What job-seekers get asked at interview

An interview in today’s competitive jobs market often features so many questions that they need to be grouped into two main categories. The first category gently inquires ‘conversationally’ and the second specifically probes ‘competencies.’

Before exploring these two question-sets with top tips from leading hiring specialists, job-seekers should be aware of two additional categories. Each sits at the opposite end of the difficulty spectrum.

Sign of the times: Candidates in today's competitve jobs market typically face no fewer than four different categories of questions.

Sign of the times: Candidates in today's competitve jobs market typically face no fewer than four different categories of questions.

The first contains ‘standard’ interview questions – the questions asked of almost all of us, whether we’re applying for a blue, white or pink-collar position.

And the second contains so-called ‘curveball’ interview questions. These are questions which every job-hopeful doesn’t want to be asked at all. Let’s ‘bite the head of the frog’ and tackle these trickiest of questions first:

Curveball Interview Questions

  1. How many pound coins could you fit in this room?

  2. Would you come back to work on Monday if you won the lottery this weekend?

  3. Can you describe a time where you had to bend or break the rules to achieve an objective?

  4. Can you give me an example of a business decision you made that you ultimately regretted?

  5. What will be your approach to the job after this one? First come, first served? The most interesting company/project? The best pay?

  6. What would you do if you were the CEO?

Notes on the Curveball Interview Questions

Question 1, asked of a candidate working via ReThink Recruitment, was fired in relation to a role with a media firm. Also cited by the recruiter is Question 2 – ironic, because it was asked by a company involved with the National Lottery.

Question 3 was put to a job-hopeful using staffing group Jenrick to find work. Like all the other questions in this ‘curveball’ category, it forces the interviewee to ‘think on their feet.’ The fourth question, posed to a job-seeker on the books at Outsource UK, gives the interviewee the unenviable opportunity to recall a moment in their career when they overlooked something.

Meanwhile, question 5 wasn’t identified by recruitment company Volt (which provided it) as a curveball, but it too has the potential to 'catch out' anyone who’s unprepared.

Question 6 faced a candidate not pursuing any role near the CEO but, according to agents at Computer People who shared it with Moore News, it is designed to let the interviewee demonstrate a breadth of skills beyond those required to do the job on offer.

The agents added: “[The answer will] show whether or not the candidate has thoroughly researched the businesses, but also what they know about the current state of the market and issues the business is facing.”

Standard Interview Questions – What Job Candidates Are Typically Asked

  • What do you know about our company?

  • Why should we hire you?

  • What are you key strengths?

  • What do you consider to be your weaknesses?

Source: Outsource UK

  • What do you know about the company and this role?

  • Why did you apply for this role?

  • Why should we consider you over and above other candidates?

  • What are the attributes you may be lacking for this role and how do you plan to overcome this?

  • What do you expect from the company you work for?

Source: Volt

  • Why did you leave your last position/why did your last employment come to an end?

  • Have you been on the market for long/how long have you been looking for?

  • Do you have other opportunities in the pipeline?

  • How do you find the current job market?

Source: ReThink Recruitment

Conversational Interview Questions

The following questions are most associated with skills-based interviews, often held by the line manager. They tend to be centred on examples of recent experience and are conversational, in that they allow a ‘to and fro’ between interviewer and interviewee.  

These conversational questions are designed to delve deeper into a job candidate’s profile than the ‘standard’ questions but aren’t meant to be as difficult to cope with as the ‘curveball’ questions. They might require the interviewee to recall a recent experience, but don’t require story-telling – such an anecdotal answer is more associated with ‘competency’ questions. 

Philip Fanthom, managing director of Jenrick, revealed his top three conversational questions:

  1.  In your recent job/project, can you give me an example of how you hit your objectives?

  2. You mention in your CV that you used '[insert skill]' at this organisation. How; in what capacity and what were the benefits?

  3. Can you talk me through your approach to technique when using '[insert skill]'?

Charlie Crook, business manager at Computer People, offered his top two:

  1. Describe a time when you’ve had to work under a high degree of pressure.

  2. Tell me about a mistake you made at work, what happened and how did you deal with it?

Anna Kramer, senior manager of key accounts at Outsource UK, provided her top two:

  1. Tell me about your experience in '[insert skill/position/organisation]'?

  2. How would you previous manager or supervisor describe you?

Sebastien Cobut, operations director of European staffing services at Volt, gave his top three:

  • How do you keep your knowledge of '[insert skill/industry]' up-to-date?

  • What will you do before starting this job to plug any gaps we identify in your skill-set?

  • In which order do you rate the importance of the following?

  1. Employer’s brand and reputation

  2. Employer’s length of assignment/job

  3. Pay

  4. Employer’s technology

  5. Job/position content and responsibilities

Competency Interview Questions

The competency-style of interviewing is similar, in that it uses questions designed to unearth how the candidate has performed in the past, with a view to predicting their future behaviour. These questions are often posed by senior management and/or HR. The questions invite some sort of brief story to be told, with the interviewee’s competencies hopefully at its heart.

  • Can you tell me about the last job you did that required you to generate new revenue/organisational change?

Computer People’s Mr Crook says this question is designed to understand what changes that you, the applicant, delivered in your last job and the success you had. As the potential employer wants to see the interviewee demonstrate “innovation and initiative,” highlighting “motivation and drive” is the key if the candidate wants to give a good answer.

Jenrick’s Mr Fanthom has come across the same competency question, albeit worded slightly differently:

  • Give me an example of where you have been responsible for evoking a change. In your example, state the reason and outcome.

Job applicants being assisted by the Surrey-based firm often face two other competency questions:

  1. Give me an example of when you disagreed with a colleague; how did you deal with it?

  2. What has been your biggest ‘mess up’ in the last 24 months; how did you rectify it?

At Outsouce UK, Ms Kramer says there are four competency questions that its job-hopefuls often report being asked at interview:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to communicate complex information to an audience unfamiliar with that information.

  • Tell me about a time when you had to challenge senior stakeholders. How did you go about it?

  • Tell me about a time when you presented options and recommendations to stakeholders. How did you set about gaining buy-in for your recommendations?

  • How did you handle a situation where your employer changed the brief, or ‘moved the goalposts’?

Job Interview Questions - the 'hot' candidates right now

The vast majority of the probes that job-seekers face at interview are timeless. However, there is one question that two of the recruiters agree is experiencing a major comeback this year -- partly due to employers agonising over their bottom lines. The question is:

* Can you give an example of where you added value to a particular department/employer?

“We are finding that our clients have a greater expectation…than ever before,” reflected Outsource’s Ms Kramer, chiming with another (anonymous) recruiter's belief that hirers currently demand no less than “the world” from new talent.

Computer People agrees that the ‘value-add’ question is the biggest one of the moment, as far as interviews for professional opportunities are concerned.

“Now more than ever,” it said, “[candidates] are being asked in interviews to prove they are bringing something unique to the post; be it industry insight or a scarce skill set,” Mr Crook reflected.

“Candidates are increasingly being asked what added value they could bring to the business, including transferable skills, flexible ongoing support, [or even] if can they travel”.

The question is being fired because although the economy is in recovery, hiring managers are being told to justify their investments, he said.

But there are another two questions that are also increasingly being put to people trying to get hired. Both questions point to a single concern. The questions are:

  1. What is your availability?

  2. Are you actively interviewing at the moment, other than for this role with us?

Volt, which cited the first of these two questions, explained it’s being asked because employers are not generally “prepared to wait” for their new recruits to start work.

“They [hirers] will tend to go with the best solution available within the time constraints they have…Companies just have to fill the vacancies".

Jenrick, whose job candidates have faced the second question, said: “Increased competition for certain skills means employers are now facing a candidate-driven market.

“[This question] reflects a clear increase in the jobs market and opportunities available. [The answer] also helps potential employers size up the competition”.