4 Tips for Better (And Less Biased) Interview Questions

The answer to the question should be relevant for the role. What not to ask: "If you were able to have dinner with any person in history, alive or dead, who would that be?"
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One of the best strategies for designing an effective hiring process is structured interviewing -- a standardized approach that keeps interviewers focused on the requirements for the job. Structured interviewing produces accurate hiring decisions in part because it limits the extent to which interviewers' subjective impressions of candidates, which are highly prone to bias, influence hiring outcomes.

One of the core components of this approach is designing effective interview questions and asking those questions to all candidates for a given role. While many companies are on board with this concept, most struggle to execute it in practice. Here are four tips for designing better, less bias-prone interview questions:

(1) Relevance: The answer to the question should be relevant for the role
What not to ask: "If you were able to have dinner with any person in history, alive or dead, who would that be?"

Companies ask questions like this to try and understand more about who a candidate is and how they think. Unfortunately, these questions have nothing to do with the job, and an interviewer's impression of the candidate's answer is highly likely to be influenced by their own irrelevant beliefs. Unless the job this candidate is interviewing for has to do with throwing dinner parties for historical figures, this question is irrelevant.

Try this instead: If you want to know how a candidate thinks, have them walk through how they would solve a problem that comes up in the job. For example, "Tell me about a time you worked through a complex problem. What steps did you take to solve it?" Hiring for a client-facing role? Try this: "Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult client. What was the situation and how did you handle it?" Note that these questions can be either behavioral (an example from the past, e.g., "Tell me about a time...") or situational ("Tell me how you would solve x problem...").

(2) Subjectivity: The quality of the candidate's answer shouldn't depend on the interviewer's own subjective opinions
What not to ask: "What is the most interesting technology product on the market today?"

Companies ask questions like this to see whether a candidate is thoughtful and knowledgeable about the industry, but evaluating an answer to this question can be highly subjective.

Try this instead: Make sure it's possible to evaluate answers objectively. Here are some examples: "Tell me about a competing company in our industry. What is one way our technologies/business models differ?" or "Tell me about a new innovation/new piece of research/new technology you've recently learned about and/or have started using. How did you hear about it? How has it affected your work? These questions can be used to assess a candidate's knowledge of (and engagement with) the industry.

(3) Specificity: The question shouldn't be so specific that it doesn't apply to all candidates
What not to do: "Describe a time when you've been upset with your performance at work and it affected your relationship with others. How did you handle the situation?"

Not all candidates have experienced frustrations that have affected relationships, making the question overly specific. Because a core tenet of structured interviewing is to ask all candidates for the same role the same set of questions, it's important to craft questions that can apply to everyone.

Try this instead: "Describe a time when you've been frustrated with your performance at work. How did you handle the situation?" A simple rewrite makes the question less specific, and in turn more universally relevant.

(4) Leading: The wording of the question shouldn't suggest the answer
What not to do: "Tell me about a time you worked on a project with a team. Did you enjoy working on a team, or do you prefer working alone?"

By asking the candidate to talk about a time they worked with a team, you subtly suggest that teamwork is important to the company. The wording of the question makes it unlikely that a candidate would admit a preference for working alone.

Try this instead: "Tell me about a project you enjoyed working on. What did you enjoy about it? Now tell me about a project you didn't enjoy. What did you not enjoy about it?" If you want to understand a candidate's ideal working environment (whether the environment is collaborative or independent, competitive or communal), asking questions that bring out the candidate's preferences will yield more honest and informative answers.

While asking good interview questions is only one part of an effective structured interviewing process, it's a critical part, and one that companies often get wrong. Use these tips to ask better questions and, ultimately, make more accurate and less biased hiring decisions.

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