The best interview questions to ask and what to avoid
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Interviewing someone can be daunting, especially for small businesses who often need to find people with multiple skillsets and a good personality fit for their small team. What interview questions should you be asking candidates? Should you ask all candidates the same questions? Is there anything to avoid?

Of course there are hundreds of questions you can ask, and role specific questions will vary enormously from business to business. But to get you started we’ve compiled six of our favourite interview questions that work well for most roles and will help you differentiate between candidates.

Getting started

You’re probably pretty eager to find out what these great questions are, but before you dive in and start your questions, it’s best to give the candidate time to settle.

Make them a cup of tea and start by explaining how you would like the interview to work. Tell them that you will be making notes throughout and that shouldn’t put them off. Plus, there will be a chance for them to ask you questions too; most interviewers leave this until the end of the interview.

Start the interview by asking a few general questions to ease into it such as “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?”.

Then it’s on to the ‘proper’ interview questions.

What’s the best way to differentiate between candidates? The 6 best interview questions to ask.

Question 1- “What has been your greatest career success?”

This is a great question to start off with, as you’re talking about something positive – which should be more comfortable for the candidate to talk about.

From their answer, not only will you be able to gauge how good they would be as an employee, but also what they class as a ‘success’. Does this match your company’s values and goals?

There are a number of ways you can approach this, as there are a few different types of answer you could receive.

A good answer might demonstrate the candidate’s problem-solving skills or initiative. For example, “We had an imminent deadline, and X stopped working at the last minute. I looked around and implemented Y which meant we made the deadline and impressed the client too. My MD was so impressed we now use that process for all our work”. In a fast-paced environment especially, this would be ideal.

A bad answer however might demonstrate a short-sighted outlook on their work, with little knowledge of how their success impacted on the business as a whole. For example, they might have produced a piece of work which generated a high volume of calls to their business – but were they valuable calls, do they know what success that brought to the company?

Essentially, what you’re looking for is someone that feels pride in their personal success, but also understands the skills that led to that and how it impacted on their employer’s business too.

Question 2- “How do you know when you’ve done a good job?”

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. The responses tell you a lot about the person and their motivation. Look out for whether they make an external reference in their response such as ‘my boss/others tells me that I did a good job’ or an internal reference such as ‘I know I’ve done a good job; I feel good about it.’

People who use external references rely on what other people say and do for their evidence of success. It’s more common to hear strong external references from junior people. They may also reference other external factors such as “more orders”, “more sales” etc. These people tend to rely on having others around them, and will work well as a team.

People who use internal references use their own feelings and voice to evidence success. These people tend to be independent and do not necessarily need others to work with them. It’s common for senior people to use stronger internal responses. Imagine a Managing Director who depended on his staff’s praise to succeed.

If a junior person is heavily internally referenced, you may then ask them to give you an example of when they worked well as part of a team if you were worried that the answer to the question suggested they were too independent. And vice versa if a senior person referenced external sources do they have the capability to lead in your business?

Question 3 – “What do you think of our business?”

This can really help you to understand how seriously the candidate is taking their application. Have they prepared for the interview properly? Do they know they want to work for you, or do they just want any job?

Here you want to look out for more incisive opinions than general compliments – have they told you anything you couldn’t find with a simple Google search? It might be good to remind yourself what’s on your website, so you can tell if they’re reeling off your own marketing copy to you.

It’s also a chance to understand their business nous. For example, they might express an opinion on where your business sits in the market. They might even say they feel it would be a good opportunity for them to join a team which is going places.

Question 4 – “Can you give an example of when your [skill from CV] has helped to deliver success?”

This gives you an opportunity to really test people’s CVs.

It’s much harder for people to lie about being a ‘team-player’ or being ‘creatively-driven’ when they have to give examples. Or demonstrate how it actually led to success in their line of work.

It’s a sad fact that some people feel the need to fabricate parts of their CV, so this question will help you to root out the more ‘creative’ parts of a candidate’s story. If they say they’ve done something, they should remember the specific event, how it turned out, and why they did what they did in the first place.

Of course, many people don’t fabricate anything on their CV. This question will then help you to gain more of an insight into how they apply their skills to different scenarios.

Be prepared to prompt people here though, sometimes people can clam up when they’re nervous!

Competency – based questions

First of all when asking competency-based questions you should explain that you will be asking these type of questions, and that you are looking for specific examples from their answers rather than general answers. The difference is “When that happened I did this, then I did this,” versus “If that happened I would do this.”

The great thing about these questions is that it’s very hard for interviewees to tell porkies. You should ask probing questions throughout, getting detail where you want detail and moving them on through the example if they are labouring the point a bit.

Question 5 – “Can you tell me about a time when you have [add in specifics for the job role]?”

• Used your initiative?
• Beat sales targets?
• Led a team to success?
• Worked as an integral part of a team?
• Used xxxx software?

Much like question 4 – this gives you an opportunity to probe what a person has put in their application.

If they mention that they have experience using a specific tool, or doing something specific, can they walk you through how they used it?

A good answer would show that they not only understand what they did when they implemented the use of the tool/practice, but why they did it too. Did they knowingly apply their skills to the situation in their story, or does it appear that they only understood this in hindsight?

Question 6 – “What would your boss say about you if I called them now?”

You may well get a nervous yelp from some candidates, but you can assure them that you won’t take a reference until you have made a job offer.

If the candidate is evasive or gives a non-specific answer it could well highlight that there is something further to look into. It may also give you an insight into how they handle authority.

If you feel that they provide a balanced answer giving both positives and negatives, it’s probably a good indicator of a good, professional and honest working relationship with their employer.

Although, it’s always good to check when you do follow up with the reference!

Are there questions to avoid?

Yes, there are. And some that can get you into a lot of hot water.

First of all, you should remember never to ask about the candidate’s personal life. Questions such as ‘are you married?’ or ‘do you have a family, or are you planning one?’ might seem like polite conversation to some, but can put you at serious risk of a discrimination claim.

It might be that the candidate offers up this information in conversation. If that happens make a note that they offered the information first, and don’t probe any further. It’s also wise not to base any recruitment decisions on this information.

Family life is not the only area of potential discrimination.

Questions about absences should also be avoided. For example, you may be unaware of a disability that the candidate may have. Similarly, any other general questions about disability are best avoided unless offered by the candidate.

As above, if the candidate offers information about a disability, then you should record that they have done so. You might also like to say something along the lines of:
“we can discuss the impact of that and any adjustments that we need to make later, if your application is successful.”

This shows that you are willing to make adjustments if they are successful, and that their disability is not linked to their application’s success.

Get HR Support

If you need advice about interviewing candidates, or any guidance surrounding the recruitment process, our HR consultants can help.

Get in touch on or give us a call on 0333 014 3888 to find out more about how we can help your business with friendly, expert HR support.

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