Improving Interviews by Using Forced-Choice Questions to Replace Yes-No Questions

Picture 3Most managers share the fear of hiring a bad fit, no matter how technically qualified the candidate might be. Unfortunately, most attempts to measure fit suffer from a fatal flaw: that being the way cultural screening questions are asked.

Too many managers and administrators-turned-recruiters ask binary questions that make it easy for candidates to guess the most desirable answer. For example, they may describe their group’s team dynamic and ask if it is the type of environment that the candidate finds suitable. Fortunately, there is an alternative type of question format known as “forced choice” that can be used by those in recruiting to garner a much more precise and insightful candidate perspective on cultural issues.

The Problems with Binary Questions in Interviews

Many of the questions asked during interviews can easily be classified as binary or yes/no, true/false questions. While they may be posed in an open-ended fashion, it is clear from the phrasing and tonal inflection what response is desired.

In other cases, the questions probe the existence of behavioral characteristics that any candidate would need to be an idiot to deny.

Examples of obvious “yes” questions:

  • Are you a team player?
  • Do you work well under pressure?
  • Do you share our company’s values?

Unless you are interviewing Homer Simpson, questions like those listed here will result in fairly predictable responses. By asking a question that allows a simple yes or no answer to be provided, you make it way too easy for the candidate to misrepresent themselves and to give the answer that they think you really want.

Consider Forced-Choice Questions

If you wanted to obtain a more precise answer to an important “fit” or preference question, shift to a forced-choice question format. This format requires the candidate to rank a series of possible responses in order of desirability.

Example:

How many hours of overtime would you be willing to work on a routine basis? (Please place a “C” next to those options you are comfortable with, a “T” next to those options you could tolerate, and a “U” next to those option unacceptable.

__ 0 hours per week

__ 3 hours per week

__ 5 hours per week

__ 7 hours per week

__ 9 hours per week

__ 11 hours per week

__ 15+ hours per week

By phrasing the question this way, you require the candidate to provide more precise insight into their real perspectives.

Using Forced-Choice Questions

Forced choice questions can be used throughout the assessment process but are best employed to either knock out candidates or determine a group for inclusion in further assessment activities early on in the assessment process. They can be used in online surveys following the application, during pre-screening activities executed by phone or survey, and during formal interviews. They work great in high-volume hiring environments to limit time spent on interviewing candidates who will not operate well in the environment or culture provided.

Five Sample Forced-Choice Questions

The following sample questions were designed for use in a high-volume retail environment. They cover a variety of job-related parameters.

1. Please rank the following activities in the order in which you desire to focus on them.

(Goal: to identify the activities the candidate prefers to focus on to see if they match the actual mix of job duties.)

__ Working as a cashier

__ Maintaining front-of-store inventory (stocking)

__ Preparing merchandise displays

__ Servicing customer inquiries

__ Maintaining store cleanliness (janitorial)

__ Processing new inventory (warehouse)

__ Loss prevention (customer monitoring)

2. Please rank the following possible work situations in the order in which you desire them.

(Goal: to identify whether the candidate prefers to work in a role where they are isolated and influence decisions solely or as part of a larger consensus.)

____ Assignment to isolated tasks that allow you 100% control over your performance

____ Assignment to tasks that require a small team where others may influence your performance but that would provide more social interaction

____ Assignment to tasks that require cooperation and coordination of numerous other employees influencing your ability to perform but maximizing social interaction

3. Please rate the following skills required based on your level of expertise using a rating scale of 5-Strong Mastery to 1-No Mastery.

(Goal: to identify if the candidates’ strongest technical skills and knowledge areas match the job requirements.)

__ Telephone communications

__ Cash register operations

__ Dealing with customer complaints

__ Managing time

__ Preparing and displaying inventory

__ Managing others

4. Please rate the following management scenarios based on their desirability to you using a rating scale of 1 (highly desirable) to 5 (less desirable).

(Goal: to identify whether the management style that they are the most productive under is similar to the style used by store management.)

__ Manager closely monitors assigned work activities and provides frequent feedback

__ Manager assigns tasks and allows independent work, periodically checking on progress and providing direction/feedback

__ Manager assigns tasks and trusts that they will be executed according to standards, but does not monitor progress or provide feedback until shift is completed

__ Manager does not assign tasks directly, but rather provides a list of things to accomplish, allowing employees on shift to self-delegate and check off completion

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__ Manager works alongside employees completed necessary tasks providing instruction and feedback on performance as time permits

5. Please rank the following possible forms of communication managers may use to discuss your performance with you in order of desirability.

(Goal: to identify whether the communication approach desired is used by store management.)

__ I prefer direct face-to-face feedback in a public setting only when needed

__ I prefer direct face-to-face feedback in a private setting only when needed

__ I prefer feedback via written note only when needed

__ I prefer feedback via email only when needed

__ I prefer routine feedback offered during informal face-to-face meetings

__ I prefer routine feedback via formally documented written communications

Advantages of This Format

As you can tell from this very simple retail example, forced-choice questions enable managers and recruiters to quickly screen candidates based on their ability to operate in the environment or culture that will be provided, versus the perfect scenario often described.

Beyond more detailed insight, forced-choice questions provide the following advantages:

  • They force candidates to deliberate more on their perspective.
  • They make comparison of candidates much easier and less subjective.
  • They help aide selection of candidates more apt to thrive in the actual work environment that will be provided.
  • They prevent candidates from dodging tough questions and from offering up easy canned responses.

Final Thoughts

The entire process of interviewing has many weaknesses and inherent flaws that may lead to bad hiring decisions. In fact, one study by Leadership IQ found that the typical assessment process was only 19% successful in identifying candidates who went on to become undeniable performers.

Minimizing the number of binary questions and substituting forced-choice questions is the smart way to improve accuracy. In addition, many forced-choice questions can be implemented during pre-screening activities that could save you lots of time and money assessing candidates who are not an appropriate fit for the job or manager!

If you would like to learn more about pre-interview questionnaires in general, see my previous article entitled A Pre-Interview Questionnaire for Improving Candidate Screening.

Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.