6 min read
Come again? Bad, bad interview questions
The interview process has perhaps lost some soul over the years.
Companies, eager to standardize, process engineer, and measure just about anything that moves over the course of a day, have increasingly leaned on commercial “interview systems” featuring canned interview questions to help them objectively score candidates. Technology now scans resumes for keywords, callously discarding those that might make the cut if only human eyes were on them. “Audition” assignments have become the norm.
But hiring organizations can hardly be blamed. The process of finding the right fit for a role has become increasingly complex. In the digital age, a job posting is seen nationwide, exponentially increasing the number of applicants over the days of snail-mail resume submissions. And technology works both ways: applicants take advantage of resume-building software that automatically optimizes their resumes for maximum exposure to the job posting in question — sometimes even when the candidate isn’t truly qualified.
Just getting to the point of an interview is a complicated knot of briars to navigate for both employer and employee. And all that time and effort can be wasted on one bad moment. We’re all more than familiar with giving a bad or wrong answer to an interview question, but what about when the question itself is bad?
Well, there are plenty of those. Some are just plain stupid. Some are ill-informed. Some are illegal. In an era where work/life balance is a consideration and culture has become a core factor in employee choice, interview questions can make or break the impression you give.
Just plain stupid
Some questions don’t even have well-thought-out intent behind them. And some are now just interview clichés — but the truth is these questions have never been good or smart, and they pretty much always leave a bad impression with your candidate.
“Where do you see yourself in X years?”
I once faced a panel interview in which one of the seven (yes, seven) people at the table asked me this. My answer? With a mischievous grin: “What’s your job?”
I was not hired. But I got one hell of a laugh from the other six (the questioner did not find me amusing in the least).
But truly, if you want to know someone’s ambition, just ask. It’s faster and more likely to get a concise and honest answer. The number of variables over the course of one year, much less five or ten, often change any specific plans. Adding a time factor to things forces the candidate to provide an answer that seems suited to that constraint, and doesn’t reveal their true ambition at all.
“Are you a cat/dog, Coke/Pepsi, Apple/Android person and why?”
These kinds of cutesy, Barbara Walters-esque lines of inquiry couldn’t be reliably untangled by a psychologist, what hope do you have of gleaning anything from the answer? And all the candidate gets from it is that you ran out of things to ask and googled “interview questions” right before the appointment.
“Why should I hire you?”
Aside from being sort of passive-aggressive, this question is another that won’t get you a useful answer. You’ll get a litany of pleasant adjectives and little else. The question you might be trying to ask here is, “What do you think are some of your biggest strengths?” which is somewhat more revealing.
“What’s your superpower?”
If you see this question and aren’t tempted to say something like “invisibility,” then you’re a better person than I am. This is a juvenile way to phrase what should be a straightforward question: “What do you do best,” or even, “What do you think you’re really good at?”
“What would your (current/previous) supervisor say about you?”
“Well, they’d say I’m lazy, unreliable, unhygienic, and have an affinity for biting my toenails in team meetings.” If that’s the truth, it’s not what you’ll actually hear, so why ask?
All you’ll learn here is one of two things, both irrelevant: either how good the candidate is at inflating their self-worth, or hearsay — what they would interpret a third party thinks of them.
Some questions are… well, questionable — because the information they actually provide is of limited or no use to you. But many interviewers feel they are “expected” or just part of an interview, and proceed anyway, with no real goal for the information they reveal.
“What’s your biggest weakness?”
PUH-LEEZ. If your candidate has a pulse and two functioning brain cells, this answer will be spun so hard you’ll think you’re on the teacup ride. My personal go-to answer for this initially is always “I care too much!” as a way to get a giggle and also to demonstrate subtly that we both know this question is pointless.
The answer will really only tell you how good the candidate is at making their personal negative seem like a positive, and that assumes they answer honestly in the first place, which you’ll never know.
“How long have you been on the job search?”
Interviewers typically think this question reveals the worthiness of a candidate. They figure if the candidate has been at it a while, no one else was really interested, and therefore they shouldn’t be, either. That’s a mistake.
Candidates might send out resumes in fits and starts, dragging out their search. They might turn down offers. They might just be testing the waters. This question and others like it won’t tell you what you hope to learn.
“How do you handle conflict with a coworker?”
Similar to the “biggest weakness” question, this query won’t get an honest answer from the people you want to screen out. Your candidate will know “punch them in the face, as hard as I can,” won’t get them hired.
The intent behind this question isn’t a bad one, however. It could be much more revealing to ask some more specific questions around conflict: “When you have a conflict with a coworker, do you try to handle it yourself, or do you prefer to have a mediator?” This preempts canned and “what I know you want to hear” responses. Keep in mind though, that a deep thinker could interpret these questions to mean you expect there to be conflict at your organization.
Anything that puts them on the spot
Interviewing is an exhausting and anxiety-inducing exercise for many candidates. While it’s good to ask questions that require spontaneous answers, asking for specific recall (“tell me about a time you…”) could cause many to draw a blank, throwing them off for the remainder of the interview.
We’ve all experienced the “that’s what I should have said” moment hours or days after a conversation. Your candidate is more likely to answer honestly and completely if they’re at ease, and not so much when they feel like they’re on a timed quiz show.
There are many questions that can be actionable if your organization asks them on an application or in an interview. While we can’t cover them comprehensively here (and nothing written here constitutes legal advice; always check with an attorney), Harvard University has an excellent resource that outlines many. And remember, an HR professional should always be involved in helping craft interview questions to avoid any unintentional violations. Your state might have additional restrictions.
Generally speaking, you cannot ask direct questions about a candidate’s disabilities or illnesses, even when they are apparent. You may ask if they are able to execute the duties of the job for which they’re applying. If the candidate asks about accommodations for an illness or disability, you may discuss their needs, but it is the candidate’s responsibility to ask and, unless they do, off-limits as a topic.
You may not directly ask a candidate’s age, date of birth, or information that could be reasonably used to determine their age. “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” in addition to being awfully strange to ask in an interview, is also technically not a legal question. You may ask if the applicant can furnish proof of age if the duties they will be performing have an age requirement.
Aside from being in absurdly poor taste, these questions are illegal in any capacity. Do not ask or even hint at them.
Parenthood and marital status
Do not ask candidates if they have children, if they are planning to have children, how many children they have, or the ages of their children. Similarly, a candidate’s marital status is off-limits.
Race and religion
You should already know these questions are verboten, but we’ll mention it here just to be sure. Literally no question about race or religion is okay. Don’t ask.
An employer may not ask questions about bankruptcies, wage garnishments, or anything designed to cause a candidate to disclose their creditworthiness.
Again, there are many more questions that can land you in hot water, so be thorough in vetting your questions and make sure you run them past an HR professional.
Why you’re interviewing to begin with
Remember that your goal in interviewing isn’t to catch anyone in a lie or test how they are under pressure. Ultimately, it’s to learn if they can (and are likely to) do the job well. You’ll find you have more success choosing suitable candidates if you make that your main focus.
That’s not to say there can’t or shouldn’t be questions that can reveal personality or ability, there most definitely should be — but they should be questions candidates don’t need a code ring to interpret, and keep them light. These are good ice-breaker questions, or even wind-down questions at the end of the interview. You’ll learn far more from a person when they’re relaxed and able to converse with you easily. Have you ever been asked a bad interview question we don't cover above? Put it in the comments below so we can all have a laugh.
Hiring for accounting firms comes with some special challenges, which we cover in our resource, “The Accounting Firm’s Intro Guide to Hiring & Retaining Premium Talent.”