Using selection interviews in the right way: How cryptic should your questions be?

If you ever looked for new employees in your company, chances are you used an interview to select the candidates, as this is the most widely used selection method in practice. However, companies build their interviews very differently, for example regarding their transparency. Some interviewers prefer to formulate their questions so that it’s not exactly obvious to the candidate what they aim to assess, while others might be more straight-forward regarding their evaluation criteria. This usually happens without much thought, basing on the assumptions HR managers hold, but it is something essential for the success of an interview in predicting how well the candidate will perform the job.

Why transparency matters

As a matter of fact, candidates differ in their ability to identify the criteria they are evaluated on in an assessment situation (Kleinmann, Ingold, Lievens, Jansen, Melchers & König, 2011). This means that some candidates are better at figuring out what a question is supposed to evaluate, and thus might give a more relevant answer. Instead, others might reach wrong conclusions about the real focus of the question, and thus, though they have more experience or knowledge regarding the dimension actually in the spotlight, they miss their chance to show it to the interviewer.

So, is it a good thing to let this ability interfere with the ratings of candidates or should you simply make clear to everybody what you’re trying to find out before asking the questions?

Looking for a people person?

The answer depends on the kind of job you focus on. Whether a person is good at pinpointing the aim of a question is a matter of how socially skilled he/she is. Interviews are social interactions, where candidates have to correctly perceive, as well as interpret social cues, but also to adapt their behavior to the other person’s expectations, and identifying the criteria of the evaluation is a part of this. These abilities are important also for performing well a job, especially those involving social interactions (e.g. service sector) or ambiguous contexts (e.g. managerial positions). So, if you’re looking for someone with high social skills, it’s a good idea to include in the final ratings their ability to identify what you’re trying to assess in the interview.

When accuracy is key

On the other hand, making the aim of each question clear to candidates will give everybody a chance to show their best. Eliminating differences in candidates’ ability to identify criteria allows you to tap better into the dimensions you’re actually trying to assess. You can be surer that you’re really evaluating, for example, goal setting competence, and not the degree to which the candidate correctly perceived what you’re after. This would be useful when the dimensions you’re assessing are more specific, technical or have in general less to do with social skills. Of course, you might wonder if once the candidates know clearly what you are interested in, they won’t simply lie to you, giving desirable yet fictive answers. Although this is a fear of many HR professionals, researchers looked into it and found that faking answers is much less frequent than expected in selection processes, even for the more obvious tests (Hogan, Barrett & Hogan, 2007). Furthermore, it is especially difficult to fake answers in interviews that are structured, ask for specific behaviors or put the candidate in specific situations (situational interviews).

Takeaways for your practice

When designing an interview for your company’s selection process, think about how transparent the questions to the candidates should be. Instead of taking this decision on unproven assumptions or randomly, ask yourself how relevant the candidates’ ability to perceive, interpret and adapt to social cues of a given situation is to their future job. If the answer is they’re very relevant, because the candidate will interact a lot with clients or will face unclear situations, then you should let the candidates try to figure out by themselves what you are after in the interview. However, if specific or technical skills are more important for their future job, and you’d like to make sure you hire the person who is best at them, then you should eliminate the blurry interpretation of your questions. Instead, make clear to candidates what you are interested in, then ask for specific situations and behaviors that exemplify their personal abilities.

If you liked this article, share it with your network by clicking on the buttons below!


Follow us on  LinkedIn, Twitter and subscribe to our newsletter to receive all the quality of scientific research in less than 1000 words!


Kleinmann, M., Ingold, P. V., Lievens, F., Jansen, A., Melchers, K. G. and König, C. J. (2011). A different look at why selection procedures work: The role of candidates’ ability to identify criteria. Organizational Psychology Review, 1(2), 128-146. doi: 10.1177/2041386610387000

To find the original article click here!

Hogan, J., Barrett, P., & Hogan, R. (2007). Personality measurement, faking, and employment selection. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1270-1285.

To find the original article click here!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.