Your guide to topgrading interviews: Process, interview questions and criticisms

Last updated:
February 26, 2021
December 17, 2021
min read
Brendan McConnell
Table of contents

Hiring the right fit for the job can save recruiters and their organizations many headaches in the long. That's well-known by anyone in charge of hiring and retaining employees. Using the right talent sourcing and screening techniques goes a long way to ensuring the right fit. One such technique is the topgrading interview.

In this article, we're going to walk you through the topgrading interview process, introduce sample questions, and address common criticisms about this tactic.

Let's get started!

What is a topgrading interview?

Topgrading interviews are an advanced, 12-step recruiting and sourcing technique that puts candidates through various rounds of interviews and background checks. The goal is to provide the hiring manager and recruiter with a comprehensive illustration of a candidate's experience, professional background, and personality.

This goal is accomplished by putting the candidates through a series of progressively more in-depth interviews and screening activities to identify the candidate's strengths and weaknesses. This process includes extensive interviews, job scorecards, research into job history, iterative coaching of the hiring manager, and in-depth reference checks. The result is a full picture of the candidate who can make an informed hiring decision.

This process is also designed to identify dishonest answers to questions, to remove unqualified candidates from the process.

The theory behind topgrading interviews is that there are A, B, and C players in any given talent pool. A-players make up roughly 10% of that talent pool and have the most potential for high performance in their role. The recruiter's and hiring manager's job is to identify these A-players using the topgrading interview process.

Because this process is so in-depth, it's particularly useful for filling senior positions where fit and a high competency level are critical.

The topgrading interview process

As mentioned, the topgrading interview process is broken down into 12 steps. These steps can be modified, re-ordered, or removed depending on your needs and the position in question.

Here's what a typical topgrading interview process looks like.

  • Audit the existing hiring process

Before sourcing and screening begin, recruiters will take a step back to analyze their existing hiring process and performance management. This includes analyzing core recruitment and employer metrics like turnover, retention, percentage of strong hires, and long term impact.

Analyzing these metrics allows recruiters to identify potential issues in their current process. Once these issues are identified, the hiring process can be tweaked accordingly.

  • Develop a job scorecard

Next, the recruiter and hiring manager will come together to create an ideal candidate profile. This profile is then used to create a job scorecard used to screen and grade candidates during the interview process.

The job scorecard includes a detailed breakdown of what will be measured, how it will be scored, and what a successful candidate will look like. This scorecard is then used to objectively screen and grade each candidate.

  • Advertise the position and start sourcing

Once the job scorecard is created, the recruiter and hiring manager will write a comprehensive job description and job requirements list. This will outline the skills, experience, and personalities needed for the job and provide the basis for what is prioritized and screened for.

Besides advertising to external candidates, recruiters should also turn to their talent pools, their ATS, and referral programs for potential fits. Remember, the goal is to find the perfect, A player candidate. Likely, the right person is already in your network or talent database somewhere.

Pre-screen candidates with a work history form

Before any interviews occur, recruiters will send candidates a detailed work history questionnaire to fill out. This helps identify and remove weak candidates early in the process, preserving resources needed for interviews later on.

Work history forms usually ask for information such as salary history, manager feedback, reasons for leaving previous jobs, and a self-appraisal of past performance.

  • Conduct phone interviews

Once the first round of screening is completed, recruiters will complete phone interviews with the remaining candidates. This is the first formal topgrading interview and will ask questions about: professional goals, experience, and current or recent jobs.

This is a second step in weeding out unqualified candidates. Those applicants who pass the phone interview will then be invited to complete a competency interview.

  • Conduct competency interviews

This is where your job scorecard comes into play. Each question in these competency interviews should be aligned with a specific skill listed in your job requirements.

Walkthrough each skill and job requirement with the candidate and compare their competency to what you outlined on the job scorecard. Include some time at the end of the interview for candidates to ask questions and clarify any points.

  • Conduct the in-depth topgrading interview  

Once you've gotten to this stage in the topgrading interview process, you should have a shortlist of qualified candidates to choose from. Selecting the right one will come from the results of the topgrading interview.

This phase can be a long process. The hiring manager should expect to spend anywhere from one to four hours with the candidate. They will ask detailed, chronological questions about the candidate's education, previous jobs, career goals and have them complete another self-appraisal.

This line of questioning typically starts back in high school and works chronologically to the present day.

Because the topgrading interview is so in-depth, the result will be a comprehensive overview of the candidate's history, abilities, and motivations. The hiring manager should know each candidate at this stage, which will help them make a fully informed hiring decision.

  • Recruiters coach the hiring manager and provide feedback.

After each topgrading interview, the recruitment team will provide specific feedback and coaching to the hiring manager to ensure that the next session is better and more productive.

This iterative coaching technique enables immediate improvement to ensure that future interviews are more effective than the last.

  • Summarize the findings

Once the topgrading interviews are complete, the recruitment team writes up a detailed report for each candidate. This will contain all key findings from the interview, including their quantitative results against the original job scorecard.

These reports are then handed off to the hiring manager, who uses them to compare candidates and make a hiring decision.

  • Ask the candidates to arrange reference checks

After a selection is made, and before an offer is extended, the recruiter will ask the candidate to arrange for reference checks with their previous employers. This is different from most reference checks, which see the recruiter reach out to the specified contact.

The theory with this approach is that top performers usually don't leave their previous companies on bad terms. If that is true, then the reference calls should be easy to arrange. If all goes well, then a job offer is extended to the candidate.

  • Provide coaching to the candidate

Because the topgrading interview approach is all about getting the best person for the job and ensuring immediate impact, coaching is built into this process.

Once the new hire joins the team, the hiring manager will provide immediate coaching on where and how they can improve their skills. This should be incorporated into the new hire's onboarding plan and include detailed professional development activities.

  • Measure the results regularly

Like with every recruitment process, you must measure topgrading results annually to see if your efforts have the desired results. Track your key hiring metrics mentioned in Step 1, and continue identifying and fixing flaws in your hiring process.

Now that we've walked through the topgrading interview process let's look at some sample questions.

Examples of topgrading interview questions

The goal with all topgrading interview questions is to generate sincere and accurate answers. To do so, this process asks the candidate chronological questions about their job history and includes probing follow up questions to uncover deeper detail or inaccurate information.

Here are some examples of topgrading interview questions that address four key areas of interest for a hiring manager: early years, work history, goals for the future, and self-appraisal.

Early influences

This questioning line aims to get an idea of what early experiences and people helped shape the candidate's future professional life.

"Who were the most influential people during your high school years."

"What were the most influential experiences you had during high school?"

"How did those experiences affect your personality, values, and motivations?"

"What were your career plans after leaving high school? What did you do?"

Work history

This line of questioning will make up the bulk of the interview. Ask the following types of questions for each full-time position that a candidate has held in their career.

"What were some notable accomplishments? How did you achieve them?"

"What were some mistakes or failures that you had in this position?"

"What was your impression of your supervisor in this role?"

"What do you think your supervisor's opinions of you were?"

Goals for the future

These questions are designed to dig into the candidate's motivations and future goals for their career. The answers to these questions will help you understand what their expectations are from your company and how long they are likely to stay.

"What are you looking for in your next job?"

"What are your short, medium, and long-term goals?"

"Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?"


Lastly, a self-appraisal can be used to discover how the candidate views themselves and what they consider to be their strengths. This is also an opportunity to ask probing questions that uncover motivations behind their answers.

"What would you consider to be your strengths? What do you like about yourself? What are some things that you do well?"

"What are your shortcomings, weaknesses, and areas of improvement?"

Now that we've walked you through the topgrading process let's flip the coin and look at some common criticisms of this technique.

Common topgrading criticisms

Do a quick Google search for "topgrading interviews." You will immediately see that this process is not for everyone. While it's true that topgrading interviews can provide a level of detail not possible with other screening techniques, it does come at a cost to candidate experience.

Here are some of the most common criticisms you'll find about topgrading:

  • It's often seen as a cynical way to screen candidates, assuming that candidates are lying about their skills and work experience.
  • It's often compared with Stack Ranking, a process developed by GE that sees managers rank employees from best to worst, and then fire the bottom 10%.
  • Categorizing candidates as A, B, or C-level applicants can be seen as discriminatory, overly harsh, and runs to risk of harming diversity recruitment efforts.
  • It also assumes that you can accurately rank candidates and reliably identify top performers based on their skills, experience, and job reference. In practice, this is quite difficult to achieve and requires the recruiter to account for nuance and personality.
  • This process can be overly time consuming and stressful for the candidate. It's very likely to scare away the best candidates. They don't want to be subjected to this process and can have a negative impact on candidate experience and employer brand if not done correctly and ethically.
  • Likewise, it can be very time-intensive for the recruiter and hiring manager. It takes a lot of time, effort, and planning to execute topgrading correctly. In some cases, that effort might not be necessary or worth it.

While the validity and ethics of topgrading interviews may be up in the air, what is clear is that it should be used only in circumstances that require it.

As mentioned earlier, it's vitally important that recruiters and hiring teams nail their selection for senior and C-level positions. In these cases, a thorough topgrading interview process is likely necessary.

We would encourage you to use your judgment on whether or not topgrading interviews are the right solution for your company. Make sure you use data and qualitative feedback to measure the effectiveness of any recruiting process you choose and adapt to what the results show.

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