which in this above example is sentence #2.


How do you ensure that your work is correct?  Can you tell me about a time when you needed to follow instructions accurately?

To me, it now sounds like you're turning the conversation over to the candidate by asking for an example rather than a task.  

I agree with the above posters that you usually need to set the scene a bit.  I find people need to be presented with one concept at a time, in a logical sequence.  Your first statement should frame the second one (and everything else to come on that topic).

Try a set up like:

Error free work is important here.  Can you walk me through a situation where you needed to ensure that your work correctly followed instructions?

The best way is to sometimes pick something on their resume and ask them the question in the context of that.  You're doing a bit of the work for them, but at least they'll know you're expecting an answer based on historical examples.

Finally, as others have said, don't beat yourself up.  Most people give lousy answers (after getting asked so many lousy questions).   Most candidates do require follow up questions.  The ones who don't and have good answers usually are the ones you hire!







Doris_O's picture

One of my directs is learning to interview. We have been conducting interviews together, taking turns asking a predetermined set of questions. Yesterday, for  a "tell me about a specific time when you... /how did you ensure..." type of question, my direct asked both at the same time. I usually ask the questions one at a time.  It was very helpful for me to observe how asking both questions at once made it more difficult for the interviewee to answer the question in a way that was useful to us. 

When interviewing entry level people I find it more effective to ask interview questions in a more conversational format. The How to be Effective in Everyday Conversations podcast is helpful for this. So it looks like this:

Me: Tell me about a specific time when you...
Them: A specific time when I ....? I guess the time when I had to .... during my internship. 
Me: Wow, so you worked on.... that is so interesting. Can you tell me more about what you did?
Them: Well I did ... and ..... and then ....
Me: Really, so you were responsible for .... how did you ensure....?

I don't think of this as dumbing it down, so much as trying to be more effective in communicating as an interviewer. Often, most of the advice recent grads/entry level folks been given about interviewing is pretty bad. Since they are also usually pretty nervous, I find asking the questions one at a time as a conversation helps put them at ease and clarifies the questions for them. This allows me to screen for how well prepared they are to do the job, rather than how well prepared they are to interview. 

If I am interviewing a more experienced person, or an entry level person who is fairly confident  (usually over confident) I will ask both questions at once, so long as I'm getting useful info to make a hiring decision.