HR Basics, Recruiting and Staffing

The 3 Most Hated Interview Questions – and How You Can Juice Them Up

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When you’re asking interview questions day in and day out, it’s easy to fall into a rut.

Even the most intuitive and engaging hiring managers may find themselves rattling off the same set of stock questions every day, and thanks to Google, these prompts are less effective than ever before. Applicants search online for common corporate hiring questions and then simply memorize their responses. It’s hard to learn anything about your candidates when they’re telling you exactly what you want to hear.

If your company could use a little help making better hiring decisions, it’s time to give your stock interview questions a badly needed makeover. Try these creative alternatives to break through the scripted dialogue and assess candidates for who they really are.

Hated Interview Question #1

Bad: Tell me about yourself.

Better: What’s the most exciting thing that ever happened to you?

As one of the first interview questions posed to most applicants, this opener is meant as an ice-breaker.

The problem? Most candidates will recite a response that tells you nothing you didn’t already know from the cover letter and resume. To help them ditch the script and open up, ask interviewees about the most exciting thing they’ve ever experienced instead. The answers you get might surprise you.

A candidate who talks about the birth of his son shows that he’s committed and loyal. An applicant who beams while describing his first published piece of poetry gives you a glimpse of his creative side, and someone who’s gone sky diving or deep sea diving reveals that she’s not afraid to take chances and try new things.

Remember, when your questions are interesting, your answers will be, too.

Hated Interview Question #2

Bad: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Better: What do you want your job title to be when you retire?

Some interview questions have no good answer. This is one of those questions.

If candidates say, “Right here,” they seem ambitionless. If they reply, “Moving on to the position I really want,” then they seem uncommitted. If they say, “Sitting in your seat,” they come across as predatory, and if they steal Mitch Hedberg’s line and answer, “Celebrating the fifth anniversary of you asking this question,” they might get points for humor, but you won’t learn anything about their passions and goals.

Making the time frame less immediate will help you to uncover what applicants truly enjoy and what drives them to succeed. That’s the kind of information you need to make the best employee selection decisions you can.

Hated Interview Question #3

Bad: Tell me about a time when you had to overcome an obstacle.

Better: Let me describe a problem you might encounter while working here. How would you solve the problem?

Most applicants are prepared to tell you a story that paints them as the business equivalent of a superhero flying into a burning building to rescue orphans. Sometimes these stories provide valuable insights into a candidate’s character, but often these tales are unrelated to the kind of work the new position requires.

To get an idea of how your new hire would handle the decisions she’d have to make in her new position, use a real, concrete example and ask her what she’d do. You can even formulate questions designed to reveal different qualities.

For example, the question “What would you do if you found out a colleague was fraudulently inflating his sales numbers?” is a lot different than “If your business to business sales took a dip a few weeks before your performance review, what would you do?” Pointed questions can tell you a lot about a person’s social skills, integrity, technical knowledge and expertise.

Conducting an hour-long Q&A session that’s stuffed with clichéd interview questions is no way to start a business relationship. It’s trite, it’s uninspired and above all, it’s boring, both for you and for your interviewee.

Energize your interview sessions by revamping your questions. Not only will the process become more enjoyable, but you’ll get the information you need to make even better hiring decisions.

Remember what Tony Robbins once said: “Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.”

This article originally appeared on The Resumator Blog.

Don Charlton is a Web entrepreneur, developer and speaker. His company, TheResumator.com,, helps employers hire with confidence. Contact him at don@theresumator.com.
  • http://mccooltravel.wordpress.com McCool Travel

    From both sides of the table, my least favorite interview questions are hypotheticals: 

    - what animal would you be?
    - what would you do if you did not have to worry about money?

    Your #2 is closest to a hypothetical because everything is so dynamic and unknown. 5 years ago there was no Twitter, for instance.

    I hope every hiring manager reads this post and realizes that reframing trite basic questions will make a huge difference.

  • Guest

    My #1 most hated question: “What have you been doing for the last three years?” Ironically it was also asked by the same company that laid me off three years ago.

    The honest answer which no HR staffer wants to hear: “Looking for employment.”

  • http://www.jackintheteambox.com/ Jack Bruce

    Nice thoughts. Thanks for sharing. And, I will say I still like “Tell me about yourself?” because it reveals how well they have prepared for the interview and it opens the door wide for the candidate to share what makes them tick. I have had candidates reveal critical information that we probably would not have heard had it not been for “Tell me about yourself?” 

    The alternative question to #2 is excellent.

    Thanks, again, for sharing.

  • Carol Schultz

    Don:  Nice post.  I will say that I think you’re off base with the first question.  ”Tell me about yourself” can be very insightful.  It is not an ice breaker.  If you’re interviewing a sales type, for example, and he doesn’t answer this question with a qualifying question this gives you a great deal of insight into his skills.  Frankly everyone should be prepared enough to respond with a question.

  • Jane

    I don’t agree with asking hypothetical questions such as No. 3. A candidate in response to this will just give you the answer you want to hear, which is not necessarily reflective of what they would actually do in that situation.

    The whole point of competency-based questions such as “Tell me about a time…” is to find out how the candidate actually acted in a given situation.  And to be honest I don’t think they are ‘trite’ and ‘unispired’, they can stimulate some interesting responses…if the candidate is good!

  • Texpsych

    Thought provoking. I actually think you’re on to something. It’s amusing to see the push-back from those who still prefer the “old school” questions. Asking someone how they’d fix a problem is good, then I suggest following it up with “Can you give me an example of a time you’ve faced a similar issue, and how you overcame it?” You’ll get the best of both worlds.

    I really like the “when you retire” question.

    I’m torn on the #1. I dislike “Tell me about yourself” because it’s so blah and people prepare a pat answer. I prefer to shake things up and see how people think on their feet. It’s a better indicator of their inherent traits.

  • aktiva

    When I send a candidate through the process of 4 or more interviews: the point is for each interviewer to gain some fresh insight on the candidate: yet nearly every candidate will report back the questions asked at every stage with every interviewer were identical.

    Worse yet: send them to multiple firms to interview: all the questions will be stock HR formula: identical to each other nearly all the time……..What may seem like a dim candidate on Friday is often a guy who has answered the same question 10+ times that same week and is answering by remote control on Friday….

    …Most of the time asking the simple question Why are you looking to make a change? What are you hoping to improve or get more of……..tells you nearly everything you will want to pursue in questioning anyway………you can skip the junk psycho babble. If you want to analyze personality and all those intangibles: use an online assessment and a shadowing practice day for skills. Bottom line is: Why are they sitting in front of you today? What do they want from you? What do you potentially want from them?

    A straightforward: here’s what we want and need from this hire…..we want proof you can deliver on those expectations…approach is fair, clear and unambiguous. Both parties know where they stand. It opens up a real conversation instead of the junk questions like “What are your hobbies?” or “What would your best friend say about you?” which are designed to calculate and extrapolate implications about a persons true motives and personality but leave the candidate feeling like he’s at a tax investigation.

    The entire interviewing process is based upon the foundation that all candidates lie or exaggerate and its HR’s mission to uncover that deceit first and foremost. It’s adversarial. The people hired are inevitably people who are good at interviewing rather than the best people for the job.
    How about less fog and more reality in interviewing as the Technique for 2013?

  • http://twitter.com/AWilhelmSourcer Allison Wilhelm

    The worst interviews I’ve had were the ones where people read vague, cliched questions off a list, and would stare blankly at me as I answered, then refer back to the sheet for the next question. Best interviews I’ve had were ones where I actually felt like we were having a conversation about the job. They had a list of things to ask about but they did it in a way that felt natural. Yes, people need to be good at answering those questions, but it helps when the interviewer makes an effort to connect with the candidate.

  • Len Bates

    I agree with Don’s first two suggestions but disagree with the third. A better approach would be to ask, “Tell me about the most difficult obstacle you faced and how you overcame it. ” This would provide the interviewer with an opportunity to assess the depth of experience a candidate had vis-a-vis obstacles faced, not only their ability to overcome them.
    “How would you” type questions often only reveal their knowledge, not their ability to apply theory.

  • http://twitter.com/SupeRecruiter Morgan Hoogvelt

    I disagree with you on #1 & #2 – each question that one askes should be tactical and one should expect to gain something out of each question. Secondly, these two questions should be gold mine questions to candidates. If asked #1 – “Tell me about yourself?” – this is the opportunity for a candidate to share some information and connect with the manager; after all, people like to hire those who they like. Asking #2 tell me that someone is starting with the future in mind, retirement is too far down the road. If things keep pace, none of us will officially retire until we are 90.

  • http://twitter.com/RightPeople Kurtis Mishler

    It is great that this is being discussed because the
    effectiveness of interviewing and hiring the right people has made little gains
    over the years…the data on turnover and new hire performance is
    undisputable. As for these three questions and the changes…they will provide little insight into the ability of a candidate to perform the outcomes of a position. Number 1 & 2 provide little if any insight into the candidate’s actual ability and historical performance. What they will do is potentially have you, “fall in like” and that is the first step to a failing interview. The third question provides head knowledge but nothing on execution. I have interview thousands of people and found many know in their head what to do but few actually can convert the knowledge into execution.

    Here is a recommendation for improving your interviewing and hiring results. Before you even start the interview process ask yourself this question, am I the most qualified person to perform the interview. It requires a real inventory of your historical results and this may be the most important question of all. If you’re not, then team up with someone inside or outside your organization who has successfully executed over the years at identifying top performers and if you are the most qualified then move forward. Construct your interview based on the outcomes of the position must generate over the next 90, 120, 180 days and throw the classical job description (wish list) out the door. Then construct your interview questions based on what this person must execute on and know what key data points you need to discover (what is a good answer) to provide you with confidence a person has a high potential for success based on your outcomes. Stop trying to come up with cute questions that you hope will find the right person and there is no way of knowing if it is a good answer. Every time you hire a person at minimum spending around $5,0000 for an hourly employee and even greater for a salaried employee. Think of it this way, would you put $5,000 or more of your personal money on the line based on the information you gathered from these “Most Hated Questions”?

  • Kaushik

    I’m unconvinced with the first two points.

    Depending on the position you’re hiring for, a “the best thing that happened to you” question can unsettle a candidate. I would stick to “tell me about yourself”. If you have taken hundreds of interviews, you may be surprised to see how many times the verbal narration of “yourself” does not match what is on the resume I’m reading. Aside from that, it gives me time to peruse the resume while he speaks. This is useful when I’m taking multiple interviews in stretches and don’t have the time to pre-screen the resume.. Also, I can read the confidence of the person when he talks about himself.

    I am quite amused about the conclusions you draw – the birth of a son shows loyalty? How exactly is that? And how does that help the job I have for him? If he gleams while reciting poetry, he may not be suitable for the job I have. But I would like to decide that by asking him the real questions and not this.

    The 2nd question is even more meaningless. Were you the same person 10 years ago that you are now? If you retire 30 years from now, do I really know if the job or the company will be there then? I would stick to 5 years for a senior personnel. For junior personnel, I would just want to see their enthusiasm and not bother about their dreams. I want to be the CEO of your company when I retire. Does that really tell you anything about me? No. It just tells you that I think I can be CEO of the company in so many years. Which is absurd if I am interviewing for a much smaller role. And if I am interviewing for something close to the CEO, I better not give that answer as it automatically becomes predatory.

    I agree with the third one but not with the example question. What he says he would do with reports of inflated sales figures need not be what he would actually do after getting the job. The interviewer needs to read the body language of the interviewee while asking these questions and that’s never an easy thing and can misfire as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/colleen.aylward Colleen Aylward

    As an executive job search coach, I find my clients are insulted by these 3 questions, and glad that you brought them up for hiring managers to think about! Unless you are adept at turning the question into a conversation (which many executive job seekers can do successfully as in “let me tell you a story that might shed some light on that question…”) these are the type of questions that candidates just end up doing research on and scripting their answers… ending in a “less-than-candid” candidate… (sorry for the pun!)