Many years ago I worked for four years as a recruiter for Royal Dutch Shell.

If you do ten interviews a day you need to get very good at asking questions, as you do if you teach interviewing, which was also part of my role.

This was useful experience for me later, not only for recruiting and resourcing myself, but also for assessment of future potential, senior management assessment & development, leadership executive coaching and project management. And also for just being a good line manager.

Asking questions as an interviewer is not as simple as it sounds. There are many different types of questions and you are only going to get the information you want if you ask the right questions. Both in content and type. Otherwise after the interview you will look back and realize that you didn’t actually find anything out or get any evidence on which to make a decision. Or, even worse, that you as the interviewer have been doing most of the talking.


We all know about the different types of questions there are and the accompanying traps each has.

Open questions, we are all taught, are extremely important and what we should ask. They are open-ended and encourage the interviewee to talk. Although you still need to manage the interview, otherwise you might get lots of irrelevant information, rather than learning what you want to know.

We are also taught to beware of Closed questions. These constrain the interviewee and often result in one-word answers (especially yes or no) and you will not get the person to talk freely. Although sometimes they are useful to check on information and lead into open questions.

Comparison questions also constrain the interviewee, this time to alternate answers chosen by you. When they might have other interesting options in their head.

Multiple questions can lead to confusion. Or the chance for the interviewee (especially seen with politicians), to ‘forget’ to answer (at least) one of the questions.

Leading questions often get the answer that the interviewee thinks that the interviewer seems to want. Although like closed questions they can be used to summarise and check on information and move on to more useful questions.

Hypothetical questions lead to hypothetical answers. Not so useful if you are looking for facts. Although again they could become useful if you want to get the interviewee to start ‘thinking’ out loud in front of you. (Which may well be the subject of a future blog).


Directive questions on the other hand can be extremely useful, although even now I often see interviewers not using them to their full advantage. One of the reasons for this blog.

These questions begin with an interrogative word:

What? Who? When? How? Why?

These encourage interviewees to give more specific and relevant information. They enable one to ‘drill down’, not only to check what someone has said or written, but to learn more about what you want to know.

What did they actually do? Who had the authority or budget or made the decision? When did things happen? How did they do what they had to do? Why did they choose to do something that way?

You don’t need expert knowledge to ask directive questions. But the manner in which they are answered will fill in the detail for you.


Let me share one of my examples, which came from an interview I held with a young engineer who was just finishing their university degree, and which I then used as an illustration in my interview training. They had written on their CV: ‘Ran school tuck shop; all proceeds to charity’.

Now ‘tuck’ is an old English word. Some of you may have heard of Friar Tuck, friend of Robin Hood, and so called because of his fondness for food. Billy Bunter, a fat schoolboy from long-forgotten British children’s literature, also enjoyed his ‘tuck’. So a word for ‘food’, and probably with a high percentage of what we would nowadays call junk food, such as fizzy drink, crisps and sweets.

Now ‘Ran school tuck shop; all proceeds to charity’ sounded interesting but what did ‘ran’ actually mean? So I started a series of directive questions, which one by one led to me to discover what really happened.

The young engineer:

  1. Listened to complaints about school meals
  2. Sent out a questionnaire to staff and pupils
  3. Identified a general dissatisfaction with existing meals and a willingness to try sandwiches
  4. Used a family contact to buy produce at trade process
  5. Used friends to help make sandwiches
  6. Customised the service for regulars
  7. Expanded the operation to include snacks at break time
  8. Caused the school catering staff to take industrial action due to loss of business
  9. Was forced to donate all proceeds to charity by the Headmaster and to close the tuck shop


The power of directive questioning. So my advice to all interviewers is still:

Home in on the target with the help of What, Who, When, How And Why?


  1. Jonathan Kohn

    Love the example Gary. It brought my own experience of recruiting for Shell flooding back and is a good solid prod to be more disciplined in using questions in my current role.

    Hope all is well with you.

  2. Paul Macgregor

    Me too. Am currently working with someone I helped recruit back in those days and I was reflecting on how fun it was to learn so many great things from the wonderfully diverse pool of people that were interviewed and assessed. I’ll also try to be more effective in using these very simple questions more often. Thanks for sharing !

  3. Rowena Morais

    There are many different types of questions and you are only going to get the information you want if you ask the right questions


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