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We provide competency-based behavioral interviewing training for interview teams including hiring managers, recruiters, and interviewers. We have been publishing articles for over 40 years to address the myriad of issues encountered in the process of hiring top talent.

When Bad Things Happen to Good Questions

Kennedy's Column

You're interviewing a candidate who has just moved here from the East Coast. It seems natural enough to ask about the move, but instead of just breaking the ice, your question unleashes a flood of personal information. You hear about the divorce, the custody hearing - in short, way more than you need to know about the candidate's private life. What do you do? How can you keep the interview on track?

While it's true you want to understand the candidate, you only need to know those things that relate to job performance. Is it possible to seem human and congenial while retaining your professional distance? It is. The key is to focus on work-related issues. Instead of asking, "Why did you decide to move to the Bay Area?" you might say, "What was the most difficult part of leaving your job to move out here?" Phrased this way, the question reflects a personal interest but probably won't elicit a personal response.

You can start with almost any topic and then build on it to get additional information, always moving from general questions to specific ones; from "What did you like about the East Coast?" to "What did you most enjoy about your last position?"

But what if even the most carefully worded question elicits unexpected candor or negativity? "I left my last job because I wasn't appreciated." Or, "I left my job when I discovered that someone in the same position made far more money than I did."

In that case, it's best to respond with positive or neutral questions: "How did that affect you? How will you try to prevent that from happening in the future?" It's important to determine if the candidate is habitually negative or if the complaints are legitimate ones. The bottom line is that both you and the candidate should feel you have gained something from the interview without having overstepped professional boundaries.