Three Fool-Proof Interview Questions

Three Fool-Proof Interview Questions


You liked their CV, you interviewed them and they were absolutely fantastic in the interview. You thought you had hit the jackpot with this person.

Fast forward six months down the line and you are sitting at your desk in a state of utter disbelief, because you have just learned that your ‘new star’ has been making promises to customers that you cannot possibly deliver on – promises which they had no authority to make in the first place.

You stand to lose a ton of money, your company’s reputation hangs in the balance, and you wonder how it all went so horribly wrong.

Don’t you just wish that you could have known that an employee was dishonest or had violent tendencies before you hired them? You don’t need a crystal ball or a psychic on permanent retainer fee – all you need to do is change the way that you ask questions in interviews.

Getting to know candidates

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” is the question that all interviewers across the world ask of candidates the most often. And at least 97% of the time, the answer to this question is a bold-faced lie.

When posing questions in an interview, you need to ask the question in such a way as to ensure that the applicant provides you with sufficient detail on what their behaviour was in a specific work-related context, and then what the outcome of that behaviour was. This is known as the CBO method: context, behaviour and outcome.

Wrong: asking “how would you handle a difficult customer?”

You are giving the candidate the chance to tell you what they ‘would’ do, instead of telling you what they have done in previous, similar situations and you are making it easier for the candidate to tell you what they believe you would like to hear.

Right: asking “can you give me an example of a time when you have had to deal with a difficult customer?”

Now the candidate is forced to tell you about a specific incident and to tell you what they actually did in real life, as opposed to what they ‘would’ do in a fictional, hypothetical situation.

Asking it right

Regardless of what industry and sector you work in or what type of business you have, these are the three questions that you should always ask of every single person you interview:

  1. At work, we all get busy and experience stress from time to time and because of this, we sometimes make mistakes. Can you give me an example of a time where you have made a mistake at work and talk me through what happened, and what you did about it?
  2. Can you give me an example of a time at work where you have exceeded your manager or your customer’s expectations on a task or a project?
  3. When dealing with difficult people, it is sometimes necessary to stretch the truth in order to solve a problem. Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to do this and how it turned out in the end?

In asking these three questions, you have just tested whether the candidate is honest, can pay attention to detail and whether they have some level of achievement orientation, drive and personal motivation to be really good at their job – traits that all employees need to exhibit in any organisation. The third question tests for integrity and you will know, based on your industry and your personal ethics, whether the answer that the candidate gave you amounts to acceptable behaviour and an acceptable level of honesty and integrity for your company and the job that you are considering them for.

Internationally, this method of interviewing is known as ‘targeted selection’ or ‘competency based interviewing’ and during the past ten years it has become increasingly popular in South Africa – especially amongst banks and other financial institutions.

By simply changing the way you ask interview questions, you are forcing the applicant to give you a real-life example of a situation that they faced in their workplace and you can then ask them further questions to establish the context, their behaviour and the final outcome of the situation. If the applicant cannot give you an example or does not answer your question competently, it is likely that they will not have the ability to perform at the levels that you require of them in your organisation and they may not be a suitable candidate for your purposes.

As for your ‘new star’ who has been making promises that you now have to deliver on: they will have a perfect answer at their next interview when they are asked about ‘stretching the truth’.

Deborah Hartung
Deborah Hartung has almost 15 years’ experience in Human Resources and Labour Relations management and has consulted across various industries. Visit the Hartung website or the HR Guru site should you require assistance with any matters relating to HR or Labour Law within your organisation, or should you wish to improve your knowledge through attending informative training sessions and workshops.