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Questions to avoid asking during a job interview


Hiring managers, eager to learn as much as possible, put a lot of thought into what questions they want to make sure to ask candidates when the arrive for an interview.

Unfortunately, they don’t always put equal thought into the questions that they shouldn’t ask. Not only do the wrong questions waste precious interview time, they can also be a turn-off to top candidates and sometimes lead to litigation.

Questions that waste time

“How long did you stay at your last job?”

Your candidate probably spent what felt like an inordinate amount of time assembling their application materials. They researched your company, customized their resume, and wrote a cover letter from scratch. They proofread and formatted and made adjustments before finally hitting the send button.

The Hiring Manager's Guide to Effective Interviews

They didn’t do all this so that you could walk into an interview and ask them whether they have project management experience when their PMP certification and seven years of experience is listed at the very top of their resume. Don’t ask questions that are answered in the candidate’s application materials. Five minutes of brushing up on their materials means you can avoid making candidates die a little inside.

Fluffy questions.

“What’s your favorite movie?” “If you could have dinner with any three people from history, who would you choose?” “If you were a can of soup, what kind of soup would you be?”

Some people think that these types of questions are a way to help candidates calm down and open up. But good candidates (AKA the ones you actually want working for you) prepared to answer questions about their work style, skills, and preferred environment. Asking them about their Hogwarts house or their last vacation is more likely to throw them off or question your judgment as a manager than it is to encourage them to speak candidly about their career.

There are of course situations in which questions like this might be pertinent (asking an English teacher about their favorite book or a chef about their ideal dinner, for example), but in general you can leave questions like this for getting to know your new employee after they’ve been hired.

Annoying questions.

“Tell me about your childhood.” Aside from having nothing to do with the job in question, this can feel incredibly invasive, especially for those who grew up in less-than-ideal conditions.

How low are you willing to go with regard to salary?” Obviously, that’s a question that can’t be answered quickly or honestly without knowing about the duties, hours, benefits, and other perks of the job in question, even if it weren’t insulting in tone.

“If you’re so good at what you do, why haven’t you found a job yet?” This goes for any type of rude question. Putting candidates under stress to see how they’ll react might feel like a clever idea, but it’s more likely to harm your company’s reputation than it is to uncover hidden gems among your applicant field.

“Illegal” questions.

There is a myth that floats around in the world of hiring that there are topics that are illegal to address in an interview. This isn’t strictly correct. There is no list of “illegal” questions. There are, however, types of information that cannot legally be used in making a hiring decision. Asking questions about these types of information can open you to the accusation that you decided not to hire the candidate based on the information provided. In an effort to scrupulously avoid both the reality and the appearance of discrimination, it’s best to avoid questions about these topics while interviewing. These include:

  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Race/color
  • Sex (including pregnancy)
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Genetic information

Looking for more help with the interviewing process?

Download a copy of The Hiring Manager's Guide to Effective Interviews to master interviews from start to finish.

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