Hiring Interview Pitfalls: Do You Know A Leading Question When You See One?

The Challenge of Hiring

Hiring the right person is a difficult exercise. The interviewer has to somehow penetrate the mask that the candidate will — quite properly — wear. They are there to get the job. They want to highlight their strengths and downplay their weaknesses.

One well known technique is to ask Behavioural Questions. These ask the candidate to describe how they have dealt with past situations. The theory is that by learning how someone behaved in the past, we have a better ability to predict how they will act in the future.

This approach has merit. But when the question leads the candidate, the risk of gathering incorrect information is raised considerably.

Everyone knows that you shouldn’t use leading questions when interviewing job applicants. It gives the applicant an unfair advantage. The leading question signals the type of answer that you, as the interviewer, are looking for.

But, here’s the question: If everyone knows this, why does it happen so frequently? (A disclaimer: No one really knows how frequently they happen. This observation is based on having taught selection interviewing to well over two thousand business people over the past fourty years. I have also sat in on many real interviews conducted by our clients. If this data is any indication, leading questions happen all too often.)

Four Reasons for Leading Questions

I have a couple of clues: First, leading questions range from being very obvious to very subtle. The subtle ones can easily sound as if they aren’t leading.

Second, too many interviews are unstructured. The interviewer asks questions without any real planning. The discussion is free- form. This is a ripe mixture for leading questions to blossom. And they go by so fast that no one is the wiser.

Third, most people who make hiring decisions have had little formal training. Those who had may have learned about leading questions, but how much of this is retained a few months after the training seminar?

Fourth, many interviewers don’t recognize that a question is leading. As we’ll see, this is true even of the experts who write books on selection interviewing.

Evaluate Yourself

Let’s put it to the test. Here are ten interview questions. See if you can pick out which ones are leading.

1. Tell me about a problem you faced at work that you were able to resolve?

2. Can you describe a problem you had with a customer and tell me how you solved it.

3. Describe a time you had conflicting priorities at work and then tell me how you resolved the issue.

4. How do you deal with a boss who you think is making unreasonable demands of you?

5. What, if anything, did you do to get ready for today’s interview?

6. How important is it for you to learn new work skills?

7. What steps do you usually take to build harmonious relationships with the people you work with?

8. From time to time, we have an outside person come in to provide directions. Would you be able to easily accept direction from this person?

9. As you know, closing a sale is very important. What actions should be taken to close a sale, and then what actions should be taken after the close?

10. Is work something you do to earn money to pay bills, or is it something you enjoy?

The Answers to the Quiz

Let’s take them in groups.

Numbers 1 -2 are both leading questions. They point the applicant to telling you a story about a problem they faced at work. Not bad. But the question then injects the assumption that they successfully solved the problem. This eliminates all the situations where they didn’t solve the problem, or didn’t do as well as they hoped to. Wouldn’t those stories be of even more interest?

Can we do better? Yes. Try these instead.

1a. What is the toughest problem you faced at work?

2a. Can you tell me about the most unpleasant customer you had to deal with?

Number 3 begins with an open question, but then proceeds to lead the applicant toward a more favourable answer. This too closes off hearing about unsuccessful or partially successful situations.

How does this sound?

3a. Can you tell me about a time when you had two different but important priorities at work?

Number 4 is a theoretical question. It doesn’t tell us anything about how that person dealt with a real boss. This makes it particularly easy for the verbally adroit candidate to give a persuasive answer while yielding nothing about how they really acteded in the past.

Try this one instead.

4a Can you tell me about the toughest boss you’ve ever had?

Numbers 6 and 8 are problematic for two reasons. First, they invite a yes or no answer. Second, the answer to each is pretty obvious. (If you were applying for a job, how would you answer?)

How about these instead?

6a. What is most important for you to feel satisfied at work?

8a. As we both know, bosses aren’t always right. Tell me about the time when a boss gave you instructions that felt were really wrong.

Number 7 assumes that the person does try to build harmonious relationships with people. And you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out the right answers.

What the interviewer really wants to know is how this person deals with conflict at work.

7a. We all have had the experience of working with someone who had a different style from ours. Tell me about the most difficult person you have had to work with who was at your level in the organization.

Number 9 is problematic in several ways. First, it tells the applicant you want to know if they understand how to close a sale.

There are many different types of sales. Selling a refrigerator is totally different from selling a large consulting project to the government.

The most skilled salespeople don’t focus on closing. They follow a series of steps that, if done properly, will most often lead the prospect to close the sale themself.

The second part of the question leads the person by signalling that something should happen after the close. It tells the candidate that there are things that should be done . Would they have thought of this without the prompt? We’ll never know.

See if this one sounds better.

9a. Tell me about the most difficult sale you have ever been involved with? (This can be followed up with non-leading prompts.)

Number 10 is obviously problematic. First, it asks for an either-or choice, which is rarely effective. Most candidates will talk about how both are important but will emphasize the pleasure they get from their work. Second, it is entirely theoretical. See how these compare:

10a. Can you tell me about the job that you enjoyed most?

10b. We’ve all had jobs we didn’t enjoy very much. Which job have you found to be the least satisfying?

These questions will also tell you something about the candidate’s work-related values. That’s a very important subject, one we’ll leave for another time.

Okay, so what about number 5? That is not leading. Yes, it does point the applicant to an area you are interested in. It does not, however, suggest anything about what the correct answer is.

The Impact of the Answers You Receive

When leading questions slip into an interview, the damage can be considerable. Here’s a conversation that I overheard in a coffee shop not long ago.

Two professionally dressed people shared a table. They spoke quite loudly. Sitting at the next table it was impossible to not overhear them. It soon became clear that this was a job interview. It was entirely a spontaneous conversation, with no obvious structure. No written notes were being made. About ten minutes into the meeting, the person doing the hiring threw in this question:

“This job requires you to work with people from all different social backgrounds and ethnic groups. I can see from your resume that you’ve had a lot of experience in this area. I don’t suppose that would be a problem for you then, would it?

Not surprisingly, the candidate gave an immediate assurance that “No, this is certainly something that I have gotten quite good at.”

Here is the problem: The interviewer thinks they have obtained some objective data that would support the conclusion that the candidate has these abilities. This entirely wrong conclusion then contaminates the choice about whether to hire this person. It might even be the one that tips the decision.

The Most Revealing Fact

All of the questions, except number 5, are taken from books written by “experts” on how to hire staff. None are described as leading. All are recommended.

If the experts aren’t picking up that their recommended questions are leading, no wonder it’s so easy for these to slip into an interview.

Dr. Byrne’s latest book on hiring is called Seeing Behind the Job Applicant’s Mask Before You Hire: Secrets of a Corporate Psychologist available from Amazon.