HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

Knockout Question
One, two, three strikes you're out! We're not talking about a ballgame; we're talking about interview questions that can knock a candidate out of the running. Read on for knockout questions made simple: what they are, how to build them and when to ask them.

What Is a Knockout Question?

Knockout questions are interview questions that immediately eliminate a candidate from consideration. They narrow down the number of applicants at various points during the recruiting and interviewing process. Knockout questions can be found in the job application, pre-application questionnaires, or interview questions. In any hire, there are criteria that are must-have or non-disputable: certifications, experience levels, skills, etc. Others that would be nice to have. Knockout questions weed out candidates who lack must-have qualifications.

Why Are Knockout Questions Important for the Recruiting Process?

There is no realistic alternative to removing unqualified applicants out of the hiring process as quickly or accurately as knockout questions. Some ways knockout questions remain the most valuable tool in hiring are their ability to:
  • Ensure only qualified applicants become candidates. Using knockout questions quickly and effectively moves only qualified applicants forward in the hiring process. When done strategically, these questions become a metaphorical net that catches all the big fish qualified applicants while releasing the little fish unqualified applicants with virtually no additional effort.
  • Narrow down the hiring pool. Knockout questions chip away at the hiring pool efficiently. The more specific the requirement that a knockout question is framed around, the narrower the hiring pool becomes until only the most qualified candidates remain.
  • Save time. As many knockout questions can be automated to auto-reject under-qualified applicants, this can save a ton of time for HR. Additionally, having these questions at the beginning of the candidate journey can shorten the additional workload that comes with finding a candidate to be under-qualified later on in the process.

Common Types of Knockout Questions

Any form of standard interview question can become a knockout question when framed correctly. Let's look at some examples.

Experience, Credentials, and Education Verification

These are the most straightforward knockout questions: either the candidate has the required criteria or they don't. This can be as simple as asking about their degree or experience directly on the job application or pre-screening questionnaire.

Close-Ended Questions

Close-ended questions present a limited number of options from which to answer. They include multiple-choice, yes-or-no, or rating-scale formats (agree/disagree, scale of 1 to 5, etc.). These might look like:
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, rate your willingness and confidence to terminate an employee due to a breach of company policy.
  • Do you currently hold [required certification]?
Close-ended questions are ideal at the beginning of the hiring process, as the candidate must choose from a specific predefined grouping of responses. Prior to asking these questions, you can define what answers will qualify or disqualify an applicant. These questions are auto-rejection friendly, as they are black and white. Therefore, they can be easily programmed into an online application to automatically reject an applicant based on their responses.

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions allow candidates to respond via free-form text or verbal answer. This format helps define an applicant's character to determine whether or not they will be a good fit for the position, team, company culture, and company image. A few examples might be asking questions regarding communication or organization, such as:
  • How would you go about breaking bad news to a coworker?
  • In what ways do you ensure maximum efficiency?
  • What actions do you take to set your schedule each day?
Situational or behavioral questions belong to this category. Because they take longer to answer and to review, they are generally used later in the interviewing process.

Situational or Behavioral Questions

Situational questions lean more toward determining if the candidate is the best cultural or personality fit rather than non-negotiable, more tangible requirements. Situational questions typically speak to the employee’s past experiences, but they can also take the form of hypotheticals. In order to shape this type of question as a knockout question, frame it around the type of candidates you are looking for. For example, say you need a confident, bold manager who takes the lead without having to assemble a committee for every decision. Such a knockout question might look something like:
  • Describe a time you had to take charge of a situation outside of your regular responsibilities. How did you take charge without overstepping?
  • How would you respond to a mandated recall of a material or product?
  • Have you ever had to let someone go? How long did it take for you to come to that decision, and what steps did you take prior to terminating the employee?

Tips for Creating a Knockout Question

When considering candidates for a position, you need a solid understanding of what kind of person you're looking for to fill said role. Once that understanding has been laid out, you have the basis for your knockout questions. Here's some tips to help make this process as effective as possible.

Tip 1: Create a Candidate Persona

A candidate persona is the combination of ideal qualifications, skill sets, and traits that make up an ideal candidate for a specific position in your organization. When one fleshes out this idea of the ideal person for a role, this fictitious perfect employee becomes a valuable tool for hiring the applicant who best fits. Click here to learn how to build a candidate persona. Once your persona has been built, you can frame knockout questions around must-have traits and qualifications.

Tip 2: Distinguish Preferences From Requirements

Determine what qualifications are definitive and non-disputable as well as what traits are less essential but still desirable. For example, the candidate must have a particular license or credential, whereas you might really want someone with 10 years experience, but you'd settle for less. Listing these in order of priority helps you place your questions strategically for the optimal outcome.

Tip 3: Be Strategic in Question Placement

Understanding the difference between preferences and requirements enables you to frame qualifications as close-ended questions. Then you can strategically place the non-disputable requirements at the start of the hiring process. As the process proceeds, add more open-ended questions around preferences, character traits, personality, and skills that are needed to fill the role responsibilities.
Kayla Farber

Kayla Farber

Kayla is the Chief Innovation Officer at Hero Culture, where the passion is to create company cultures of retention using the power of personality.
View author page
Frequently asked questions
Other Related Terms
Batch Interview
Behavioral Interviewing
Case Interview
Competency-Based Interview
First Impression Effect
Group Interview
Halo Effect
Interview Guide
Interview Note Taking
Interview Plan
Interview-Scheduling Software
Interviewing Techniques
Meticulous Interviewing
Panel Interview
Personality Interview
Phone Interview
Pitchfork Effect
Pre-Employment Screening
STAR Method
Salary Expectations
Screening Interview
Second Round Interview
Situational Interview
Structured Interview
Technical Interview
Unstructured Interview
Video Screening Interview
Virtual Interview
Eddy's HR Newsletter
Sign up for our email newsletter for helpful HR advice and ideas.
Simple and accurate payroll.
Pay your U.S.-based employees on time, every time, with Eddy.