Icebreaker Questions for Interviews

A hiring manager interviews a chief marketing officer candidate.

There are still some hiring managers out there who believe that an interview is an opportunity to see how a potential employee performs under pressure. But most employers understand that applicants perform better—and you get a more accurate sense of their qualification—when you use icebreaker questions for interviews first to put them at ease.

At the same time, an interview isn’t a social occasion. Keep in mind that overly personal questions can be off-putting and even lead to topics that are illegal to discuss during the hiring process. Overly casual conversation in the context of a job interview can even lead to unconscious bias in the hiring process.

The best way to avoid bias and allow each candidate to highlight their qualifications to the best of their ability is to remain disciplined and use the same questions in the same sequence for every candidate, even when asking icebreakers.

So, if you can’t “chat,” how can you craft the right series of icebreaker questions to put candidates at ease? Use a sampling of questions from each of the categories below to get interviews off to a great start.

Questions That Establish Tone and Parameters

Applicants are often meeting with you during lunch breaks or before they begin their workday. They are likely to be nervous about how much time the interview will take. Put them at ease by asking icebreaker questions for interviews designed to communicate the parameters of the interaction and keep the focus on the role and the applicant’s qualifications, even at this early stage of the process.

As you usher the applicant to the room where interview will take place, you can ask questions like:

  • How long did it take you to get here?
  • Did you have any trouble finding us?
  • Have you been here before?
  • Have you ever come here as a customer? If so, what was your experience like?

These questions establish a cordial tone and communicate that you value the time they are sharing with you. Next, let them know how many people they will be meeting with and when the interview is likely to end. At this point, you might ask questions like:

  • Can you extend past the anticipated time for this interview?
  • Do you need us to wrap up at a particular time?

Now that they know what to expect, you can introduce them to the interview participants and begin transitioning into questions that are a bit more targeted, such as:

  • How has your job search been going?
  • What types of roles have you been applying for?
  • What motivated you to begin looking?

For senior level applicants, you might ask:

  • How do you like to conduct interviews?
  • What kinds of questions do you find to be most useful in assessing the quality of candidates?

Then you can ask them one of the questions they suggested. A similar approach for a more junior level candidate would be to ask what questions they wish other interviewers would ask them.

Questions That Gauge Enthusiasm

These open-ended icebreaker questions for interviews allow applicants to talk about what they like most about their work. These are the kinds of questions that job seekers tend to like answering most.

Take notes and be ready to ask follow-ups or answer any questions the candidate might pose. Listen attentively and resist the temptation to step on the job seeker’s answers. This kind of active listening and give-and-take will turn the interview into a useful conversation rather than an interrogation.

Instead, ask questions like:

  • How did you first get interested in this field?
  • What is the project you worked on that is your all-time favorite?
  • What career accomplishment are you most proud of so far?
  • When you are part of a team, what role suits you best?
  • When you work with customers, clients, or vendors, what is your approach?

These types of questions allow you to learn what motivates them and how enthusiastic they are about what they do.

Questions That Assess Fitness

The next phase of icebreaker questions for interviews should serve as transition into the more formal stages of the interview, when you begin asking questions that are focused on process and technical knowledge.

This is a good time to ask the candidate to summarize elements of their resume by asking them to “Tell me about your career progression up to this point” or select something intriguing about their resume or cover letter and ask them to elaborate on it.

Ask questions that allow the applicant to assess whether this particular workplace will be a good fit for them, even as you attempt to discover how they might fit into the team they will be joining. These types of questions might include:

  • What about the job description prompted you to respond?
  • What are you looking for in your next role?
  • Who was your all-time favorite boss and why?
  • What kind of workplace culture do you thrive in?
  • Are there any questions you have for us that will help you determine if this is the type of workplace you want to be part of?

Casual Questions To Avoid

Avoid overly abstract questions, such as “If you were an appetizer, what kind of appetizer would you be?” or questions designed to see how a candidate responds to pressure like “What is the most unpopular opinion you hold?” These types of “creative” icebreaker questions for interviews fail to build rapport and instead put candidates on the spot or even on the defensive.

A growing number of HR experts advise hiring managers to avoid chit chat because it can tend to lead to questions that can expose employers to legal liability , which is why all employees taking part in your interview process need to avoid questions that:

  • Are related to socioeconomic status, culture, or any other factors that are irrelevant to the candidate’s potential to do the job well, including asking about religious activities.
  • Ask where candidates live or grew up or went to school—assuming you’re using blind resume assessment, which you should be.
  • Seek to determine if the candidate is married or has children.
  • Refer to federally protected status, such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or disability.

Even the most innocuous seeming questions can lead to unintended bias. For example, discussing where someone goes on vacation might reveal information about their socioeconomic background that leads interviewers to believe someone will fit well into the “company culture,” when in fact all they’ve discovered is that the candidate has something in common with them that has nothing to do with their qualifications.

Learn How to Combine Icebreaker Interview Questions With Other Effective Hiring Strategies

Now that you have some sample icebreaker questions for interviews, learn more about interviewing and hiring strategies, the latest recruitment news , and what top experts have to say about talent acquisition and other management best practices designed to grow your bottom line.