Evan Goodman

The Problem with Hypothetical Questions in Job Interviews

Interviews are hard for business owners. In my business coaching sessions, it comes up often with clients, and rarely in a positive way. Business owners value the fact they need to employ more staff, and the growth of their business is a validation of this. However, they view the whole interview and hiring process as being fraught with risk, namely, the ‘how and where’ to find the right candidate, how to ensure the candidate has the correct credentials, and if the ‘right fit’ for the business, setting up the HR aspects off the job and then on-boarding process. Lastly, the probation period – ensuring it all falls into place.

This article deals with one especially important aspect of the issues raised above, ensuring you ask the correct questions during the interview process. Breaking it down even further, the section below explores the questions that assist with how potential prospects conducted themselves with regards issues they are likely to face in the workplace, and how they will react and ‘handle’ the situation.

You might have asked (or been asked) them in various forms:

  • If one of your teammates…
  • Let’s say your boss…
  • What would you do if…

These questions, regardless of how they are set up, all are designed to get job candidates to reveal something about their values, ethics, and ability to solve problems in reasonable ways. Hiring managers look at these elements closely because they want to ensure they are bringing someone into the company who’s going to be a good fit for the team and culture of the business. But these questions might be a blatant failure and need retirement.

Looking at a candidate’s past can help your company’s future more than what-ifs

Job candidates who are asked hypothetical questions during a job interview do not necessarily lie with the intention of sneaking into the position or hiding who they are. They do not necessarily have any malicious or narcissistic intent.

But people often are not very good at predicting what they actually would do when they’re confronted with a situation. They can communicate what they think is right or logical, but how they feel in the moment or what they learn over time might lead them to act differently than they thought they would.

Not only that, but some situations are simply extremely rare or hard to predict. The need to handle responsibilities through a pandemic, for example, probably wasn’t on many people’s radar. Other circumstances can be incredibly complex and removing or changing even one element completely might alter what a person sees to be acceptable or appropriate. You simply cannot cover all the if-then possibilities well enough in an interview to understand all the nuances that play into the candidate’s potential decisions.

A far better approach is to dig into what the job candidate actually has been faced with in the past. The point here is not just to determine what someone learned or how they grew from their experiences, although that is valuable. It is to get a sense, based on real precedents, of how they actually will take action if and when something similar might (re)occur, how they think when they’re confronted with a challenge or stress, and whether they can communicate effectively and cooperatively to problem solve.

Just as when you ask a candidate to tell you about accomplishments they are proud of, you can formulate your inquiry about what they have overcome, dealt with or solved in a positive way. For example, instead of saying, “How would you handle a dispute between your teammates?” or “What’s the worst disagreement at work you have ever had?”, you can ask “Could you tell me about a time when you and your coworkers or boss moved forward after not seeing eye to eye?” You also can be clear that you are not out for secrets or dirt, personal or company names or tons of detail–you just need to know the basics of the situation.

Other examples of past-oriented questions or prompts include

  • What work situations have raised your anxiety the most in the past, and what coping strategies have helped you most on stressful workdays?
  • Tell me about a project where you did not feel like you had proper resources or support. What did you do to complete the job, or what would you have liked to have had for the work?
  • What kind of passion projects have you worked on, and how did you get past the challenges for each?
  • Explain what you have done when your personal values have not matched a task you’ve been asked to do.
  • What kind of work or tasks have others asked you to do that has not been in your job descriptions?
  • Tell me about an opportunity you have turned down and an opportunity you have snapped up. What was your reasoning for each one?
  • What’s the one word you have heard the most from others that describes you?

Interviews are unlikely to ever be perfect and there will always be gaps and issues you would perhaps like to cover but cannot and do not. However, you will always discover more about a new hire over time. But by making this shift in your questioning might give you a more accurate picture of a candidate’s personality and approach to work. Simply consider the broad picture and develop open-ended questions you can pose fairly to anyone.