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The Hiring Process: Asking Interview Questions That Matter

Asking interview questions of candidates that truly matter is something we don’t do well. It’s not our fault, though, right? Every resume looks the same, every job post looks the same, and we all know if you Google the top 10, 20, 50 interview questions to ask a candidate, the lists are all the same old questions. And they are wrong. They are wrong because, much like many other aspects of our business, we are stuck in the “that’s how we’ve always done it” mode.

The same handful of “experts” have been telling everyone in the US how to write a resume, how to write a job post, and how to interview candidates. Not much has changed in the last 35 years. Unfortunately, “how we’ve done it” has only gotten us “here.” And “here” is not necessarily so great. For many operators, we don’t want to be “here,” we want to go “there,” the next level, the next iteration of what will make restaurants equitable, profitable, sustainable, and a great place to work.

We will talk about three things. What we truly want to accomplish when interviewing candidates, categories of bad questions, and of course, what you really want to know: the good questions that matter! It is also important to understand the consequences of asking bad questions and the rewards for asking good questions.

What We Want to Accomplish:

Ultimately, what we want to accomplish is to ask questions that matter!

  • Ask questions that you want to know the answer to, not questions you think will trick the candidate into giving up information they didn’t intend to. Interviews are not adversarial.

  • Dig deep enough in their resume (or through conversation) to get to the thing behind the thing that is the actual thing that matters to you and to the candidate.

  • For instance, look at where they have worked:

  • Is there something unique about a particular restaurant?

  • Do they have a piece of specialized equipment?

  • Do they have a cool cultural aspect?

  • Do they have a wild location?

  • Asking about these details lets the candidate know you care enough about them to read their resume and helps you to engage them on a very personal level.

  • Build trust and allow candidate’s to be able to ask the hard questions that you know they want to ask, but are afraid to.

    • Be up front about the bad health inspection and ask them if they want to ask about what has changed?

    • Did you see that Yelp review that ripped us apart? Let’s talk about that.

    • Do you know anyone who does or did work here? What did they say?

  • Make sure the candidate knows there is no wrong answer to a question you ask.

    • Sure, there is value that can be relatively higher or lower in the answer they give, however, letting them know there is no wrong answer allows the candidate to answer in the way that is most comfortable for them.

Here are a few things to consider as you move through the interview process:

  • The interview should be a conversation between two people, not an inquisition. It is not your responsibility as the interviewer to intimidate or “stump” the candidate. It is your responsibility to get to know and understand the candidate while also allowing them to know and understand both you and the company.

  • Their time matters and so does yours. Spending time on questions that don’t matter wastes both your time and the candidates. Most interviews can be far shorter that what is typical and accomplish far more than what is accomplished under the current system.

Bad Interview Questions:

Let’s jump into the categories of bad questions. There should be some great familiarity here, since they are all (except the illegal questions) on various lists of the “best interview questions” to ask candidates. I know this can be confusing. If these questions are on so many “best of” lists, how can they be so wrong? Well, they don’t help you reach your goal - asking interview questions that matter. What bad interview questions do is offend candidates, sound an alarm, send up a red flag, or maybe even lead a great candidate to excuse themselves from the interview.

  • Illegal Interview Questions are dictated by a number of governmental entities and rules including Federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as many state, county and city regulations. Provided below are a small number of illegal interview questions. Please consult with your local jurisdiction or a labor attorney to determine the full list where you do business.

  • What year were you born or how old are you? This question opens you up to age discrimination claims.

  • Are you pregnant or do you plan to have a child soon? This also can lead to discrimination against a protected class in the hiring process.

  • Where do you live? This question can both lead to discrimination based on assumptions about the candidate’s residence, as well as going to questions about transportation that may not be asked in an interview.

  • Ridiculous Interview Questions are those that are thought to be ice breakers, quirky, tricky, or used to throw a candidate off. They are bad questions because they actually are in no way predictive of anything that the candidate brings to the company. Some people like to use them because they think these questions go to creativity or a candidate’s ability to think on their feet. Even tech companies like Google have abandoned these types of questions because of their lack of ability to predict actual on-the-job performance. Fortunately, there are much better questions to ask to get to those considerations. Versions of the ridiculous questions include:

  • If you were a box of cereal, what would it be and why?

  • “This or that” questions, such as: Pick one: Red or Yellow?

  • If you were an ingredient in a salad, what would it be and why?

  • What three items would you bring to a deserted island?

  • Time Wasters are interview questions that do just that. They are poor place holders or questions that you can get answers to from another source. They can be indirect, inappropriate, or just too broad to solicit a valuable answer. As we mentioned, the candidate’s time is valuable and so is yours: ask questions that matter! Some examples include:

  • Tell me about yourself? The typical response to this question is a recitation of the candidate’s resume. Let’s face it, you have at least skimmed their resume prior to inviting them for an interview, and let’s hope you have actually read their resume prior to meeting the candidate for the interview. If you have a specific question about something on the candidate’s resume, just ask that question!

  • What are your pay expectations? Well, in your job post you should have included a salary, hourly wage, or very specific wage range. Do you really want to ask this question and have the candidate regurgitate exactly what you included on the job post?

  • What would your last manager say about you? This one is simple, if you really want to know, ask for references, and ask that manager directly. If you are not inclined to complete references because they are either going to be glowing or because they will be limited to hire date, end date and rehire status, then simply forgo this question since you will be putting the candidate in a position of saying something that they think you are looking for in the answer.

Good Interview Questions:

Good interview questions are those that actually help you reach your goal: Asking questions that matter. Again, you want to encourage a balanced conversation with give and take on both sides. Ultimately, we want the candidate to be telling us stories that get to the heart of who they are. As we mentioned, these questions build trust, give us the direct answers we need, and lay the groundwork for candidates to ask us questions that matter to them in return. These can be freeform, behavioral / situational questions, or professional goal related.

  • Freeform Questions really allow the candidate to open up and tell you their story. They get to share a narrative from their point of view so you can better understand who they are.

  • Tell me something that relates to this position that I won’t see on your resume?

  • What is something you recently learned that excites you?

  • Who is someone (anyone, no limits) that you admire?

  • Behavioral or Situational Questions put a candidate in a specific situation they may actually face in this position (not becoming a box of cereal), and then they walk you through how they would respond. These questions, if not asked properly, can potentially add pressure or cause anxiety for the candidate. It is best to lead into behavioral or situational questions with something like, “We have all been in tough situations like these…”

  • If you are double sat and have to ring in another table’s order, how would you proceed?

  • If a guest appears to be intoxicated, what would you do?

  • If you see the walk-in cooler is at 52 degrees, what would you do?

  • Again, no wrong answers here, just the ability to see how the candidate may process real-life situations they may face if they accept a job with your business.

  • Professional Goal Related Questions indicate what a candidate has accomplished and offers a glimpse into how they want to be coached, trained, and developed. These are much more specific than the tired, old, “where do you see yourself in 5 years” question. They can also indicate to you what the company is doing right with job posts to attract employees.

  • What made you excited about applying for this position?

  • What professional accomplishment or situation makes you most proud?

  • What is something you would like to learn in this position?

  • What do you expect from leadership and co-workers at our company?

How you interview candidates will dictate how many will show up for second or third interviews and will be a major factor in how many candidates ultimately accept job offers. By ditching the bad interview questions and moving to the good ones you will also stand out as a company, a brand, and employer that is different from all the rest your candidates are interviewing with. It demonstrates hospitality on a personal level for everyone you are considering to fill open positions. Remember, your goal is to ask questions that matter. Questions that show you are interested in them, that the candidates are not just part of a faceless cattle call. Questions that engage and questions that show the candidate that you truly look forward to receiving their questions in return.

Now, are you ready to flip from ineffective interview questions to ones that will help you identify and land the candidates that will make a difference? Are you ready to ask questions that show you value the candidate’s time, the candidate as an individual, and questions that will lead to more candidates accepting job offers? Let’s go!

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