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Do you ask compound questions in interviews? Do you interview in a team, all the relevant managers gathered together with the candidate? Do you set out at the start of the session the complete context for the job and what you are seeking? Do you favour that classic of behavioural interviewing, “tell me about a time when…”

In each case, forensic interviewer Michael Reddington says you’re wrong. The Charlotte, N.C.,-based consultant has trained leaders of many organizations, including police departments and the military, in non-confrontational interviewing, showing how to gain information the other person is not inclined to share. Given the importance of recruiting the right people – and the role interviewing plays in hiring – you might want to pay attention as he shreds some of our common practices.

The mistakes start with your mindset going into the job hunt. These days, he says, the focus is on the right words rather than the right people. Applicant tracking systems sift through the resumes hunting for key words. That’s a reality of today’s world, but he says you must still focus on the outcomes you want from the right person rather than get side-tracked by factors that won’t determine outcomes. “If I say the person needs 10 years of experience, it means I feel it takes 10 years to get the skills and attributes needed. But maybe they can get those skills faster, in five years,” he says.

Another big mistake involves expectations. If you expect the candidate not to do well and they give good answers, you might discount or rationalize what you are hearing to confirm your beliefs. Similarly, positive expectations can lead you to ignore the candidate faring poorly in the interview. “We need to control our expectations and focus on what information we need to get from the interview for our decision,” he says.

He assails team interviews, which are selected in part to save time. Eight people need to talk to the candidate so put them all together, saving the candidate time and also the interviewers, because they might come to an agreement quickly then. “Any time we prioritize time over quality, quality is the loser. It’s viewed as more important to save time now than invest sufficient time that will pay off over the person’s career with your firm,” he says.

As well, the interview can go poorly, people interrupting and wrecking the flow of questions a colleague is asking, or one individual dominating the questioning or their attitude clouding other managers’ perspectives, who pick up on positive or negative vibes. Better to take the time to meet in advance, plan who needs to interview the candidate and what their focus should be given their role, and then have separate interviews with, yes, another meeting later to discuss what was learned and decide.

A common mistake is to begin interviews with too much information, overly influencing the candidate. One of his clients told candidates at the start of the interview it was a very tough job, and many gave up right then. In other cases, you are giving them information that shows what answers you want and they simply lie. Give them enough information at the start to set the stage, but not too much so you skew the interview. Share more during the session and at the end. Similarly, avoid questions where you telegraph the answer you expect. That sounds obvious, but it happens all the time.

It can be a mistake to ask too many questions in the interview, leading to candidate fatigue or annoyance with repetitive queries they already answered. “Ask high-quality and high-value questions, not a high number,” he advises. “Don’t just clobber somebody with questions.” Similarly skip the five-part compound questions that scrambles the candidate’s brain, leaves them fumbling after answering the first few parts with what they are supposed to tackle next, and creates impatience, everyone wanting to move on.

The idea behind asking the standard behavioural question – ‘’tell me about a time when…” – is fine, but the actuality mediocre. Because the time frame is vague, the candidate can embellish, invent or even borrow from something somebody else did that fits the situation. “It gives the candidate poetic license to piece together an answer from different sources,” he says. Be more specific in the question: Tell me about the first time you encountered this situation and dealt with it, or the last time, or the most difficult time. As you watch them answer, you’ll have a better sense of the honesty involved.

He prefers to ask, “Please walk me through a time when you faced X.” That indicates you want depth and chronological order, and it’s easier to spot if that is missing. It also can be a substitute for compound questions, giving more structure and ensuring a key point at the end is not lost because the candidate forgot that part of the question.

Selecting staff is vital. Get the interview right.


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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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