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Five questions to ask when recruiting and five to avoid.

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Recruitment – love it or hate it, it’s a crucial part of the hiring process. In a sea of resumes you could end up with a shortlist of candidates that have a very similar skill set and experience, or depending on the role, they could be vastly different. One of the biggest challenges you face when preparing for candidate interviews is to compile a comprehensive list of questions that will allow you to differentiate and select the most appropriate candidate.

Recruiting the right person the first time is crucial for a business. An incorrect hire creates a financial burden for the business, estimated to be between $30,000 and $150,000 depending which role the incumbent has within the organisation and the length of time the employee is with the organisation.

I have supported many organisations to get their recruitment and workforce planning strategies right to mitigate incorrect hires and the challenges that they bring. Asking the right interview questions is a key step in this process. After more than 15 years of recruiting, I have compiled a list of five questions to ask candidates and five questions to avoid, to help you get the most out of your recruitment process.


1. “The role title is (-insert role title-), what does that mean to you?”

This is a great opener to ask a candidate and a key question that I include in all interviews. It allows the candidate to demonstrate their level of insight into the role and typically the candidate will respond with what they see as the most important aspects of the role. Hopefully the candidate will demonstrate their understanding of the role without reciting the position description or advertisement.

The reason I recommend opening with this question is that it allows everyone, right from the outset, to get on the same page with the role that is being recruited. If the candidate mentions tasks or responsibilities outside the role requirements you can address that and reclarify the boundaries of the role, while sharing your vision for the role. This question can also identify any potential shortcomings of the candidate’s knowledge or skill set so you can ask meaningful questions and follow up questions later in the interview.

2. “Why have you chosen this career path?”

I love seeing a candidate’s eyes light up to this question as they recount a burning desire they’ve had since birth to work in this sector, or how they finished their degree and fell into the industry by accident and now couldn’t see themselves doing anything else, or how they felt unfulfilled in their previous career so they’re making a switch.

However they landed on this path, we ideally want to see a passionate response to this question. We often hear that candidates chose their career because they like to help people, or they like being creative, or they like being challenged, or a myriad of other reasons. This question may even tell you about a candidate’s future goals and where this role fits into their career progression plan. Whatever their response, you can think about how it fits in with your vision for the role and your organisation’s culture.

3. “Has there been a person in your career who really made a difference?”

When I ask this question, I am looking to learn about the candidate’s career development, how they relate to others, and their character demonstrated through their core values. I have heard some great responses to this question over the years and typically a candidate will describe a mentor who helped them advance their career and how they hope to pay that back in the future.

While most responses are positive, sometimes a candidate will share a story about poor workplace culture, a workplace bully, or someone that “had it out for them”. Often, this sort of response acts as a red flag, because while their version of events might be completely accurate, it’s not the right forum to share that information.

4. “What do you anticipate as being some of the challenges in the role?”

If a candidate can’t answer this question, it demonstrates a lack of experience or knowledge about the realities of the role. When we write position descriptions or job advertisements, we describe the key responsibilities and outcomes for the role, but we rarely highlight which ones are going to be difficult to accomplish. Every role has its challenges, and we want to be assured that our candidate is going into the role with realistic expectations.

When I ask this question, it is a big green flag when the candidate can identify a couple of realistic challenges and even better when they follow up with strategies they might implement to overcome these obstacles. This question is also a great opportunity for candidates to ask some questions, so even if they can’t identify some challenges, they can display insight by asking relevant questions to learn more about the role.

5. “What’s the best job/role you’ve had so far?”

This question isn’t always appropriate, and I wouldn’t ask it for senior roles, but for junior to mid-tier roles, I ask this question to learn about what a candidate likes in their workplace, their manager, and their colleagues.

Was their favourite job one where they worked as part of a team, or autonomously? Was it a creative role or a role that was heavily process driven? Did the manager mentor them, or did the workplace have a lot of flexibility?

Once you understand what it was about their favourite role that made it the best, you can draw comparisons about the similarities or differences between that job and the role they are applying for, leading to a more honest conversation about expectations.


1. “What are your weaknesses?”

There has been a big shift over the last 5-10 years when undertaking performance appraisals to avoid asking employees about their weaknesses and instead asking about their areas for improvement or their professional development goals. We have been removing the word weakness from our conversations with existing employees, so why would we ask this question to potential employees?

Obviously, we want to understand where our potential hires might need a helping hand and luckily there are a few creative ways to ask this question without using the word weakness. You could ask:

  • “What are your professional development goals?”

  • “What would assist you to be successful in this role?”

  • “What part of the job description do you have the least experience with?”

  • “Think about the person in your life who is your toughest critic, if that person were being honest, how would they describe you?”

Sometimes we see candidates struggle to come up with a response when responding to these types of questions, or they will say something that is actually a positive, such as “I work too hard”. Both responses should be met with caution as it shows a lack of honest insight and may indicate that they struggle with workplace feedback.

2. “Tell me about yourself.”

Early on in my career I would ask this question, it’s a fairly stock standard question, usually asked towards the start of the interview. My purpose for asking this question was to see what the candidate wanted to share, what was important to them, or unique, or interesting. More often than not, the candidate would essentially just recite their resume. Or they would launch into a 20-minute life story including all major milestones leading up to this exact point in time.

This question is a favourite of recruiters everywhere, but I now avoid using it because it’s too broad. If you are someone who asks this question, have a good think about what information you really want to know and formulate a more specific question. You could ask “how do your skills and experience relate to this role”, or “what are your hobbies”, or “what’s an interesting fact about you”, or “what are your values”, or any myriad of questions that will give you the information you need to determine if this is the right candidate for your role.

3. Multiple questions.

“Tell me about a challenging client. How did you manage the situation and keep the client happy? What did you learn from this experience and in hindsight, do you think you would have done anything differently?”

Did you catch all that?

Asking multiple questions is both confusing and overwhelming. By the time you have finished asking the last questions, the candidate has forgotten the first. It’s normal for a candidate to be nervous when being interviewed, so asking multiple questions can shake their confidence, especially if they have to ask you to repeat the question.

It’s common to see recruiters develop recruitment question with alternatives or prompts, but these are supposed to be just that. Alternatives in the event the candidate has already answered the question, or a prompt if the candidate gets stuck or doesn’t provide enough information. Ask one question at a time and save the follow up questions to ask if the candidate doesn’t provide all the information you want.

4. Illegal questions

This one should be a no brainer, yet still we hear from candidates that these questions are being asked during interviews. There are a range of protected attributes under Equal Opportunity Employment legislation to protect workers from discrimination. These protected attributes include things like race, pregnancy, sexuality, gender, gender identity, religious beliefs, political views, and age, to name a few.

When you conduct an interview, you are trying to determine if the candidate is suitable for the role you have advertised, and it is very, very rare that any protected attributes will impact a candidate’s ability to do the job. It is best to avoid a discrimination claim, so ensure that you don’t ask any illegal questions.

5. “What’s your current salary?”

This question is unethical yet I've seen seasoned professionals ask this question. Someone’s current salary doesn’t have anything to do with the role they are applying for. The person might be going for a promotion, downsizing their role, or changing industries. There are so many factors that impact remuneration and a potential candidate’s current salary is not one of them.

This question is often asked as a way to start a conversation about remuneration. But what you really want to understand is if the candidate’s salary expectation aligns with the salary range you have for the role. So, if that is the information you need, that is the exact question to ask – “what is your salary expectation for this role?”

It is quite simple and ensures that you don’t inadvertently perpetuate pay inequality that exist between genders and ethnicities, while also making sure no one is wasting their time. You don’t want to get to the end of a recruitment process for a $60k a year job, only to find out the candidate expects $130k for the role. It happens!

Sometimes candidates struggle to answer the salary expectation question, and I’ve had colleagues jump in at this point and ask, “well what are you currently on?” but you should avoid this. If a candidate is struggling, I find it better to let them know that they can answer in terms of annual salary or an hourly rate, and that usually helps them articulate a response.

Rebecca Muscat is the Senior Business Partner for CareCFO and specialises in HR Consulting including Recruitment Consulting.

She is an experienced Human Resources Professional, passionate about working with Not-for-Profit organisations.

To talk about your HR or Recruitment needs, contact Rebecca on or by calling 1300 07 55 11.

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