The most revealing interview questions that NFPs ask their candidates

The organisational costs of hiring the wrong people are well documented – including financial impacts and potential effects on your organisation’s morale and ability to fulfil its purpose.

And although interviews are a far-from-perfect way to choose staff, they are so far the best recruitment method that anyone has come up with.

So what are the best interview questions to ask to get the clearest insights into your candidates?

Last month, we asked our NFP People community to share exactly that.

Responses came from all corners of the country. And while the answers were varied, there was a very clear trend toward behavioural interview questions – something Google’s former head of HR Laszlo Bock has been advocating for years.

Here are a selection of the most revealing questions, as asked by top Australian NFP organisations.

Dealing with stress and failure

Questions that probe how a candidate dealt with past challenges were favoured amongst our NFP People community, representing around a third of responses.

For example, Christopher Francis, CEO of Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation, suggests asking:

“What do you do when you fail at something?”

Why? Christopher says that while people don’t necessarily want to talk about failure, “everyone fails at something from time to time”, so it’s important that candidates have the self-awareness to know when and why they’ve failed in the past. He also says it’s important people are realistic, and asking about past failures ideally reveals “emotional honesty from the applicant and not just a formulaic response that avoids the issue”.

Likewise, Denise Lawry from the Consumer Action Law Centre suggests the following:

“Tell us about your most difficult day at work – what happened? Why was it difficult?”

Denise likes this question because a candidate’s response gives “a sense of what they perceive as difficult, how the person goes about dealing with difficulty, and how resilient they are”.

“It can also raise red flags by showing a lack of insight into their own strengths and weaknesses,” Denise added.

So what makes these questions so popular? Asking candidates to reflect on past failures and challenges can give you a great insight into their self-awareness – a key skill that candidates for any role would benefit from.

Team and culture

Other ‘most revealing’ questions from amongst the NFP People community focused on how candidates work with others., whether in their team or across the organisation more broadly.

For example, Elizabeth Cromb from the St Vincent de Paul Society sees lots of value in asking:

“Can you describe your teamwork style and provide an example of how you have successfully applied it?”

She says it “helps identify how the person prefers to relate to others – and whether that style may be a good fit with the current team“.

Similarly, Simon Warren from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation likes to ask:

“What are the characteristics of the working environment (e.g. manager, team, culture) that has seen you be most successful in your career and that has seen you flourish?”

He says:

“We want to get to know how people like to work, lead, be led, and what makes them thrive or flourish. Recruitment is always a two-way conversation, and we want to understand the preferences and leadership/management/working styles for people we recruit. [Using this question] we’ve had some great conversations about the way people like to lead, and what their direct reports would like (and not like) and what gets the best out of people.”


Interview questions focusing on a candidate’s motivations were also considered especially insightful amongst our NFP People community.

Shannon Cheal from the Cerebral Palsy Support Network likes this question:

“Tell me about a time when you were really happy at work – what factors made your work rewarding?”

That’s because it sheds light on what truly drives a candidate, and helps determine “if they are likely to be satisfied and motivated by what we do and how we do it”, Shannon says.

Respondents said this type of question can reveal a candidate’s values, expectations and self-awareness.

According to Heidi Casey from Mercy Community Services, asking a candidate questions about their motivations and why they were attracted to the role shows if they’ve properly researched the organisation, and “whether the candidate is genuinely interested in the role or if it is an ‘it was there and I need a job’ situation”.

Additionally, an anonymous respondent said they like asking candidates “why did you leave your last position?” for the curveball it throws them.

“People are surprisingly candid and usually don’t expect [this question]. They switch from performance mode and reveal more about their personality – how they handle conflict, how they view past organisations, and their relationship with that organisation and their colleagues,” they said.

We hope there are some good ideas amongst those questions for you to use in the next interview panel that you’re sitting on! If you’d like to contribute another question or two to help other NFP sector colleagues, we’d love that – please just leave them in the comments below.

Image: WOCinTech Chat/Flickr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *