columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I know you've talked about common questions interviewers ask. However, while a candidate can prepare for those types of questions, for behavioral interview questions ("tell me about a time when...") it's sometimes tough for candidates to come up with answers when I'm asking them to draw on their experience and give me examples of specific situations on the spot.

Are there any disadvantages to supplying these sorts of interview questions to candidates ahead of time so they can prepare thoughtful answers? I've never had a potential employer offer them to me prior to an interview, but I see only advantages to doing so. For example, for people who get very nervous in interviews, it seems to me that it would help to level the playing field since they wouldn't have the stress of having to answer on the spot. In addition, it also seems the interviewers would get better quality answers from all candidates who took the time to prepare. The only potential disadvantage I see is that people could used canned responses, but since situational interview questions draw on their experience, it seems like it would be difficult to do that.

Green responds:

Giving candidates a heads-up about some of the topics you plan to discuss in the interview can be a real benefit to both of you.

I started doing this a while back when I was interviewing for a junior-level admin position. Most of the candidates were fairly inexperienced -- especially at interviewing. Candidates who are newer to the work world tend not to be great at interviewing, and they often struggle to come up with useful answers to questions like "tell me about a time that you improved an existing system" or "tell me about a time that you had to juggle lots of competing priorities" or any of the many other "tell me about a time when..." questions I like to use. (And in general, interviewers should use lots of those questions because they get you the best information about how candidates operate.)

I thought exactly what you're thinking here: that giving them a heads-up in advance would help them prepare more thoughtful answers and give me better information about them. And they couldn't really "cheat" by making up fantastic but false answers ahead of time, because I responded to their initial answer with tons of follow-up questions about their initial answer.

So, for that role, I started sending along a pre-interview note saying this:

"I'd love if you'd come prepared to talk about:
- a particularly significant professional achievement -- what your role was, what the challenges were, and how you approached it
- a specific time in the past when you've had to stay on top of a large volume of work and juggle a lot of competing priorities, and how you approached it
- a time when you went above and beyond to get results -- what the situation was and what you did"

The result was great. I received better-thought-out answers that made it easier for me to assess each person's fit for the role, since they weren't scrambling to think of examples on the spot. Plus, I was able to see how well they did or didn't use the chance to think through the questions ahead of time. (Interestingly, I still encountered candidates who struggled with these answers, which was particularly telling now that they'd had an advance heads-up.) It can also help level the playing field for candidates who might excel at the job but who don't have as much experience interviewing as other candidates do (or who haven't been taught how to prepare for common interview questions).

To be clear, I didn't prep candidates for every question I would ask, or even for most of them -- just for a few specific situations that I really wanted to probe into and where having some time to come up with strong examples would help (and wouldn't hurt).

Originally, I only did this with candidates for junior-level roles. I figured that for more senior roles, candidates needed to be more equipped to talk about their experience. But over time I found there were topics where some prep time was helpful for those applicants as well.

So yes, give it a try! One very important caveat though: If you do this as an interviewer, the key is to probe into whatever answers you receive. You need to ask a bunch of follow-up questions (what was the biggest challenge with that? why did you approach it that way? did you worry about X? how did you handle Y? what would you do differently if you could do it again?) or you do risk a canned answer.

But done well, with strong follow-up questions, it should strengthen your ability to assess your candidates.

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