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5 Interview Tips to Help You Probe Around Vague Candidate Responses

April 19, 2016

candidate-interview.jpgMost of us remember having stretched the truth or given “half-truths” to our parents when we didn’t’ really want them to know the whole story. Those of us with children of our own may even be pretty good at knowing when they’re being honest or hiding something. However, it is not always easy to tell during an interview when a candidate is exaggerating or not being completely truthful about a response.

It’s easy to get caught up accepting candidate responses at face value; everyone typically has their best self on display when they’re in an interview setting, and this may ring particularly true for candidates who are very charismatic, convincing, and likable. There are also a lot of blogs and tips out there to help interviewees answer difficult questions and come across as polished, confident, and trustworthy.

To help better equip you, the interviewer, from making a poor hiring decision by not honing in on vague responses to specific interview questions, here is a checklist of 5 best practices to ensure that you get the whole story.

1) Prepare DETAILED interview questions in advance

This step may sound easy enough, especially if your company already uses some type of structured, behaviorally based interview process. That said, not all interview guide content is created equal, especially when it comes to pinning down a vague responder.

For example, an interview guide may have predetermined questions, but that may be as simple as “Tell me about your experience conducting interviews.”

A better example to help get at this information is to build in a series of follow-up questions right out of the gate.

For instance: “Let’s talk about your experience conducting interviews. Describe the type of training you have received in best interviewing practices. When did this training occur? When is the last time that you conducted an interview? What is the most valuable lesson you have learned about interviewing and how has it helped you on the job?”

These types of specific questions make it more difficult for candidates to continue with an exaggeration or be dishonest.

2) Pay attention to what you’re looking for

Once again, this sounds like simple common sense, but if you’re not paying close enough attention to the examples that a candidate shares, you may not realize that the question you asked and the response that you are given are not really related to the same competency or skill.

For example, you are seeking information about a candidate’s problem-solving abilities and you ask “Tell me about the most difficult task or skill that you have had to learn on the job.”

However, the response that you get doesn’t actually provide details about a time that they solved a problem, but it is related to how they had to adapt quickly to a change or deal with stress on the job.

If you clearly know what you’re looking for, you will know when you’ve gotten it and when you have not. Being mindful about redirecting a candidate during this type of situation is critical to knowing that they’re able to provide a response about problem-solving and not something else.

3) Don’t be distracted

Speaking of being mindful, take measures to ensure that you will not be distracted during the interview. If you limit your distractions, you will be much better equipped to stay on task and pay attention.

For example, let’s say your phone rings, someone knocks on the door, or you realize you do not have the candidate’s resume. Any of these scenarios leave you open to potentially being distracted and more easily led down a path of not asking probing questions or knowing that you’ve gotten the type of response you were seeking, not to mention just not making a very professional impression.

4) Learn to reframe your question and be specific

Some candidates may purposefully try to distract, tell half-truths, or exaggerate their accomplishments or role on a project, but some may just honestly be confused by the question you have asked them.

Be prepared to reframe or reword a question if necessary. If you don’t get the level of information that you’re seeking, don’t hesitate to tell the candidate, “Let me rephrase the question” or “I know that you have accomplished XYZ, but I really want to focus on finding out more about ABC. What was your role? Tell me about a time when you had to deal with that specific type of situation.”

Additionally, be prepared with “backup questions.” Some questions may just not as easily solicit an answer, so have several related to the same competency in your list of questions.

5) Seek recent examples

By referencing questions in terms of a timeline or how recent the candidate may have accomplished something, you force them to once again, be more specific in their response.

It becomes more difficult to continue an exaggeration or half-truth when you are being pressed for details, particularly about time. Knowing the context of time will also allow you to determine if the candidate may be a little rusty in a certain area; for example, you find out that they haven’t used a particular software program in 2 years or that the last time they were a lead on a project was over a decade ago and it was the ONLY project they ever had a lead role on. Changes things a bit right?

Remember, the better prepared you are, the less likely you are to be misled, distracted, or accept vague answers, and therefore make a poor and costly hiring decision.

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Connie Gentry Connie Gentry was a Consulting Associate at PSI. Connie’s work experience includes job analyses, validation, assessment design and customization, EEOC analyses, behavioral interview guide and anchored rating scale development, multi-rater tool (360 Feedback), large-scale competency-based selection and competency model design, and executive assessment.