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The hard skill of Interviewing for hard skills – question types, tips, and techniques

Hard skills (or ‘teachable’ abilities) are at the core of so many jobs. Which means verifying that your candidates have those hard skills is critical for the hiring evaluation and selection process.

This, however, presents a challenge as there is such a vast array of hard skills, covering an endless variety of disciplines and experiences. Designing advertisements for social media, operating potentially dangerous manufacturing equipment, managing a sales team, coding in Java, teaching elementary age kids science… etc. are all examples of hard skills and are all completely different.

So how can you be sure your candidates have the hard skills you need in a way that is equitable and scalable? In other words, how can you cultivate the hard skill of interviewing for hard skills?

Much like interviewing for the skill of problem solving, the secret lies with using a combination of experience and performance questions.

By selecting the right combination of questions with effective techniques, your organization can fairly and accurately evaluate the critical hard skills you need in your next hires.

Here’s how.

Step 1 – Check the basics

Before spending both your teams and your candidates’ time evaluating how good the candidate is at a required hard skill, verify that they have it at all.

At the very beginning of the process, when screening candidates for the basic MUST HAVE requirements, screen for the hard skill.

This is often done through a resume review or keyword matching from resumes or profiles. However, the best and most inclusive way is not to rely on the candidate guessing correctly on what words to include in their profile. Instead, specify exactly what skill(s) you need in common language (i.e. no acronyms or industry jargon) and let the candidate self-identify if they have that skill at all or not. This is how we do it at

Step 2 – Verify through performance

If someone tells you they are excellent at playing the drums or solving complex math problems or building furniture, do you believe them? How many times did you hear a claim of greatness and the first thing you thought was “prove it”? The same goes for your candidates that have claimed they have a skill. This is where PERFORMANCE interview questions shine.

Use PERFORMANCE interview questions to measure the candidate’s level of skill by observing them using it. If it’s possible, have them demonstrate the skill in front of you or whoever is the expert at that skill.

Start by setting up a scenario that is reflective of how the skill would be used. For example, setting up a piece of machinery on a simulated manufacturing line, or new product code that doesn’t work, or a simulated patient chart, or a problematic employee scenario, etc. Then, create a series of tasks or questions to observe the candidate using the skill.

Example questions:

  • “On the desktop there is a spreadsheet of new leads with basic information. Load the leads into the customer relationship management (CRM) software, then, with the information available, prioritize the list within the CRM.”

  • “Choose any movie. Convince me to watch it in 1 minute or less.”

  • “Take a look at this code. It doesn’t work. What mistakes do you see? What recommendations do you have to make it more efficient?”

  • “Review this patient record. What do you recommend we do next? What, if anything, would you highlight about this patient to the rest of the medical team, and why?”

If it’s not possible to have the candidates showcase the skill on the spot, have them submit samples of that skill. For example, submitting code samples, design samples, previous work, etc. Ask questions about the submissions to ensure that it is their work and that it accurately represents their level of skill. The questions should go beyond the ‘how did you do it’ (which is most easily contrived) and instead focus on the reasoning, choices, challenges.

Example questions:

  • “What led to the choice of this color scheme for the design?”

  • “What was the biggest challenge in creating this document? How did you overcome this challenge?”

  • “What do you wish you had done differently with this piece of work and why?”

  • “Which item in your portfolio are you most proud of and why?”

Bonus tip: Don’t forget the answer key. To ensure equity in evaluation, before having candidates showcase their skills, establish how you will measure their responses. What are good or right answers? What are bad or wrong answers? What are the markers that distinguish a 3/5 score vs. a 4/5 score? The more the scale for ‘good vs. bad’ is defined up front, the more fair the team will be with candidates as they evaluate the responses.

Step 3 – Expand through experience

Allowing candidates to prove their skill is a great way to verify they have that skill. However, this must be balanced with both your time and your candidate’s experience. That means you will likely only have an opportunity to test the most basic elements of the skill under basic or limited situations. This is where EXPERIENCE questions come in.

Use EXPERIENCE questions to give candidates an opportunity to display the depth and variation of the skill with personal stories. For these questions, go beyond the basic what/how questions (as they already proved that with the PERFORMANCE questions) and focus instead on the outliers, extremes, preferences, and failures.

This will give you a sense of how the candidates do with the skill when things go sideways or wrong, and under what situations they will most likely thrive.

Example questions:

  • “Tell me about a time where you failed at <<SKILL>>. What happened? What did you do about it? What, if anything, did you change due to that experience?”

  • “Tell me about your proudest success at <<SKILL>> and why? What, if anything, did you change due to that experience?”

  • “What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced doing <<SKILL>> and why? How did you overcome it?”

  • “What are your favorite aspects of doing <<SKILL>> and why? What are your least favorite aspects and why?”

  • “Tell me about an experience doing <<SKILL>> that really stands out? Why does it stand out? What impact did it have on you and your approach to <<SKILL>>?”

  • “If you were talking to someone who was considering learning <<SKILL>>, what would they need to know and why?”

Bonus tip: Don’t hear what you want? Ask for it. Not only do experiences vary widely, so do our interpretations of them including which ones are important enough to bring up in an interview. If you are looking for a specific experience and the candidate hasn’t shared it, ask very directly. “Have you ever done…”. Give them a chance to provide you with the information you want rather than hoping they stumble upon the scenario you are interested in.

Bonus tip: Still don’t forget the answer key. While experiences will vary widely, there is still value in pre-defining the answer key. Consider what good vs. bad answers are to the questions, and why they are considered good or bad. It could be as simple as ‘demonstrated that they learned from failure’ or ‘three points for clearly articulating a challenge and one point for successfully navigating that challenge’.

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