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3 Interviewing Questions You Shouldn't Be Asking

July 2, 2013

A quick Google search on the phrase “interviewing tips” quickly provides a job applicant with over 10 million pages of information. I highly doubt that there is valuable information on all of these pages, but even if there were 1,000 pages of decent information, it is clear that candidates have a plethora of information to help them prepare for an interview. Not only that, but it is still very common for organizations to use unstructured interviews in their hiring process.

In many aspects the hiring process is similar to a game of poker in that each side is trying to gather as much information as they can to determine when they should bet and when they should fold. Organizations who allow untrained interviewers to conduct unstructured interviews are creating an environment where the candidate has the upper hand. Asking poorly developed interview questions are really no better than playing a poker hand blind or throwing a dart at a dart board. And the even worse part is that the interviewer (or poker player who is playing the blind hand) believe they have enough information to make a good decision. This fact really creates an environment where organizations continue to ask the same bad interviewing questions and also continue to make poor hiring decisions.

During the ice-breaker of our interviewer training class, I typically ask participants to provide one interview question that they like to ask. Over the years I have heard a lot of good questions – and a lot of terrible questions. Below are three bad interviewing questions that you shouldn't be asking. 

1. Sell me this pencil.

I have heard this question a number of times and typically when an organization is looking to hire sales people. At the surface the question itself is not terrible. It is basically a role play where the applicant needs to play the role of the sales person and the interviewer is playing the consumer. However, where the organization falls short is how to interpret the information or data you get from this question. What is it that you are trying to measure? Are all interviewers using the same criteria? Without structure rating guidelines this question put an organization in a place where it is heavily relying on the interviewing to be able to interpret a good response from a poor response.

2. Do you have any disabilities that will interfere with performing this job?

This is another question that, on the surface, appears to be ok. You are inquiring about a disability but you are relating it to the job and simply asking how the candidate would perform the essential functions of the job. My recommendation is to either (a) change your approach or, maybe a safer approach, (b) steer clear of any questions that get at protected class information. The reason this question is poor is due to the fact that the interviewer has placed the onus on the candidate to thoroughly understand all aspects of the job. This is a tall order for any candidate. If you wanted to rephrase this question the recommendation would be to simply state a job requirement (hopefully reading from a job description) and ask the candidate “can you perform this function with or without a reasonable accommodation?”

3. If you could be an animal – what kind of animal would you be?

A very innocuous question for sure. I have heard interviewers say that they like this question because it allows them a glimpse into the psyche of the candidate. I have also heard that interviewers like these types of questions because there are no wrong answers and it allows the candidate to show their personality. Although I do not disagree with these points, this is a hazardous question on a few fronts. My main concern with a question (or others similar to it, e.g., “what is your favorite book”, etc.) like this is around job relevance and legal defensibility. An interview is essentially a pre-employment test, and every part of that test needs to be job related. Most organizations that use this question rarely have documented proof that they are measuring a job-related skill or ability. Furthermore, although it may provide us a glimpse into the candidate's psyche, most of us are not trained clinical psychologists nor do we possess the requisite information to interpret a candidate’s response. So we are left with – what is a good response?

Paul Glatzhofer Paul Glatzhofer is the VP of Talent Solutions based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI Services LLC. He works primarily with organizations that are implementing global assessment and development systems at the leadership level. Paul’s work includes leadership development, leadership skills training, coaching, leadership and executive selection, turnover and ROI analysis, and ongoing feedback development.