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Topgrading Interview Guide: Examples & Process

Asavari Sharma

November 10, 2022

A topgrading interview involves candidates facing multiple interviewers in more than one interview. It offers a way to identify candidates based on more intangible soft skills or core qualities such as drive, customer focus, resourcefulness, communication, integrity, and so on.

As a recruiter, your goal is always to source highly talented and qualified candidates for open positions at your company. Every new hire you make has to be the best you can possibly find for a specific job role. When you interview candidates, there are various ways to go about it.

The hiring manager can screen, interview, and hire all of them independently. Or, you can conduct topgrading interviews in your evaluation or selection process. After all, they are more holistic than traditional, structural interviews.

So, how does one go about it? In this article, we will study the benefits of topgrading interviewing, its top examples, process, and criticisms.

What is topgrading?

The term "topgrading" was first mentioned in a 1997 article called "Topgrading the organization" by Bradford D Smart and his son, Geoffrey.

They defined topgrading as proactively seeking out and hiring the most talented people available while deploying those of lesser ability internally or externally.

The Smarts recommend a 12-step process with various components, including detailed background checks, extensive interviews, in-depth job scorecards, and so on.

In a nutshell, topgrading refers to only employing A players by ensuring the interview process is rigorously targeting the right people. In the end, only those are hired who will bring the most value to the company.

The methodology was initially developed to help large-scale businesses find qualified candidates. However, it soon found its purpose in smaller companies at all hiring levels.

Topgrading trickles down to writing a well-written job description that reflects the company culture and goals and the individual job responsibilities. Without the critical information, you cannot attract the right kind of people for the job.

Benefits of topgrading

Conducting topgrading interviews is not ideal for every company and job role. For instance, it is an intensive process that does not make sense for hiring call center employees. However, it holds a lot of importance when hiring CEOs and senior Vice Presidents.

Recruiting for leadership roles is a humongous task. It is time-consuming and expensive. Before rolling out the offer letter, you have to be 100% sure of the person's skills, abilities, and qualifications. They are going to help run the company! Here are the pros of topgrading:

  • You will save your company from incurring enormous costs incurred by bad hires.
  • The top talent will refer your company to other A players in the market when they receive the best candidate experience in the topgrading process.
  • The bespoke hiring process leaves a positive lasting impression on candidates, invariably boosting your market reputation.

However, there is always a risk you have to take when including topgrading in your hiring process. You may find many great candidates who are unwilling to jump through multiple hoops to bag the job. We will explore topgrading criticisms later in the article.

Examples of topgrading interview questions

Even though the topgrading interview process involves 12 steps, the interview is structured in four parts, touching upon themes such as early influences, work history, future goals, and self-appraisal. Here are some examples:

1. Early influences

This helps get an idea of who and what kind of early experiences helped shape the candidate's professional life.

"Who were the most influential or inspiring people during your high school years?"

"What was the most meaningful experience you had during high school? How did that impact your future?"

2. Work history

This line of questioning contributes to the bulk of the interview. A candidate is asked different types of questions about the jobs they have held in their career.

"Can you give us an example of when you [did a relevant task at work or applied a skill]?"

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

3. Future goals

Such questions help explore the candidate's motivations and future goals for their career and enable you to understand what their expectations are from the company.

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

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

4. Self-evaluation

This helps discover how the candidate views themselves and what they consider to be their strengths.

"What do you like about yourself? What do you think you need to work on more?

"What are your strongest talents and skills?"

Common criticisms of topgrading interviews

If you Google "topgrading interviews" and do preliminary research, you will instantly realize the process is not for every type of company. While it is true that topgrading interviews offer a level of detail not possible with other candidate screening techniques, the methodology is highly time-consuming and expensive. Here are the top criticisms that topgrading receives:

  • Tograding is often seen as a cynical method for screening candidates, assuming they are lying about their skills, work experience, and qualifications.
  • Categorizing candidates as A, B, and C is discriminatory and can potentially harm diversity recruitment efforts.
  • Topgrading assumes you can reliably and accurately rank candidates and identify the top performers based on the numerous interviews they have with you.
  • It is time and resource-intensive for the company, but topgrading can be extremely overwhelming and scary for the candidate and likely to scare them away. This can harm your brand reputation in the long run.

The 12-step topgrading interview process

If you have read this far, you will agree that topgrading helps you make evidence-based and well-educated hiring decisions instead of relying on resume screening or job descriptions for finding the best candidates. Regardless of the job role you are hiring for, here is what a topgrading interview process usually looks like:

1. Audit the current hiring process

Before diving deep into topgrading, it is essential to first look at how you are currently recruiting. Analyze recruitment metrics such as employee turnover, percentage of solid hires, quality of hire, time to hire, and so on to identify areas that need improvement.

When it comes to a typical interview process, measuring the effectiveness of the hiring strategy might not even come up. It could be seen as time-consuming or unnecessary. However, tracking the right recruiting metrics can help in the long run.

For instance, you might notice the existing job description template does not cover all key points. Or HR is restricting itself to generic job boards for sourcing candidates when niche job search sites can be more effective. Whatever the case - you could take action accordingly.

2. Create a job scoreboard

Before you draft a job description, gain clarity about who an ideal candidate is. Speak to the hiring manager and the team members to get the complete picture and the responsibilities the new hire will undertake.

For instance, they are supposed to increase sales outreach by 10% in the first quarter of 2023. A typical job scorecard will comprise several questions for the candidates:

  • Why does the employee role exist? What is the purpose?
  • What are the key responsibilities of this employee? What does this person do?
  • What behaviors should be demonstrated by this person?

The information will help you identify effective sourcing channels and create a comprehensive job description or advertisement. Besides, it aims to decrease confusion over the role's position.

3. Start sourcing candidates

Use the pool of candidates in your recruiting database or talent community. Maybe you have an A player in mind who was not ideal for a previous role but might be perfect for your current job requirement. Promote the vacancy on job portals and social media. Leverage an Applicant Tracking System to sort and track candidates by profession, skills, or education level.

4. Pre-screen candidates with a work history form

A work history form contains the list of topgrading questions about a candidate's past, such as compensation histories, manager feedback/ratings, reasons for leaving the previous job, and so on. You can quickly weed out weak or unsuitable candidates based on the form and spend less time deciphering resumes.

5. Conduct telephone screening interviews

Narrow down your pool of candidates by conducting interviews over the phone. Ask them about their current or recent jobs, overall experience, and professional goals. Remove candidates from the pipeline who do not meet the qualifications you are looking for. Invite the selected to move on to the next step in the hiring process.

6. Interview candidates to check their competency

These 45-min to hour-long competency interviews compare candidate qualifications to what you require from the job scorecard. They give candidates the chance to discuss their current job role and work environment. Every question you ask must align with a specific skill listed in your job requirement. It is like conducting a skills assessment test but verbally.

7. Host a topgrading interview

This is where you ask chronological questions about the candidate, starting from their education, work experience, professional goals, and self-appraisal. Though this is a lengthy process, ranging between 1-4 hours, it helps the hiring manager to get to know the candidate.

A topgrading interview results in a comprehensive overview of the person's work history, ability, and motivations. It puts together all the information about the candidate in the previous steps to ensure they are truthful.

8. Give feedback to the hiring manager

It is vital for hiring managers to know how they perform during the interview. Not asking the right topgrading interview questions can lead to a bad hire. Therefore, you must discuss the interview with the manager and share tips on how they can better improve their interview-taking skills and hire the right person efficiently.

9. Draft a report or summary

After the topgrading interview, write a detailed report or summary about the candidate, comprising all critical findings on them - the good and bad. Hand over the report to the hiring manager, who will then use it to compare candidates and make a hiring decision.

10. Arrange for reference checks

After a candidate has been selected but before the job offer roll-out, ask them to arrange for reference checks with their previous employers. This is different from the background checks conducted by recruiters who do the reaching out.

This method helps you eliminate the time taken to get hold of the previous employers for a reference check. Moreover, the theory with this approach is that A players usually never leave a company on bad terms.

If that is true, then reference checks should be easy to arrange. After this step, a job offer letter is extended to the candidate.

11. Coach the new hire

After the candidate accepts a job offer, go over post-interview steps with them. Tell them what is expected of them and how they can improve weak-performing areas. Make sure your hiring manager and their team are prepared to train and encourage new hires to succeed. They must coach the new hires on the following points:

  • Boosting immediate performance
  • Building skills for future tasks
  • Onboarding

12. Measure hiring success every year

You need to measure your hiring success every year. With topgrading, you should see improvements in your hiring success rates. Advise the hiring manager to review employee performance and other recruitment metrics discussed in step 1. Continue identifying and fixing gaps or loopholes to always hire the best talent for the company.

Over to you

You can use the best aspects of the topgrading interview process without switching to it completely. Ensure that the interviews you conduct are fair and unbiased. Depending on your hiring budget and the seriousness of the job role - opt for topgrading.

Having multiple interviewers meet with each candidate allows them to tap into different skill sets and get a clearer picture of the candidate and how they can contribute to the company. So, carefully plan candidate evaluation. It can help you hire the best position for the job. Good luck!


1. What does topgrading mean?

A topgrading interview involves candidates facing multiple interviewers in more than one interview. It offers a way to identify candidates based on more intangible soft skills or core qualities such as drive, customer focus, resourcefulness, communication, integrity, and so on.

2. What is a chronological interview?

A chronological interview is a type of interview where the candidate is asked to discuss their life in chronological order - starting from their school life to the present day. This is also known as biographical interviewing.

3. What is the topgrading interview process?

A topgrading interview process involves 12 steps. Audit the current hiring process. Create a job scoreboard. Source candidates from multiple channels. Pre-screen candidates with a work history form. Conduct telephone screening interviews. Then, interview candidates to check their level of competency. Host a topgrading interview. Give feedback to the hiring manager. Draft a report or summary post interviews. Arrange for reference checks. Roll out the job offer and coach the new hire. Measure hiring success every year.

Asavari Sharma

Asavari is an EiR at Adaface. She has made it her mission to help recruiters deploy candidate-friendly skill tests instead of trick-question based tests. When taking a break, she obsesses over art.

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