How To Answer An Open-Ended Question From A Candidate

By Marlo Lyons, Harvard Business Review, April 26, 2024

While interviewers often assume they hold all the power during the interview process, candidates are increasingly asking more insightful questions to assess whether they should make a move to a new company. Just as candidates prepare for interviews, interviewers need to be ready to answer open-ended questions from candidates because the responses could either ignite their enthusiasm or dampen their interest in the opportunity.

Here are five strategies for interviewers to prepare for and address open-ended questions, with the goal of enticing candidates to eagerly pursue an open position with your company.

Know what information is confidential

Interviewers play a critical role in upholding confidentiality during the interview process, recognizing the sensitive nature of certain information that cannot be disclosed to candidates, even if they’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Understanding the boundaries of confidentiality is essential, as it ensures the protection of proprietary information, trade secrets, and other sensitive data integral to the company’s operations.

While NDAs offer legal protection, it’s imperative for interviewers to exercise discretion and refrain from sharing confidential details such as upcoming product launches, strategic plans, or proprietary technologies during interviews. However, withholding information or stumbling while answering a question may project a lack of transparency within the company, which could turn off a candidate from wanting to work there. If you’re unsure what information is confidential, discuss in advance with your manager or the legal department so you can confidently speak about confidential matters in a way that safeguards the company’s interests while conveying enough information to satisfy the candidate.

Prepare for common questions

Candidates often ask about company culture — for example, “Can you tell me about the culture?” or “What about the culture drew you to the company?” or “How has the culture changed since Covid-19?” Instead of simply stating a preference for the culture or highlighting collaborative dynamics, it’s essential to offer tangible examples or scenarios. The aim is to answer the question in a way that will help the candidate grasp how their working style would fit in and help them feel at ease about the prospect of joining the team, fostering a sense of comfort and belonging.

For example, you could talk about that time your cross-functional colleagues rallied to support you during a challenging project, displaying the organization’s collaborative spirit. Or you could share a personal experience that illustrates the company’s encouragement of work-life balance, such as how you’re able to pick up your children every day at 3 p.m. or how you approach unplugging during vacations (and how you empower team members to do the same). And despite the passage of time since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s still valuable to describe how the company supported employees during that period, shedding light on its commitment to employee well-being and resilience.

All interviewers should also align on questions about the history of the position. Was the role newly created? Or is it vacant due to a departure or internal transfer? Transparency regarding the position’s background, including its origins and any notable achievements or areas for improvement from the previous employee, can give candidates valuable insight into role expectations. Additionally, discussing how the company decided to create a new role, the significance of the position, and how the person in the position will interact cross-functionally can help candidates better understand how their past experiences align with the job requirements.

Connect answers to each candidate’s skills and experience

Just as candidates strive to establish a connection during interviews, interviewers must do the same. When candidates ask questions about the position, relate your responses directly to their experience, citing specific examples from their resume or interview answers.

For example, if the candidate asks how you’ll measure success, draw parallels between their past achievements and the role’s requirements. Maybe they previously gave you an example of how they created a specific marketing campaign they led targeting a diverse audience; you could answer their question by connecting their example to a role requirement of growing your product’s reach to specific demographics and the corresponding key performance indicators (KPIs) for success.

This approach not only strengthens the connection between the interviewer and the candidate but also fosters a more meaningful and productive interview experience for both parties.

Highlight growth opportunities

As interviewers evaluate a candidate’s potential fit within the company and team, candidates likewise assess whether their skills will be valued, if growth opportunities exist, and how their past experiences align with the company’s goals.

Listen attentively during the interview to discern each candidate’s short- and long-term aspirations. This will help you determine which company programs to highlight, from personalized coaching to educational courses to industry conferences. Discuss success stories of employees who have capitalized on the company’s resources and growth opportunities, resulting in promotions or transitions to new roles that allow them to utilize their newly acquired skills. Be prepared to talk about how experience gained in the role could lead to particular career trajectories, as well as mentorship initiatives, training programs, and prospective projects that could help the candidate attain their career goals within the company, even if it means transitioning to a different department in the future.

Demonstrate self-awareness

Just as interviewers aim to select a candidate who will thrive within the company, candidates want assurance that they’ll enjoy working for the hiring manager if they get the job. Candidates who are trying to understand whether a hiring manager’s leadership style will work for them may ask questions such as, “Can you tell me about a time when you feel like you failed an employee?” or “How do you view your job in support of this role?” or “What is one quality in your leadership style that you expect your leaders to emulate?” You can seize the opportunity presented by these open-ended questions to candidly discuss your past mistakes, areas for improvement, and leadership approach, displaying vulnerability and fostering a sense of psychological safety for the candidate.

Interviewers should prepare for interviews just as thoroughly as candidates do. Being equipped with compelling stories and setting aside dedicated preparation time, such as 30 minutes beforehand, allows interviewers to mentally prepare and be fully present during the interview. Like with candidates, it’s not only the content of what is said that matters, but also the manner in which it’s conveyed. Demonstrating enthusiasm for the company and the position can leave a lasting impression on candidates, instilling confidence and enthusiasm in their decision-making process.

-HBR, April 26, 2024

Other interesting articles pertaining to how best to lead and hire great candidates:

4 Strategies to Do the Things You Have To Do as a Leader, Even When You’d Rather Put Them Off (Inc., April 9 2024)
The Secret to Superpowering Your Career Trajectory (Inc., April 7 2024)
Replace Performance Improvement Plans With Coaching To Enhance Employee Success (Forbes, April 8 2024)
The Art of Asking Smarter Questions (HBR, May-June 2024)
Google Spent Years Researching the Best Way to Get New Employees Up to Speed Significantly Faster. The Secret? A Simple 15-Minute Conversation (Inc., April 23, 2024)
Don’t Waste Your ‘Power Hours’ In Meetings (WSJ, April 19, 2024)
Here are 3 common reasons why your best employees leave (Fast Company, April 19, 2024)

Career Capital

Recent interesting articles pertaining to how best to manage one’s career advancement:

How To Accurately Leverage The STAR Interview Method For 2024 (Forbes, April 9, 2024)
Make Your Triumphs Last (WSJ, April 15 2024)
Working Parents, Plan for the Week with This Simple Exercise (HBR, April 24 2024)
Should You Quit Your “Meh” Job? Or Is It Salvageable? (HBR, April 19, 2024)
5 Reasons Why You’re Not Landing Any Job Interviews (Forbes, April 24 2024)
How To List Strengths And Skills On Your Resume In 2024 (Forbes, April 10 2024)
Does Climbing The Corporate Ladder Still Matter? How Talent Is Redefining Ambition (Forbes, April 8 2024)

Mortgage Capital

Recent interesting articles pertaining to the mortgage industry:

Originators beg for training, few firms deliver (National Mortgage Professional, March 2024)
Credit’s Cookin’: Menu of borrowers to grow with new scoring system (National Mortgage Professional, April 2024)
VA unveils new program to buy defaulted mortgages (Housingwire, April 10 2024)
Recessions: Know What’s What (National Mortgage Professional, April 2024)
Do Interest Rates Matter Anymore? (WSJ, April 21 2024)
Mortgage lenders with multiple streams had better 4Q results (National Mortgage News, April 3 2024)
Mortgage industry employees dish on the future of AI (National Mortgage News, March 25 2024)
NAR Settlement: What Does It Mean For Agents On The Ground? (Mortgage Point, March 31 2024)
Does Annual Uptick In Foreclosure Activity Hint At ‘Shifting’ Market Dynamics? (Mortgage Point, March 13 2024)

By Tallmadge Hill

April 30, 2024