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How to Conduct a Topgrading Interview

A Complete Guide to Topgrading Interviewing

How many Hiring Managers should be involved in the Topgrading process?

A minimum of two Hiring Managers are required in the process, but ideally more.

Having multiple perspectives and opinions helps ensure that the process is fair, unbiased, and that the most qualified and culturally aligned candidate is chosen for the position.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Topgrading Interviews?


    • Topgrading offers a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of potential hires and a consistent method to compare the potential of different job candidates.
    • It helps employers make better decisions about which candidates to hire and how to best use the talents of current employees.
    • Topgrading can help to reduce turnover costs by identifying and hiring the best people.
    • It also promotes continuous improvement by encouraging employees to work on their skills and development.


    • Topgrading can be expensive and time consuming due to the level of management time required and distraction from daily, revenue generating tasks.
    • It can be perceived as overly long-winded and formulaic.
    • The process can be intimidating for some job candidates, prompting them to opt for "easier options" where Topgrading selection is not required
    • It may not be suitable for all types of positions or organisations. It can be argued that Topgrading is "over engineered" for more junior roles and is an obstacle to hiring.
    • The process can be biased if job candidates are not properly assessed, potentially bypassing the best candidate for the job.

What should you avoid in a Topgrading Interview Process?

One of the key pitfalls within any interview process is asking leading questions that suggest a particular answer.  Whilst this may superficially suit both candidate and employer, it does not lead to accurate or inciteful exchanges and therefore, any information gathered is of minimal value.

Focusing solely on the candidate's current job and not exploring past work experiences leads to a one-dimensional answer.  Asking inciteful questions around prior employment is essential as it can confirm or contradict the impression gained by only discussing their current role.  It can also demonstrate that success and achievement have been consistent across different employers and environments, increasing the likelihood of success within the prospective employer.

Asking questions that are too personal, irrelevant or unrelated to the job are likely to alienate the candidate, leading them to distance themselves, adopt an "interview mask or façade" and reduce your ability to gain sincere answers, obscuring the candidates cultural fit to the organisation.

Making assumptions about the candidate's skills and abilities must also be avoided.  Whilst intuition can play a part in effective interviewing, never rely on it alone.  Always corroborate your assumptions with questions that gather the information required to verify or dismiss them.

Avoid asking questions without allowing adequate time for the candidate to answer.  Every question should have a purpose, therefore, ensure that you facilitate full and considered answers so that purpose is served.

At the same time, it's important to ensure the interview is not too long or overly structured.  Thorough and robust interviews don't need to be marathons, and candidates could become disenfranchised and even resentful after the second hour!  Remember that interviews are a business meeting of equals, not an interrogation.  

Avoid not taking notes during the interview.  You may believe you have a great memory; however, recording information for later reflection and discussion is vital in line with the other hiring managers.  Additionally, senior candidates will expect an employer to be organised, credible and thorough. "Winging it" from an interviewer perspective is as damaging as it is from a candidate and may result in your ideal hire taking their talent elsewhere.

Not giving the candidate an opportunity to ask questions can be seen as autocratic and dismissive.  Also, their questions are an opportunity for you to gain further insight into their motivations, comprehension of your requirements and overall suitability for the organisation.

How do you score a Topgrading Interview?

When scoring a Topgrading Interview, the interviewer assesses the candidate on five criteria, which are: Performance, Motivation, Potential, Technical Skills, and Cultural Fit.

Each criteria is rated on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the lowest score and 5 being the highest.  Each level will have a suitability against the criteria prescribed, for example-

Level 1:

    • Unacceptable: The candidate is not qualified to do the job.

Level 2:

    • Needs Improvement: The candidate has some of the skills required for the job but needs additional development or training.

Level 3:

    • Competent: The candidate has the required skills and knowledge to do the job.

Level 4:

    • Very Good: The candidate has the required skills and knowledge and is highly likely to excel in the job.

Level 5:

    • Exceptional: The candidate is highly qualified, has extensive experience and is exceptionally talented.  They are likely to exceed expectations in the job.

The interviewer then adds up the scores for each criteria, to get the overall score for the candidate.

An average score of 20 or higher is typically considered a good score for a Topgrading Interview.

How do I Avoid Unconscious Bias in the Topgrading Interview process?

Unconscious bias can undermine the entire methodology of Topgrading interviews.  If unrecognised and unaddressed, it can skew outcomes and lead to incorrect hiring decisions, with all the attendant direct and indirect costs to the business.

To avoid this scenario, there are several steps that can be implemented.

Firstly, make sure to structure the questions in a way that is objective and consistent, so that all candidates receive the same questions in the same order and have the same opportunity to give a considered, sincere response.

Train yourself and other interviewers to recognise and reduce any cognitive biases that could be present in the interview process.  The reasons for these can be diverse and sensitive, so always draw back to the source material and score answers in line with your pre-agreed parameters.  

Take the time to listen to the answers the candidates give, and don't jump to conclusions.  An excellent way to avoid unconscious bias is to separate your preconceived ideas and focus only on the information relayed to you by the candidate.  Unless you take the time to listen, you are likely to fall back into judgements based on perceptions that may be inaccurate.

Likewise, make sure to ask follow-up questions to get more information or clarification and again, really listen to the answers, these are your gateway to understanding the suitability or otherwise of the candidate.

Additionally, pay attention to non-verbal cues, such as body language and tone of voice, to better understand the candidate's responses.  Whilst it is important not to rely on these alone, they may reveal areas for further investigation or reinforce the candidate's suitability for the role.

Avoid making assumptions based on the candidate's gender, race, or other demographic factors.  Whilst it may seem repugnant to even suggest, it would be unrealistic to assume that this never plays a part in biased decision-making.  Decision making that is flawed and may well ensure you lose your perfect candidate.

In the same way that leading questions reduce effective answers, open-ended questions allow the candidate to provide a more complete answer, revealing more about themselves, their character and abilities.  Rather than asking "yes/no" questions, ask "how, when, what and if" questions.

Finally, ensure you take detailed notes throughout the interview.  This will ensure that all candidates are given an equal opportunity to be considered and that you and your colleagues within the process can reflect on each candidate in an evidence-based manner, thereby minimising unconscious bias skewing the process and ultimate hiring decision.

How do I design my own Topgrading Interview process?

Firstly, it is essential to research Topgrading and familiarise yourself with the principles of the interview process at the outset.  Only then can you understand if it is the correct methodology for the role you wish to recruit and set about customising it for your needs.

Once you have done this, you can begin to identify the skills, qualifications, and competencies you are looking for in a candidate and compile a "must have" list of criteria.

Once complete, this will enable you to create a list of questions that are tailored to the skills you are looking for.  Make sure the questions are open-ended and allow the candidate to provide detailed answers.

Consider how long you wish each interview to last and structure the interview in a logical, consistent order that provides each candidate with ample time to answer each question.

It is also essential to build in plenty of opportunities to allow candidates to ask questions about the job and provide honest answers.  This will provide valuable additional insight into their suitability for the role or otherwise.

Take notes as the candidate answers questions to build your credibility and enable accurate future reflection. Be sure to ask follow-up questions to gain further insight and test the validity of the candidate's claims.

At the end of the interview, provide the candidate with a summary of the discussion, seek their agreement and understanding and ask if they have any additional questions.

Invite the candidate to provide feedback on the interview process and provide them with an anticipated timeline for when they can expect a decision.  This enables you to retain their engagement and positively manage expectations.

Take the time to thoroughly evaluate the candidate's answers in line with your colleague's information and make an informed hiring decision based on the collective information you scored against the parameters set out at the start of the process.

Next: How to prepare for a Topgrading Interview

How to prepare and sample questions

Date published: 1st March 2024

A photo of Simon Bonner, Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment

About the author

Simon Bonner

With over 25 years in B2B sales and recruitment, Simon is an English Graduate from UEA and specialises in recruiting commercial and FMCG sales positions. Simon joined the sales recruitment industry in 1998 before progressing into field sales and returning to recruitment in 2015. As an Associate Director, Simon is well placed to understand the needs of clients and candidates' needs, having spent ten years selling electronic security and managing National Accounts within OEM manufacturers and distribution channels. An avid Luton Town football fan, Simon dotes on his two daughters and enjoys keeping fit, socialising, food and wine.

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