Open-ended interviewing

One of the most common mistakes that I see people making in the interviewing process is that they talk more than they listen and end up telling the candidate about the company rather than finding out about the candidate.

There is a time and place for both, and it is important to identify when is the time and place to be finding out about a candidate and to make sure that that portion of the interview is exclusively dedicated to that purpose and not hijacked by the candidate to turn the interview to their advantage.

Closed ended allows the candidate to answer with one or two words, and the interviewer concedes control of the interview. Open-ended requires that the candidate moves out of their comfort zone and has to answer questions to which the answer is not readily apparent.

One of the best open-ended interview questions that I ever heard was for candidates for sales manager for a blue-collar manufacturing company in New York. The interviewer had a concern that the applicants might not be quite in tune with the idiosyncrasies of the industry and he asked the following question:

"So you are the sales manager and your largest customer comes into town for the day. You are having dinner and he is staying over. Over dinner he makes it clear that he expects you to find him a woman to keep him company in his "lonely" hotel room. What do you do?"

The beauty of a question like this is that the interviewee has no idea what the person conducting the interview is looking for by way of response. What does the company expect me to do? The individual has no idea from the question what the company’s values look like, and this makes it a powerful question. The range of answers received varied from "that's disgusting, I would have nothing to do with it" all the way to "I think my wife might know someone".

The point is that when you have no information to go on you have no choice but to reveal your true self, and this is, surely the goal of every interviewer.

Some other good open-ended interview questions are:

  • If you could have the perfect job what would it be?
  • Describe a situation in which you might find it justifiable to break company policy or alter standard procedure.
  • Tell me about something you've done in your current [or most recent] job that is creative.
  • Have you ever had to make a sticky decision when no policy existed to cover it? Tell me what you did.
  • In your most recent position, what types of decisions do you make without consulting your boss?
  • What types of things have made you angry? How did you react to those situations?
  • If you could have changed something in your last job, what would it have been?
  • How do you determine or evaluate success?

It takes some discipline and a little practice to start interviewing this way, but the results are well worth the effort.  Next time you interview somebody, take some of these open-ended questions and incorporate them into your interview format.

The Four Critical Steps to Hiring

  • Establish the Profile

    Make sure that you know what talent you are trying to hire. Start from scratch and take time to define the job rather than rushing and simply rehiring the person that you are replacing.    

    The Time Edge



  • Develop the Process

    Successful hiring depends on having real choices. Write advertisements that will attract a large pool of candidates and have a process so that heavy response levels don’t stretch your resources    .

    The Time Edge

  • Grade Candidates

    You can’t afford to rush the selection process. You need to have an effective screening process and evaluate candidate skills carefully in relation to the job profile you established.

    Edge Business Essentials

  • Evaluate and Execute

    It is essential to have a robust interviewing process. You need to have candidates interviewed thoroughly and then check references and do background checks.

    The Alternative Board