Assume that candidates’ responses will be incomplete. Ask followup questions to learn more

Portrait of woman sitting in front of manager and senior leader

No one should walk away from an interview wondering how a candidate responded to situations like those your staff encounters. Sometimes you do ask questions about past performance and what you hear sounds good, but reflecting on the conversation you think, “What did he/she really do?”

You realize that you settled for a superficial answer, which is what candidates want you to do. Anticipating the questions they might be asked, they began rehearsing their answers as soon as you invited them to an interview.

To gather high-quality information upon which to base your hiring decisions, you need to go beyond those well-rehearsed words. You must probe to learn more about what the candidate has said.

Approach interviews assuming that candidates’ initial responses to questions will be incomplete. You will need to ask for more details.

While you could rely on your ability to generate good followup questions on the spot, it’s better to be prepared with questions before the interview begins.

Thinking of what to ask next can cause you to stop listening to the rest of the candidate’s response as you compose your next question. As a result, you may miss some important information.

In this way, interviews are plagued by problems akin to what researchers have found happening in many conversations (interviews are a type of conversation, but with higher stakes than most).

Rather than listening to what the other person is saying, the “listener” is more focused on composing what to say next. To make the right hiring decision, it is important to really hear what the candidate tells you.

To develop possible followup questions before the interview, ask yourself, “What type of information is necessary to have a complete picture of how the candidate responded to this situation?” Prepare followup questions that will aid you to fill in the gaps in the candidate’s initial response.

Some followup questions are obvious: When? (best if the incident is recent); Where? (best if the circumstance were similar); and What was the candidate’s role at the time? Also, What action did the candidate take? What was the outcome of this action?

Depending on the question, there may be other details, which would be valuable when making your hiring decisions:

  • How did you respond? Why did you respond this way?
  • What other options did you consider? Why were these approaches rejected?
  • What obstacles/challenges did you encounter when dealing with this situation? How did you overcome them?
  • What did you mean when you used the term “_________?” Define/explain “__________” for me.

[If you would like more suggestions for followup questions, let me know. Email your request, including your snailmail address, to and I will send you a card, which includes several followup questions you could use. I distribute this card during my Interview Right to Hire Right and “Unlucky” when Hiring? programs, during which I discuss writing and asking followup questions.]

The quality of these followup questions will go a long way to determining the quality of information you have when you are deciding to hire or not.

A good way to keep track of what you want to hear from the candidate is to list possible followup questions as a checklist. In the initial response to your inquiry, the candidate may provide information that answers some, even all, of these. As this happens, check those questions off. There’s no need to ask these questions. You already have the information you need.


Through his writing, speaking and training, Nelson Scott assists leaders fulfil their commitment to hire, engage and retain the right staff. He can be contacted at or (780) 232-3828 to learn more.


7 steps to unleash the power of peer recognition in your workplace

Business team celebrating a good job in the office

From the moment a few years ago when a primary school teacher told me how good she felt after she received a compliment from a colleague, I have understood the value of peer recognition. This may be the most powerful type of recognition that staff members will ever receive.

“I really appreciate getting students who have been in your class,” the colleague said. “They are so ready to learn and excited about school.”

What made this recognition so meaningful to the person receiving it was that it came from someone whose opinion she trusted—a respected colleague. This gave these comments instant credibility.

Source: Thanks! GREAT Job!

Peer recognition has the potential to strengthen the relationship among staff members and to contribute to building a culture of appreciation in the workplace, creating a place where people want to be and where they are inspired to work harder. In this environment, turnover will be low and employee engagement high.

The reason that peer recognition works is that unlike recognition from the boss, who is expected to recognize staff, recognition from co-workers is unexpected. A requirement to “Recognize colleagues when they do a good job” is never part of anyone’s job description. Often what a colleague says is more credible, because it comes from someone who understands what is required to do a good job because he/she does a similar job.

Encouraging peer recognition in a workplace is not as simple as announcing that staff members should recognize their colleagues more, which was illustrated in a previous article. On other hand, following this seven-step process is an effective way to unleash the power of peer recognition in your workplace:

1. Be a recognizer yourself –– Peer recognition will never thrive in a staff recognition vacuum; it will flourish in a recognition-rich workplace. As a manager, you can’t just preach staff recognition, you need to practise it. You need to become a staff recognition role model. Staff will follow your example. Those who have felt the impact of recognition are more likely to recognize others when they observe behaviour they believe is recognition-worthy. The more you acknowledge staff for what they do, the more they will recognize their peers.

2. Schedule time at staff meetings –– Schedule time for recognition during staff meetings, preferably early on the agenda. Prepare staff ahead of time by telling them what will be happening so they can come prepared to acknowledge the contributions of colleagues. You can also “prime the pump,” by approaching a few individuals before the meeting to help them identify reasons to recognize their colleagues. These will be people who you can rely upon to get the ball rolling.

During the meeting, limit the time devoted to peer recognition to ensure that the reasons to recognize colleagues are not exhausted before the time allocated to this activity expires. You never want to be in the position of having to beg for more peer recognition. Before moving on to the next topic on the agenda, acknowledge that there wasn’t enough time to recognize everyone and encourage staff to recognize co-workers between meetings.

Related Article: 7 Dos and 7 Don’ts of Staff Recognition During Meetings

3. Make it fun –– Here are a couple of fun ways to encourage peer recognition:

Give Your Meetings a Recognition Bounce: Set aside a few minutes at staff meetings to toss around a “recognition ball” (always a soft sponge ball, never a hard baseball!) Start by inviting those staff members who wish to recognize co-workers to raise their hands. Throw a soft sponge to one of these people. After expressing appreciation to a co-worker, this staff member tosses the ball to someone else, who then recognizes another staff member. Continue this process until several people have had the opportunity to hold the recognition ball, but stop before everyone has had a chance, to avoid a situation where someone will feel left out because no one thanked him/her. Remind staff they can always recognize their peers anytime—not just at meetings.

Create a pass-along award: This could be a new or repurposed trophy, a stuffed toy, or an item that reflects what your organization does. This symbol of success is passed from one staff member to another. Each recipient becomes responsible for passing it along to a deserving co-worker within a specified time period, such as two to five days.

Related Article: Encourage Peer Recognition with a Pass-Along Award

4. Introduce the tools of peer recognition –– These may include greeting cards (thank-you, congratulations, etc.), sticky notes, access to small gifts, etc. Make these available where it’s easy for staff to access them. Remind staff to use thank-you notes by distributing them at staff meetings or including two or three cards with their paycheque or pay advice.

For additional ways staff members can recognize their peers, check out Peer Recognition cards available from the SEA Consulting bookstore.

5. Observe Peer Recognition Day –– When I discovered the power of peer recognition while gathering material for Thanks! GREAT Job!, I proposed one day a month—the third Tuesday—be designated as Peer Recognition Day, to remind us of the importance and value of this form of recognition.

6. One-on-One Conversations –– One-on-one meetings can be a valuable way to strengthen the relationship between you and members of your team, and for you to keep in-touch with what’s happening. These conversations are also opportunities to encourage peer recognition. Ask staff members to identify a colleague whose contribution the staff member appreciated. Follow up by asking, “How did you let Howard know that you appreciated what he did?” Based on the response, either congratulate this person for recognizing a colleague or encourage him/her to do so. Perhaps you can suggest or brainstorm ways to express appreciation.

7. Recognize the Recognizers –– Recognition is about encouraging more of the behaviour that you want to see. Because peer recognition is about increasing the amount of recognition, whenever you become aware that they recognized colleagues you should let them know that you appreciate them for doing this.

How can I help you become a better interviewer?

Interview panel listening to applicant in the office

Here’s an idea that seems to make sense: authors should write books that answer questions that potential readers have about the topic.

With that thought in mind, I am requesting your input.

I am working on a book about avoiding the hiring mistakes that lead to bad hiring decisions.

Let me know what you feel would help you make the right decisions when hiring staff. What questions do you have about interviewing? What type of information could I provide that would help you conduct better interviews and consistently hire the right people to fill your vacancies?

If you provide input, I will answer your questions in the book, which will include information that’s important to you and others likes you who are committed to hiring the right people.

Your name will be included in the acknowledgements as someone who contributed to making this a better book, and as soon as it is published, I will send you an electronic version of the book.

The bottom line: I will write a better book and you will receive the information you want to help you make better hiring decisions.

I look forward to receiving your input. Email your questions and comments to

When hiring, consider motive, method and opportunity—just as if you were investigating a murder case

Father Brown: My conscience is clear.

Inspector Mallory: That won’t help you in court. You see, we have method, motive and opportunity here. The Holy Trinity. Now for the last time, can you please explain what you were doing in Raymond Worrall’s cottage? I’ll give you the night to think about it. In the morning, either you tell me everything or I charge you with murder.


Every episode of the long-running BBC television series Father Brown, which can be seen on PBS, illustrates a similarity between how detectives of fiction solve murders and how to hire staff.

In the episode The Eagle and the Daw (Season 5), the bumbling, incompetent Inspector Mallory quickly identifies the priest as the prime suspect in a recent murder. Loyal viewers of the series know that the priest is guilty of nothing more than over-enthusiasm for solving murders and a penchant for poking his nose into the inspector’s investigations, which invariably leads to the exoneration of the character Mallory has arrested.

They also know of the police officer’s tendency to jump to conclusions and to miss or ignore evidence, which would confirm the innocence of the person he has just jailed. These are characteristics he shares with some managers, who are intent on finding someone—anyone—quickly to fill a vacant position.

What Mallory describes as the “Holy Trinity” are the three aspects of a crime that are necessary to prove guilt in any murder mystery.

In her analysis of the genre, Talking about Detective Fiction, P.D. James writes that the detective story “is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organized structure and recognized conventions. What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime, a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and by the end of the book, a solution . . .”

The case falls apart if even one aspect is absent. There will be no conviction if the person of interest has motive to get the victim out of the way and a method (access to a gun, knife or poison), but had no opportunity to commit the dastardly deed (the suspect has an alibi for the time of the murder, which shows that he/she was elsewhere).

Or perhaps there was motive and opportunity but no method, or method and opportunity but no motive.

When hiring, a manager should consider whether each of the candidates has all three attributes and is therefore someone to focus on.

Motive: This may be the most subjective of the three. Is the candidate motivated to do a good job (which is different from being motivated to get a good job)? Is this person passionate about the work? Has the candidate demonstrated commitment to previous jobs? Has this been an “engaged employee?” Some of this passion and commitment may be evident during the interview, and you will learn more when conducting reference checks, which detectives would refer to as interviewing witnesses.

Means: Does the candidate have the training and competencies needed to do the job? For some positions, such as teachers or nurses, the answer can be as simple as checking the candidate’s credentials. Has the candidate completed the required training and possess the necessary degrees or certification? For other positions, such as those in the hospitality industry and retail, the educational requirement may be less well defined, but it’s still important to identify competencies that are necessary to be successful, such as communication skills, problem solving and organization.

Opportunity: Being motivated to do a good a good job and having the necessary training are important, but has the candidate demonstrated that he/she can bring motivation and training to bear on the job? Because past performance is the best predictor of future performance, it’s important that evidence exists that the candidate has performed well under similar circumstances to those your staff experiences.

Not all candidates will have experience that is a perfect match for the position the new employee will fill, but the behaviour that the candidate describes in response to your inquiries should be recent, repeated and under similar circumstances. A recent graduate from a faculty of education will never have had a classroom of his/her own, but can draw examples from a practicum experience or volunteer work with young people. A person who has applied to work in a restaurant may never have waited a table before, but might be able to draw on his/her experience serving customers in another situation.

Motive and method alone are not enough. Without evidence that the candidate has had the opportunity to perform, and performed well, you will be hiring based on assumption of how the person will do.

Assumption of guilt without motive, method and opportunity never results in a conviction in a murder case. Anyone who hires based on an assumption someone will do a good job, without evidence of motivation, the necessary credentials and competencies, and evidence of performing well when given the opportunity, is guilty of hiring misconduct. It may work out, but there’s too great a chance it won’t.

Keep searching!

Why this attempt at peer recognition didn’t work (and how it could work)

Thank You Note & Coffee

Source: Bigstock

It seemed like a good way to encourage peer recognition, but it didn’t work out that way. What went wrong and how could the same idea be made to work for you?

An individual who approached me during a recent book signing described how her manager gave each person four thank-you cards and instructed them to use them to express appreciation to four colleagues.

“We felt uncomfortable doing this,” she said. “What if someone was missed?”

Right off, one problem was evident. By providing four cards, the manager created an expectation that everyone on staff would receive four cards. It’s unlikely that this would ever have been the outcome.

Not everyone would use all four cards and some staff members, such as those who are particularly helpful and supportive, would likely receive more that their “share” of cards, while others would receive fewer cards. Some, such as those who quietly go about their work and assist others in ways that are not always evident, might receive none. Others would be enraged not to have received four cards, even though they do little for which they deserved their colleague’s gratitude.

A better approach might have been to provide easy access to an unlimited supply of cards. That way, those staff members who wanted to write more thank-you cards could do so. Periodically, the manager could remind staff to use them by distributing one or two cards to each person at a staff meeting or attaching blank cards to people’s pay advices.

From the description, it also seemed that the cards appeared without notice. Nothing had been done previously to prepare staff to recognize their peers.

The thank-you card strategy may not be the best way to initiate a peer recognition strategy. The groundwork could have been laid by first scheduling time at meetings for staff to acknowledge colleagues for their support and assistance, keeping in mind the do’s and don’ts of peer recognition at staff meetings.

When first introducing peer recognition at staff meetings, it’s important to let staff know ahead of time what will be happening so that they can come prepared to acknowledge the contributions of colleagues. You can also “prime the pump” by approaching a few individuals before the meeting to help them identify reasons to recognize their colleagues. These will be people who you can rely upon to get the ball rolling.

During the meeting, limit the time devoted to peer recognition to ensure that the reasons to recognize colleagues are not exhausted before the time allocated to this activity expires. You never want to be in the position of having to beg for more peer recognition– “Come on, guys! Can’t you think of any more reasons to recognize one of your colleagues? Surely George has done something for which he should be recognized.”—and then discover that no one can think of anything George did well.

Before moving on to the next topic on the agenda, acknowledge that there wasn’t enough time to recognize everyone and encourage staff to recognize co-workers between meetings.

This would be a good time to distribute thank-you cards or let people know where they can find them if they wish to express appreciation to their peers in this way.


Have you tried a recognition strategy that didn’t work as well as you thought it should? Tell me about it and together we can analyze what went wrong and identify ways to get your staff recognition plans back on track. Email or phone (780) 232-3828.


Tips to Create Effective Interview Panels

There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
by the men (and women) who want to hire staff;
The interview trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was what some interview panels have done

To you and sometimes to me.

(With sincere apologies to Robert Service and those who love his poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee)

Interview panel listening to applicant in the office

A potentially valuable component of the hiring process, interview panels can also become not particularly helpful in achieving the desired outcome of making the right hiring decision.

Some particularly outrageous situations of which I have become aware are times when panel members are introduced to each other just before they meet the first candidate. Other times, panel members show up at the last minute with a few questions in mind that they would like to ask. Or a panel member announces that she won’t be available for all the interviews, or that he will need to leave right after the last interview and won’t be part of the panel’s assessment of what it learned from the candidates. Other times, a panel member will ask questions that surprise the rest of the group, or ask questions of one candidate but not the others.

Any of these circumstances can derail the fairness of the hiring process, but all can be avoided if the process of assembling the panel is well thought out. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:

Know why you are using an interview panel –– First, understand that no one is demanding that you form an interview panel—unless, of course, it’s required by policy or practice in your organizations. Interviewing and hiring solo is certainly acceptable practice. Before forming your panel, ask, “Why?” What role will the panel perform? Will members be the ones making the hiring decision? Are the members to provide advice, before the final decision is left in your hands? Both are legitimate approaches, but be clear about the panel’s role before inviting people to join. Creating a panel but not giving them meaningful purpose is a formula for frustration. Panels should never be formed for political reasons or as “window dressing.”

When assembling the interview panel, consider what each potential member can contribute to the process –– Think carefully about the people who you will invite to join the panel. What can this individual contribute to the panel’s work? Will this person bring specific technical knowledge? Will he/she offer a different perspective throughout the process? Is this person particularly knowledgeable about the work associated with the vacant position and able to identify the competencies necessary to succeed? No one should ever be added to an interview panel who will bring little to its work and is only there because “he would feel bad if he was left out.”

Gather the panel as early in the process as possible –– The earlier in the process the panel is set, the more useful it will be in helping you reach the right hiring decision. As soon as the vacancy is identified, the panel can begin its work. Members can help identify the success criteria for the position. What competencies are important? Armed with this information, panel members can help write interview questions. They can review resumes to help identify the short list of candidates to be interviewed. People who join the panel later in the process will lack critical background information that was used to attract applicants and develop interview questions.

Three members is likely the best size for an interview panel –– Everyone has a busy schedule and finding times for the panel to meet to prepare and to conduct interviews may prove difficult, even with a small number of members. The larger the group the more difficult it is to get everyone in the room at the same time. Another consideration is the value of having an odd number of members in order to avoid a tie when deciding who to hire (although the goal should always be to reach a consensus on who to hire).

Be clear about each panel member’s role in the process –– First, expect all members to attend all meetings during the process. It is particularly important that they participate in all interviews. Explain how they will be involved identifying required competencies during the interview and in the decision making. If they will be asking questions during the interviews, you may wish to train them in how to ask questions and in the type of questions not to ask. A simple “unofficial” question that veers into areas protected by human rights legislation can take your process to places you don’t want to go.

Specialize –– Not everyone needs to ask questions during the interview and not everyone needs to take notes. Trying to do both can be frustrating and may reduce your effectiveness at both tasks. Take advantage of having a panel to create specialized roles. One or two people can be assigned the task of asking questions. Without the burden of also taking notes, they are able to focus on asking questions and listening to answers so that they can ask followup questions when required. Other panel members will focus on creating an accurate record of what the candidates say. The quality of notes will be improved when these people aren’t mentally preparing to ask their next questions.

Prepare the candidate to face the panel –– To reduce the stress associated with being interviewed by a panel, delegate one person to meet the candidate outside the interview room. In this “neutral” space, describe what the candidate will experience after entering the interview room: how many people will be on the interview panel, who will be asking questions, where the candidate will be sitting. Answer any questions the candidate may have about the interview environment. After returning to the room, introduce each panel member, identifying their position within the organization and explaining their role in the interview process.

For more tips on reducing interview-induced stress, read about what you can say and what you can do to reduce the candidate’s stress.

Why You Wouldn’t Want These U.S. Senators to Interview Your Future Employees


Flipping through the channels earlier this month, I came to CNN’s live coverage of the confirmation hearings for Christopher Wray as the new director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What struck me was the similarities between the way members of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate were questioning Wray and a really poorly conducted hiring interview.

I watched in horror for about an hour as some of the most powerful politicians in America violated almost every interview “don’t” that I identified in a previous article, plus a few I had not thought of. The questions were what you might expect a rookie manager,with an entry-level position to fill, to ask. Actually, even a first-time manager would have asked better questions.

It was obvious that the committee had made no effort to co-ordinate the panel’s questions. Each senator appeared to be driven by his/her own agenda. As a result, one senator would ask a question similar to one that Wray had just answered a few minutes earlier. One senator acknowledged this, before also asking the a question that Wray had already answered.

To categorize what viewers saw and heard as questions flatters some of the senators, who launched into long, rambling statements of what he/she believed about the topic, before ending with the equivalent of, “You agree with me, don’t you?”

Not surprisingly, Wray usually agreed with what the senator had just said. Jobseekers understand that the best way to impress interviewers is to affirm their beliefs. It’s what politicians and interviewers want to hear.

These inquiries/statements became exaggerated illustrations of what happens when questions are too long. Asking shorter questions reduces the possibility of the interviewer inadvertently signaling the “right” way to answer the question. Longer questions are frequently packed with clues to what the interviewer wants. It’s not difficult for the candidate to figure out exactly what the questioner hopes to hear.

What candidates expect to hear during interviews can be categorized as “opinion” questions that don’t provide the interviewer with information that’s useful in comparing candidates, nor especially enlightening: “What are your three greatest strengths? What are your greatest weaknesses? What are the most important characteristics of a successful teacher, custodian or FBI director?”

And of course, there are the “what-if” questions. What would Wray do if faced by a possible scenario? Candidates love these hypothetical questions because they can respond with hypothetical answers.

Candidates can describe how they think they would respond—or how they think the interviewer would want them to respond. There is no requirement that they provide any evidence of having faced similar situation in the past or how they responded in these circumstances.

In response to some “what if” questions, Wray provided the type of information about his past performance the senators should have requested. He described how he had performed in similar circumstances earlier in his career. Well-trained interviewers know that past performance is the best predictor of future performance.

When asked by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy what he would do if President Donald Trump asked for a pledge of loyalty, as recently fired director James Comey claims he was asked, Wray replied with the words most senators would have wanted to hear. “Nobody asked me for any kind of loyalty oath during this process, and I sure as heck wouldn’t give one if asked.”

Asked if he would obey an illegal order, he once again responded in the best way he could. “First, I would try to talk him out of it, and if that failed, I would resign.”

Other times, the director nominee refused to speculate on what he might do, explaining that answering the question would require access to classified information he would not have until after he had been confirmed. The only information he had was what he read and heard in media reports.

When asked by Republican Senator Ben Basse from Nebraska, “Can you tell us about your first 90 days or your first-day plan? What is your arrival plan?” Wray’s response was straight out of the how-to-win-when-being-interviewed playbook. He would meet with senior managers at the FBI, ask about the bureau’s existing plans and learn more about cyber terrorism. What else would you expect a new FBI director to do?

Going into this interview, Christopher Wray was in a better position than most job candidates. He knew that he was the only person being considered and that he had strong bipartisan support. There was little doubt that he would be confirmed as the next director of the FBI.

Even so, the senators could have taken advantage of the confirmation hearing as an opportunity for them—and those political junkies watching on TV—to learn more about Wray and how his experience and expertise prepared him to take on this role.

That’s the purpose of interviews—to learn more about what the candidate has done, and with that discover evidence of past performance that points to how the candidate might perform in the job if hired.

The senators may believe that Wray will do the job and fulfil the role in ways that show a commitment to upholding the law and the U.S. Constitution. But more evidence of past performance would have been good to hear.

Given the opportunity, Wray could have demonstrated to the Senate and to Americans generally that what he had done as a federal prosecutor and while leading the Justice Department’s criminal division makes him well-suited for the position for which he has been nominated.

One sensed that Wray would have appreciated the opportunity to provide more information about what he has done in the past to demonstrate to the Senate and Americans that he is the right person for the job.

Asking questions that require candidates to describe how they have responded to situations like those your staff encounter is the best way to learn about the candidate. The past performance they describe is a better predictor of future performance than any of the “What would you do?” questions the senators asked.