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How do you really get to know a candidate during the hiring process? You’ve got a small amount of time to make a big investment, and depending on your process, you may only have one or two opportunities to talk with a candidate over the phone or face-to-face. To get the most out of these brief interactions, you have to be smart about the questions you ask.

We’ve all heard that behavioral interviewing is more effective than asking hypothetical questions, but why?

Avoid getting vague or generic answers

Hypothetical questions put candidates in a future scenario where they can imagine ideal outcomes. They’ll tell you what they think you want to hear, and they won’t provide details about how they’ve worked through similar situations in the past because the hypothetical scenario hasn’t actually happened—and it doesn’t involve real people or real events.

To see the difference, here are two interview questions centered around customer service:

Hypothetical Q: “Tell me how you would handle an upset customer.”

Behavioral Q: “Tell me about a time when a customer was unreasonable. What happened? What made the customer upset? How did you handle it? What was the end result?”

As you can see, you’ll get much more insight when you ask for a specific example rather than an open-ended future scenario. Plus, when you put a candidate on the spot like this, you’re more likely to get honest answers about challenges and outcomes.

Probe for more details

When you probe for more details, like in the behavioral example above, you can quickly tell if the situation is real, and then tap into the decision-making process that led the candidate down a particular path. You can also ask what they learned from the situation. Here’s an example of how you can use probes to dig deeper:

Q: “Tell me about a past performance review where you received positive feedback and then tell me about one where you received negative feedback.”

Additional probes: “What have you done with that feedback? What can you still do to improve?”

As the candidate responds, listen for subtleties around attitudes that may have influenced their behavior. Are they bitter about a negative incident, or did they use it as an opportunity to learn and grow? Do they blame an organization or a customer, or hold themselves accountable? Overall, did they handle the situation the way you would expect your employees to handle it?

Ask about the assessment experience

If you use job fit assessments, the candidate’s results will include behavioral interview questions and probes based on important success factors for the job. For example, if you’re hiring for a customer service role, you need to be sure the candidate has a strong sense of urgency and can be accommodating and friendly.

It’s a also good idea to ask the candidate about their experience with the assessment. Here are some questions you might ask:

Q: “What did you think about the assessment and have you ever taken one before?”

Q: “How do you think you did on the assessment? We all have developmental areas we’re working to improve in our career. What areas do you think you scored lower on or what areas do you think you need to improve?”

The first question will help you understand if the candidate felt anxious or overanalyzed any items while taking the assessment, and the second will help you determine if the candidate has a clear understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.

The answers you get in an interview can lead you closer to choosing the right person (or the wrong person) for the role. So make every question count!

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