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Preparing for an Interview: Using a Pre-Interview Questionnaire

Preparing for an Interview: Using a Pre-Interview Questionnaire

A key part of selecting suitable candidates is gathering the right information to use to make a final hiring decision. However, well before you can appropriately screen out what might seem to be reasonably well qualified or apparently suitable candidates, it is imperative that you have accurately gathered all of the relevant information about each candidate and made sure that it is as job-related as possible. Without this you are likely to make some pretty “hit or miss” hiring decisions. 

Most people involved in the recruitment process take a rather narrow and limited view of the important task of collecting information about candidates. They generally gather information from only three basic sources:

  • The candidate’s résumé
  • Impressions from the interview(s)
  • The candidate’s supplied references

These sources are likely to provide you with a basic range of information about the candidate but each have their weaknesses and limitations. Let’s therefore look at each of these information sources in a little more detail: 

Résumés – Designed to present a candidate in the best possible light

In most situations, a candidate’s resume leaves out any negative or unflattering information because, by design, all information contained in a résumé is self-declared. This is especially true where a résumé is permitted to be submitted (online or as a physical document) without standardization or within a given template. This allows a candidate to be sparing with the detail, omit important information and even play with employment dates.  In addition to missing key information described above, résumés also seldom provide insight into several important areas, including candidate expectations, motivators, or interests which can help a hiring manager to determine if the candidate is a good fit for the job and the organization in question. 

Interviews – Avoiding the empathy trap

Conducting an interview is the still the most widely used tool for gathering information about a job candidate, although it can take many forms of course. Apart from one-to-one and panel type interviews, they may have fixed or open question formats (or a combination of the two), and use behavioral event questions or ask candidates to respond to given pre-scripted scenarios. 

Whatever the format, interviews are often fraught with problems. This includes insufficient time to probe candidate knowledge and expertise adequately, when necessary, spotting a candidates omissions and possible misrepresentations of the truth, dealing with possible candidate exaggerations and even writing adequate notes about a candidates responses to make an assessment of suitability later and in comparison to other candidates. However, by far the biggest problem with interviews is overcoming the often natural human response of feeling empathy (or not feeling it at all perhaps). Research suggest that this presence or absence of empathy has little or nothing to do with job fit or future performance and success in the job but is easily the most used yardstick for hiring one candidate over another for many hiring managers. 

References – Not to be fully trusted!

Whether a referee has been supplied by a candidate or not, in today’s world, many organizations (often at their legal advisers behest) prohibit individuals from providing reference information in any detail. Even when referees are allowed to provide information, liability concerns make it unlikely that references will provide much in the way of realistic information about a candidate’s past performance. Even where this is not the case, most candidates make sure that any referees that are supplied are well prepared to say mainly positive things, thus rendering the exercise far less useful than it might be. And even in the event that a referee does provide relatively rich and balanced information about a given candidate, his or her lack of knowledge about the job and the organization into which a hiring manager is trying to fit them will not be known to the referee-once again this reduces the value of the input to marginally useful but not compelling.

So, what can we do to gather better candidate information?

Although there are a variety of ways in which candidate information gathering can be made more effective (and we can get a long way by formatting resumes to include more information that we want and need, redesigning our interviewing approach to be more skilled and targeted and taking up references in a more focused manner) one of the best ways to improve the hiring quality is to make additional use of a pre-interview questionnaire or assessment. This pre-screening tool can often be completed in paper and pencil format but increasingly can be taken online. 

Using a Pre-Interview Questionnaire

A pre-interview questionnaire or assessment is typically a series of questions which allows a hiring manager to learn more about a candidate well before he or she is selected to come in for interview (although a questionnaire can be used both as a pre-interview selector and as a tool to help add in key information to save time at interview as well). If well-designed it asks a job applicant to provide a range of information which may include personal preferences, motivations and interests, job and career aspirations, leadership and management expectations and even perceived strengths and development needs.  This last information source may be the most powerful of all, as it may be critical to job fit and performance. Some organizations therefore choose to use in-house developed or third-party assessments that are specifically designed to elicit much richer information about relative differences in perceived traits, values, style, competencies or indeed all of these.

The Benefits of a Pre-Interview Questionnaire

There are several advantages to adding a pre-interview questionnaire to your information-gathering and candidate-screening process. Some of them include:

  • It saves in-house recruiting staff time, because they do not need to be in the room to elicit responses to these questions and listen to the answers given.
  • It can reduce the time taken for the same questions having to be asked of every candidate over and over again (especially in panel type interviews).
  • An assessment such as this provides a natural document trail.
  • It can act as a useful checklist to probe responses or results further at interview wherever this seems to be necessary.
  • Such an assessment can ask a wide range of quite probing questions, with either narrative or freely written responses or by selecting from pre-provided alternatives.
  • Questions can be included that are quite job, department or organizational culture specific to glean responses from applicants ahead of time.
  • The assessment responses are likely to act to either screen out people from a potential interview or provide additional data to help rank applicants at or after interviews.
  • Some question may be designed to improve any subsequent offer acceptance rates (questions about salary or benefit expectations specifically and questions such as “what would you value most if we were to make you an offer to perform this role” more generally.

Summary

Candidate screening questionnaires or assessments can be a useful way to enrich data about candidates for jobs. They often provide much more interesting data than résumés, interviews and references can provide (which are still the most popular recruitment information sources in the modern world of work). This is not to say that this pre-questionnaire approach is not without risks. Questionnaires need to be carefully crafted to be useful and well-guarded when standard, so that model or favored answers do not become known to future applicants. However, these obstacles can be overcome and with a little effort the tool can become a very useful one indeed.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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One Comment

  1. Theodore SprinkJuly 22, 2015 at 3:27 am

    As a business executive I have tremendous respect and admiration for Dr. Jon Warner. The quality of his many posts and essays is outstanding.

    Today, I would like to respectfully offer an alternative perspective with respect to Dr. Warner’s July 12th post relating generally to the recruiter’s “pre-interview questionnaire”, and specifically to the essay’s summary bullet points.

    Top candidates are rarely identified through word recognition programs, canned questions and automated processes DESIGNED TO SAVE TIME AND MONEY FOR THE EMPLOYER.

    In my opinion, many applicants cleverly craft their resume to “job-the-system” thereby beating the automated word recognition algorithm.

    Even those resumes surviving the automated process are reportedly receiving but a few mere seconds for review by an actual human recruiter.

    This hardly seems the way to identify and recruit top talent. Some may see this as a model for eliminating, not attracting, top talent.

    As a hiring manager I would like to see a new focus on identifying candidates capable of articulating job specific problem-solving Action Plans and Timelines to their prospective employers.

    The recruiting process should revolve around a candidate setting forth a realistic plan for his or her initial stages of employment.

    Candidates should be required to submit a 30-60-90 day Action Plan and Timeline describing their initial actions in contributing to the success of the prospective employer (and by extension, their own personal success).

    And, recruiters should be required to do their jobs by actually reading the Action Plans and Timelines for the purpose of identifying the best candidates.

    I am not referring to a Business Plan, but Action Plans and Timelines that provide an opportunity for the candidate to demonstrate creativity, communication skills, intellect, industry experience, and their cultural fit by virtue of what they would do in 30, 60 and 90 day increments.

    As the hiring manager I want to hear the candidate’s proposed Action Plan and Timeline for the first 90 days on the job. A one page summary of bullet points, delineated by 30-60-90 days, would be ideal.

    This approach will tell me everything I need to know about the candidate’s expertise, experience, creativity, initiative, industry knowledge, confidence, communication skills and cultural fit.

    IS THIS NOT THE POINT OF THE RECRUITING PROCESS?

    I recognize the limitations of HR resources to address the high volume of applicants. And, I appreciate attempting to qualify candidates in a cost-effective electronic key-word scan of a resume.

    But my job is to develop and implement strategic initiatives that represent solutions to problems facing my client’s unique brand. I craft strategies to drive revenue, enhance brand equity and increase market share.To do so requires finding and hiring the best talent available.

    My experience is that today’s common high-volume methodology of “screening” candidates fails in its intention for both candidates and employers.

    My recommendation is that recruiters limit the number of candidates, within a window of time, in order that cover letters be legitimately tied to resumes; and that candidate Action Plans & Timelines be fully considered for the benefit of the hiring manager and in fairness to the candidate.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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