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Show, Don’t Tell: Use an Experiential Interview to Hire for Fit

If you’ve been in the hiring game for a while, this has probably happened at least once: You come across a great resume, are impressed by the candidate in person, hear them say all the right things in the interview and hire them. Only after they start work do you realize they aren’t the right fit.

Using an experiential interview can help you avoid unhappy surprises and hire with confidence. In an experiential interview, candidates perform sample work or even collaborate with potential coworkers. Interviewers put candidates’ skills to the test and gather in-depth information about their backgrounds instead of relying on short answers to standard questions.

Not only do candidates get to see what the role will actually be like, but employers are also able to more accurately gauge performance and behavior. Done well, this can result in better hires and increased retention. To break away from your company’s templated interview style and start using experiential interviews, why not try a few of these approaches?

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Ask candidates to show, not tell, their skills

When hiring for any role, you’ll need to know if the candidate has the necessary “hard skills”: those that are job-specific and quantifiable, gained through training, education or certification. Instead of having candidates tell you what they can do, ask them to show you these skills by performing the essential functions of the role.

To see how they might perform on the job, first create a list of all the hard skills required for the position — then test candidates on those skills by giving them a task on the fly or having them bring in something prepared. If you’re hiring for a role you’re not an expert in, ask someone who currently holds that role for ideas on how to apply key skills. And make sure you give each candidate the same tasks so you can compare them accurately at the end.

An experiential interview is like an audition for the role you’re hiring for, allowing you to see the candidate’s talent in action before you make a decision. Make sure to watch for body language and nonverbal cues when observing candidates’ behavior, as well, to get a more accurate picture of what they would be like at work. For example, someone who tenses up when asked difficult questions might not be a good fit for a spokesperson role.

Here are some examples of ways candidates can show instead of tell you about their skills:

  • For a job as a Spanish teacher, a conversation with a Spanish-speaking interviewer would be a quick way to weed out candidates whose language skills are not so bueno.
  • For a job that involves writing, ask for a writing sample or give an in-person writing test. Make sure it matches the type of content they’ll be asked to do on the job.
  • For a sales role, ask them to pitch you a product.
  • For a coaching or training position, invite them to run part of a class or practice.

And so on. Think about the work the role requires and come up with a test that makes the candidate show it in action.

Open-ended questions will tell you more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’

In addition to the hard skills needed to execute required tasks, candidates will need a number of “soft skills” to truly excel in your role: interpersonal skills or behavioral characteristics, such as communication, empathy and patience. While a candidate might be able to handle your role on paper, a soft-skills mismatch means they won’t thrive in your work environment.

To determine whether a candidate has the soft skills you need, ask open-ended questions that provide the opportunity to talk about past work experience. “Yes” or “no” interview questions are rarely a window into someone’s actual behavior. Starting questions with prompts such as “Give me an example of …” or “Tell me about a time when …” is helpful in getting a more complete picture of a candidate.

Consider the difference between asking, “Have you ever worked on a team before?” and “Can you tell me about your experience working with teams?” The latter will give the candidate room to expand on their answer and provide more information about their work history.

Here are some examples of experiential interview questions that will provide insight into how a candidate might behave on the job:

  • For high-stress jobs, such as an emergency room technician:
    • “Can you tell me about a stressful experience you faced at work recently and how you handled it?”
  • For jobs where teamwork is important (i.e., most jobs):
    • “Can you tell me about a time when you had to work with someone whose personality was very different than yours?”
  • For jobs that are client-facing, such as an advertising agent:
    • “Describe a time when making a good impression on a client was particularly important. How did you prepare, and what did you do to impress them?”
  • For jobs that involve problem-solving and customer service, such as an IT professional:
    • “Tell me about your experience with high volumes of requests. How have you managed this in the past while still providing friendly and excellent service?”


Let’s face it — the skills needed to succeed in an interview don’t always overlap with the skills needed to perform a job. Using an experiential interview in the hiring process will give employers a real sense of the candidate before hiring them, give candidates an opportunity to see what is expected of them and, ultimately, lead to more successful hires.

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