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Interview Tips: 4 Questions to Never Ask a Candidate

June 11, 2015

interview-tipsWe recently published a blog about oddball interview questions. For some companies, questions such as, “How much is all the tea in China worth?” are a distinguishing characteristic of the interview process. However, there is a difference between oddball interview questions and simply bad interview questions, and the latter should never be posed to candidates.

Interview questions that refer to legally protected areas such age, sex, religion, national origin, and disability status are illegal, and should always be avoided. Your organization’s legal counsel can help you determine whether an interview question is lawful according to federal and state legislation, but they will probably not have the time or interest in telling you that asking, “Who is your favorite Beatle and why?” is not the best way to determine a candidate’s decisiveness. Therefore, you will need to be an expert not in determining whether an interview question is illegal, but rather just poorly written.

It may be tricky to determine if an interview question is great, but a bad interview question is likely to stick out, once you know what you are looking for. The key is this: If an interview question is not based on established job requirements, or it is not job-related, then it should not be asked. Why should you avoid bad interview questions, beyond the fact that you will end an interview with no data with which to rate a candidate’s skills, knowledge and abilities in order to make a good hiring decision (or your company could face a lawsuit)? Because doing so may make good candidates disinterested in your company and that is not an ideal situation to be in, particularly with tough-to-fill positions. An interview is a two-way street, with both parties determining their interest in pursuing further discussions.

Additionally, asking bad interview questions may even lengthen your hiring process. If the first interview didn't uncover anything about the candidate's motivational fit or background because you didn't ask behavioral-based questions, you may have to bring him or her back for a second interview.

To learn more about interview questions to avoid, read on for some examples of deficient interview questions with explanations for why they are not recommended.

Bad question: What were your SAT or ACT scores?

Why: 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.

Bad question: How fast can you type?

Why: 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.

Bad question: Are you a hard worker?

Why: 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. We 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.

Bad question: Tell me about a book you read recently.

Why: 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.

Hopefully these examples of inferior interview questions will help you to consider the reasoning behind the interview questions you are asking candidates, and lead you to structure a thoughtful, relevant interview. Remember, behavioral-based interview questions are almost always going to be more predictive of job success than random, goofy questions.

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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.