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7 Scary Interview Questions That You Should Never Ask to Candidates

October 25, 2016

halloween.jpgIn 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 is really no better than playing a poker hand blind. And the worst part is that the interviewer (or poker player who is playing the blind hand) believes they have enough information to make a good decision. This fact 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. And with Halloween coming up, I figured today would be a great time to discuss 7 scary interview questions that you shouldn't ask. 

1) Sell me this pencil.

I’ve heard this question a number of times when an organization is looking to hire sales people. At the surface, the question itself is not terrible. It’s basically a roleplay 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 structured rating guidelines this question puts an organization in a place where it heavily relies on the interviewer 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 to ask. 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 change your approach or 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 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.

4) What were your SAT or ACT scores?

You may receive a blank stare or look of confusion from a candidate if you ask this question. Not only have many people forgotten their test scores if they are not a recent graduate, but it’s also not job-relevant or helpful to ask a candidate to provide any data from high school, especially if they have work experience to speak to. SAT scores or a GPA can indicate a student’s aptitude for items measured in a standardized test or how well a student did in certain classes, but those numbers were not intended to be a predictor of success for any particular job.

Using a competency-based assessment in the application process can provide some measures of qualitative and quantitative aptitude. However, the assessment should be validated to ensure that knowledge of basic calculus, for example, is required at job entry.

5) How fast can you type?

If a job analysis has determined that typing is important to the target position, a typing test can be provided as part of the application process. But asking the question is not helpful because many people won’t know that figure offhand, and can fudge the number anyway.

6) Are you a hard worker?

You will likely have a difficult time finding a candidate who would answer “no” to that question. It’s understandable to want to know if a candidate will be a productive, successful employee. But asking a candidate a closed-ended and leading question is not a good way to obtain that information. I always recommend conducting an interview consisting of questions that inquire about past behaviors.

So, to find out if a candidate is a hard worker, you could ask for an example of when he or she went above and beyond the call of duty in a recent position. Or you could ask: “What are your standards for success on the job? Give me a specific example of something you did recently to make sure you were meeting those standards.” These questions would require the interviewee to think of a specific instance in which they showed behaviors that many people would consider hard workers to have.

7) Tell me about a book you read recently.

I was once asked this question in an interview, and I almost had to bite my tongue to avoid asking why that was a relevant question. Unless the position you are hiring for is in publishing or at a bookstore or library, asking a candidate this question is probably not job-relevant, and the response will likely not provide you with fruitful information with regard to hiring (although you may get a good book recommendation).

You could ask a new hire this question during orientation or during a break, in order to get better acquainted with one another. But valuable interview time would be better spent asking about job experience rather than personal interests.

If you are interested in knowing whether a candidate has up-to-date knowledge in their field, instead you could ask: “Provide an example of a time where you learned about a 'best practice'” from a successful organization and applied that practice to your work.” Provided that you follow up as needed to obtain all relevant details, the response to this question will likely prove to be more useful when evaluating the candidate for the competency of continuous improvement.

It’s important to remember that when interviewing candidates, every question should be relevant to the position he or she is interviewing for. This ensures that you are able to gain valuable insight into the candidate’s ability to perform the requirements of the position and also maintains the legal defensibility of your interview process. Staying away from these 7 scary interview questions and others like them is a great start!

hiring for cultural fit

Vicki Marlan Vicki Marlan is a Consulting Associate based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI. Vicki provides client support across many different industries including manufacturing, technology and healthcare. Her areas of expertise include developing selection tools and interview guides, providing training and support for PSI’s applicant tracking system, as well as assisting clients with requests and questions regarding tools and processes.