The Most Powerful Questions That Recruiting…Never Asks

More often than not, it is the simplest things in life and in business that produce the biggest impacts. Having spent more than 30 years analyzing corporate recruiting practices and strategy, I have noticed there are some rather basic questions that, if only posed, would have a profound impact on the effectiveness of most recruiting endeavors.

Unfortunately, the questions are rarely asked, resulting in inefficient, ineffective practices.

Do not pose these questions periodically; incorporate them into your approach to build an engaging candidate experience, a more compelling offer presentation, and ultimately, a more productive hire.

Questions for Candidates (Aimed at Improving Offer Acceptance)

  • What criteria will you use to evaluate and rank offers you receive? When you’re targeting currently employed individuals or talent likely to receive multiple offers (I would argue that is the only talent you should be targeting), it’s important to focus your recruiting process not only on assessing the candidates skills, but also on determining the factors that will weigh heavily in their decision-making when the process is complete. By identifying the decision criteria early on, you can improve how you position the opportunity you are recruiting for by maximizing the talking points around factors you can realistically deliver and readjust expectations around those you cannot. Too many organizations push through the process only to make a generic offer according to a template that doesn’t address the candidate’s expectations.
  • What three things would make this job superior to your current one? If you are truly targeting top talent, chances are a good percentage of the candidates who make it to the offer stage in your process are going to get a counteroffer from their current employer. Failing to identify what factors would make the new opportunity better than their existing opportunity is setting the stage to focus solely on money should an offer battle ensue.
  • Who will you consult prior to making a final decision about an offer? Research shows that individuals generally don’t make important life decisions without consulting close friends, colleagues, or relatives. Not knowing who will have your candidate’s ear makes it nearly impossible to predict what issues the candidate’s advisors may bring up. This makes it even more difficult to provide relevant information throughout the process that arms the candidate with positive information to remedy any possible negative issues that could arise.

Questions to Ask During Onboarding and Orientation (Aimed at Improving the Recruiting Process)

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  • Can you list the most compelling factors that led you to accept our offer? Once the deal has been signed, candidates, now new hires, have less motivation to couch their responses to questions in an effort to improve their chances of getting what they want, in essence, they are more honest. One of the best questions you can ask during this phase of the relationship deals with identifying what about the company, the job, or the benefits was so compelling that the candidate accepted the offer. Identifying what is and is not compelling (the next question) can help you refocus how to communicate about opportunities moving forward. You can talk up the good stuff, while minimizing focus on the not so good stuff.
  • Can you list your concerns and any reasons that almost led you to say no? Again, this reversal of the previous question helps you identify what elements need to be either addressed or dropped altogether from your sales approach.
  • What part of the process worked the best? What part was frustrating? If you want to improve the candidate experience, identify the aspects of the recruiting process that both engaged and frustrated candidates. Use this information along with statistics about candidates dropping out of the process voluntarily to determine what steps in your process need to be refined in order to convert more talent.
  • What caused you to apply for the position? If you want to identify how best to allocate your sourcing spend, you need robust metrics to tell you what messages are driving people to apply and where they came into contact with the message (i.e., the source of hire and branding points that led to interest). Many organizations attempt to collect this information via their recruiters, but the data is often corrupted by lack of adherence to source coding policies.
  • What other firms did you seriously consider or receive an offer from? This question is important for two reasons. First, it helps you identify your talent competitors, which often includes organizations that do not compete directly with you on the product or service front. Second, it helps you identify offer elements from other organizations that talent of interest to you find compelling.
  • Who else should we recruit from your previous employer? Truly great talent loves working alongside other great talent and generally leverages some influence over colleagues they respect and value at their previous employer. Asking this question not only helps you target future recruiting efforts, it subliminally prods the new hire to actively position the organization as a great next step when they talk to former colleagues. If they’re enthusiastic, you might also ask for their help in recruiting the top individuals via the referral program.

Questions to Ask During Onboarding (Aimed at improving the Management of New Hires)

  • Why did you quit your last few jobs? If you want to reduce future turnover, learn what was frustrating enough to cause your new hire to start looking for a new job and eventually quit their previous job. Once you identify these reasons, it’s wise to make sure their current manager knows what they are and develops a plan to prevent similar issues.
  • Help me understand what motivates you and what your manager could do to help you be as productive as you can be? Asking new hires early on what motivates and frustrates them can provide you with an arsenal of information a manager can use to manage workforce productivity 1:1. While it would be great if managers would accept ownership for doing this naturally, numerous studies show they don’t!
  • Where would you like to be career-wise in three years? This question helps you understand early on what expectations and future job aspirations may influence on-the-job behavior and likely tenure. By identifying what timeline a candidate/new hire has in mind, you can work to make sure you deliver career advancement opportunities in line with their expectations (i.e., before they start looking for someone else to deliver them). Also, ask what they would like to learn, which can be used to structure development and retention efforts.

Questions to Ask Candidates Who Dropped Out of the Process Pre- or Post-Offer

Delaying asking these questions for a period of three months significantly increases the likelihood of hearing an honest answer. If necessary, use a third-party vendor to capture this information as former candidates will have even less motivation to lie.

  • Why did you drop out of the process? For those who dropped out of your hiring process early, ask them to list the reasons why they dropped out. Frequently, you will find that your recruiting processes are too slow or too frustrating to engage top talent.
  • Why did you reject our offer? Most candidates will provide an answer to this question when they turn down the offer. More often than not, that answer has to do with money. Saying it is the money is an easy out — it doesn’t require as much courage as saying the hiring manager was a jerk, the job sucks, or the company doesn’t provide the right resources to enable employees to do the job they were hired to do. Several studies that have compared offers ultimately accepted by talent who turned down other offers reveal that rarely is the money difference significant. Other studies reveal that if you delay asking the question for several months, you are more likely to get an answer that doesn’t focus on the money.

Final Thoughts

The single-most important activity recruiters can do to improve recruiting effectiveness is to gather information that helps explain why the process is working when it is, and why it is not when it isn’t. By embedding these questions in your recruiting process, you can gain the information needed to radically improve the effectiveness of your efforts.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact 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," 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 and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



15 Comments on “The Most Powerful Questions That Recruiting…Never Asks

  1. This is spot-on! Having worked on the agency side before moving to corporate I find it interesting that some of the topics that we considered “must ask” on the agency side are often not anywhere on the radar for corporate recruiting.

    Oddly, I now find that I am having to prod some of the agencies looking to partner with our firm to ask these kinds of questions so that they can provide better candidates to us. In other words, I need them to do more then push paper at me to fill a role.

    The article points out the need to think in terms of broader implications then simply fillig the role and closing the req.

  2. Dr. John, another insightful piece. Most recruiters don’t have the guts or gumption to ask these questions, yet this is the only way we’ll improve our process or reduce turnover. My only concern is the question of candidates of who they’ll consult prior to the final decision.

    The potential is there to discover some personal information. As the offer has been made at this point, the company is most likely protected from any accusations of discrimination, but I could imagine some candidates being uncomfortable with the question. I fully understand the rationale for asking it, but this question, like all the others, needs to be handled very carefully.

    Thank you once again for holding up a mirror for us all to look into.
    Ron Katz
    Penguin HR Consulting

  3. Excellent piece which I will share with my colleagues for our continuous improvement efforts. Thanks very much, and thanks to Ron for pointing out the potential negative regarding the personal information. I do find that candidates share this information without my having to inquire, thankfully.

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom!

    Deborah Lange
    Brookhaven National Laboratory

  4. Ron

    Asking questions always has potential downsides but in my experience, there has literally been no resistance to asking these types of questions providing that the reason for them is fully explained. The consequences of not having a feedback loop far outweigh the potential problems.

    The whole world lives in an information age; it’s time for HR to become a full member.

    John Sullivan

  5. Great article, John. I am not an HR professional, but rather a hiring manager. With the desire for HR to be “business partners” with operating areas of their companies, it is imperative to gather and understand the answers to the questions you pose. Every company wants to hire the “best and brightest” and without fully understanding why people join/leave the organization the want may never become reality.

  6. Dr. John,
    Thanks for your response to my concern. Please understand, I am not saying that we shouldn’t ask the question, just that we tread carefully in this area. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Employee Relations as well as Staffing and have dealt with litigation around interviews and terminations (though I am not an attorney).

    I fully support the idea that HR needs to fully join the 21st century in how business is done. I also recognize that if I ask the candidate who they’ll consult and they start rattling off several clergy people, psychiatrists and parole officers and then for some reason the offer is rescinded, that company is potentially going to be in hot water.

    I like the idea of using the question, I just wanted to alert our readers that they need to be prepared for the answer, and how to deal with and use the information. We’re in agreement, I just get a little more conservative than you when getting close to potentially personal or revealing information. Maybe it’s because I’m on the east coast and you’re on the west!

    Thanks again for the thought provoking and challenging article. We do need to keep pushing the envelope to improve our processes and that’s what you’re urging us to do.
    Ron Katz
    Penguin HR Consulting

  7. A really great article. However, I would add one additional question to the list, “How will you respond once your current company is aware you have another offer and presents a counter-offer?” I have found asking this question early on, not only prepares the candidate but also allows the recruiter to better position her/him-self in the process.

    One strategy I have used is to have the candidate consider, “why would a company only be concerned with rentention when its employees’ have an offer”?

    Merlynn Bertini

  8. Great Article. One that I would share when I land my next job. Also, some great tips for me as a job seeker.
    I have ask some of these questions in the past and I obtained some great results!

  9. Valuable insight, as always Dr Sullivan.

    Regarding the concerns about asking questions, the simple way may be to ask the most important one of all: “Is it alright if we have a candid conversation so we don’t waste anyone’s time? This may involve asking some probing questions, which don’t have to be answered. But I trust you’d agree that knowing is better than not knowing, right?” Of course, it can be shorter. The point is to have an upfront contract wherein each person can get the facts upon which to make the best decision.

    For me, it’s often my own head-trash that prevents me from asking the questions that the candidate actually enjoys answering.

  10. Great article John! I think is would be appropriate to add a few additional questions, especially if you are really dealing with top talent that is currently employed. Its not enough to ask a candidate what the three thing are that would make the new apportunity superior to their current role. Remember, as consumers or candidates we buy emotionally and justify rationally. Marketers understand this concept by drawing us to buy their product even if we are happy with the product we already own.

    In the same way, it is important to understand the emotional side of the candidate by understanding both the “points of pain” and the “points of pleasure” that the candidate has. Understanding what they do like about their current or previous role is just as important as finding out how their current role could be improved. If they rattle off 10 items they really like about their current role and we only focus on the three things they don’t, the control of their emotions will often remain with their current employer.

    Asking probing questions like: Why have you stayed there this long? What keeps you there today? etc will provide you with the ammunition needed to properly present the opportunity. Driving down the emotional path, if you start with the “points of pleasure” and present your opportunity addressing those first and then address the “points of pain” you have a much higher chance of getting them to buy the position emotionally – It reduces the importance of the rational – usually in the form of compensation!

  11. We don’t really know why people take jobs do we? They either do or they don’t. Is it any of our business really the whys and wherefores? In recruitment it doesn’t really matter, if you say you need to information gather to find out why someone did or didn’t take a job to become more successful then YOU will need to do this. You set the parameters. Equally one could find just as much evidence to back the fact that you don’t need to ‘do’ any of this to be more successful. You level of success is set in your head, it comes from you, not you trying to manipulate or control a process. So you’ll either ask the right questions or you won’t depends where you’ve decided to pitch your sucess levels in your head.
    Recruitment is creative – it’s the perfect job to experiment with alchemy.

  12. True… Any strong recruiting department should have a structured series of qualifying questions such as these. It is a recruiters due diligence so they can not only qualify the candidate but also refine their recruiting process to reduce incidences of process failure.

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