Going Deep, in the Interview

CEO Gary Burnison says job interviewers have to get beyond superficial topics to really learn about candidates.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry and author of the upcoming book, "Lose the Resume, Land the Job."

Interviewers today are increasingly afraid of asking anything that even feels personal. Trying not to offend or to appear biased in any way, they stick to the script: the candidate’s résumé and the requirements of the job. It can make for a very perfunctory and boring conversation.

To be a good interviewer, you must deviate from the script and ask some personal questions. It takes self-awareness and sensitivity, but unless you attempt to find out who people really are, you’ll never really make a connection.

Here are some personal questions and topics that interviewers should absolutely explore if they want to get beyond the superficial and find out who people are—and how we’ll they’ll fit with the team.

Where did you grow up and what brought you here?

This is the kind of small talk question you’d ask a new acquaintance, whether a fellow guest at a dinner party or even a seatmate on an airplane. People like to talk about themselves; it is a subject they know very well. In an interview, this type of question serves to break the ice for an interviewee who may understandably be nervous. When people are relaxed, they can talk more freely about themselves, which will start to reveal their personalities, motivations, and what drives them.

Family questions

This one is tricky. You absolutely cannot come out and ask: “Are you single or married?” or “Do you have children?” Coming out of the blue, this kind of question could be misinterpreted as being biased. However, I always talk about my family first to make that a comfortable topic of conversation and connection. And, very often, as candidates talk about themselves, they’ll mention having a spouse or partner, parents, children, nieces and nephews or other people close to them. If they go there, you can too. An interview, after all, is nothing more than two people having a conversation!

Passionate pursuits

Take the time to read the person’s entire résumé before the interview, including interests and nonprofessional pursuits. This is a great place to learn a lot about people. You may have something in common with them, from an alma mater to sports or other pursuits, or you may find out something interesting that can start a conversation. I have read résumés that listed accomplishments from world-champion ice carvers to axe throwing champions. Discussing these interests can reveal a lot about people’s passions (do they reveal a creative side?) and motivations (are they disciplined and/or competitive?).

What gets you excited about this job?

With this question, you are looking for more than the generic answer of “I’m seeking an opportunity that will challenge me.” You want someone who not only grasps the concept of having passion and purpose, but knows how to display it. This is a person who should not only talk about past accomplishments, but asks what needs to be done over the next six to twelve months, and how that success will be measured. For your part, go beyond the job specification (which often is just so many words—not unlike a bad résumé) and really communicate what the job entails. What will the person do every day? How do the candidate’s current experiences and recent accomplishments relate to the demands of the job?

What are you working on now?

Asking people this question—what projects they’re managing, initiatives they’re implementing—will help you determine whether they’re really working at the level and scope that they’ve claimed on their résumé. (There are candidates who will try to take credit for all human accomplishments.) You need to calibrate not only what they’re doing now, but also their level of engagement with their current job. Have they checked out already? What do they really bring to this new position?

What happens next?

Do not make the candidate ask this question. Instead, offer information about next steps. If you are interviewing other candidates, say so, or if you are near a decision, say so. Give the person a realistic expectation of the timeline. A great way to close the interview is to ask the candidate, “What does the rest of your day look like?” Is the candidate going back to work, to the airport, or going home?  Ending on a personal note and giving the person a reason to look forward is a great way to put a personal touch on the interview.  No matter what happens from here, the candidate will feel better.

The key to creating a successful interview is making a connection and establishing rapport. A great way to do this is by asking the right questions, including those that seem a little personal so you can go beyond the surface of the résumé and find who they are – not simply what they do.


A version of this article appears on Forbes.com.