What You Should (and Should Never) Ask When Interviewing Job Applicants

Interviewing prospective employees doesn't have to feel like such a chore. Use these 8 tips to help you ask the right questions and avoid the wrong ones.
Journalist, freelance writer
August 18, 2014

The person you're about to interview for a job at your company may be nervous, but chances are, you are, too. After all, the last thing you want is to screw up and hire an incompetent or annoying team member.

You may also worry about saying the wrong thing and having a lawsuit foisted on you. And you've probably got some ego invested in this meeting—you know that while you may decide you don't want a particular somebody working for you, it could go the other way and they won't want to work for you.

If you're at all anxious about interviewing potential employees, the best way to calm your nerves is to be prepared. The following tips will give you a lot to think about and put you in interview-ready mode.

When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

Here are four topics you should avoid when interviewing prospective employees:

1. Don't ask about sensitive or illegal topics.

Religion, politics, sexual orientation—it's best to stay completely away from these hot button topics. In addition, you must specifically avoid other "dangerous" questions—those that have anything to do with race, color or national origin, says Patricia Bravo, owner of HR consulting practice Bravo For You LLC.

This is especially true if you have 15 or more employees, Bravo adds. In that case, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits those questions entirely, she says, to prevent employment discrimination. And if you have fewer than 15 employees, while you may not be breaking any federal anti-discrimination laws, you may still be breaking a state or local law if you ask about any of these topics.

While you may think you'd never ask these kind of questions during an interview, there are instances where you may feel the need to bring up the topic. For instance, if you're devoutly religious or committed to a certain political party, and you know discussions about these topics crop up in the workplace, wouldn't you want to address the issue with a potential employee?

If you feel the need to bring it up, then put it out there—with sensitivity, Bravo suggests. In fact, you're most likely doing your interviewee a favor, she says, by revealing what your company culture is like. "Candidates deserve transparency in understanding the organization where they're exploring employment," Bravo says. "The best approach is to make your organizational values known to the candidate during the interview process."

To address a sensitive topic, Bravo suggests you say something like, "In addition to meeting the required skills of the job, the type of employee who does well here supports our organizational values. Some of these values include ..."

In other words, don't ask a candidate about their views on sensitive topics, but you can share yours, if you want. As Bravo explains, "Candidates can then self-select whether to continue the interview process."

2. Don't bad-mouth your former employee.

If you're replacing an ex-employee who was a terrible hire and was fired, vent to your friends or family but not to the person you're trying to hire to replace them. If it comes up, it's one thing to tell a job candidate that the previous employee didn't quite live up to the job expectations, but be careful about how you word that information.

According to Itai Sadan, CEO and co-founder of Duda, a DIY Web builder, criticizing a former employee is just as bad as hearing prospective employees bad-mouth their previous employer. "To blatantly say negative things is just unprofessional," Sadan explains.

Just imagine how you sound when you're trash-talking an ex-employee. Even if you have good reasons for disliking the employee you fired, you're probably going to sound pretty ugly and you may end up scaring off the person you're attempting to hire.

3. Don't waste time with small talk.

It's not that you shouldn't make any small talk. After all, it's a great way to get a sense of the person you may be hiring. But business performance coach Kelly Riggs, founder and president of Vmax Performance Group, suggests you prepare all your questions in advance. "Don't stray from your script," Riggs says. "Consistency across interviews helps tremendously."

And small talk that drills too deeply into someone's past may only serve to pull you away from the mission of learning whether this job applicant is a good fit for your business. "Don't waste valuable interview time diving into trivial details about classes taken in college or the task completed at a previous job," Riggs advises. Straying off the path and getting lost in the weeds will only be a waste of time—if you spend 10 minutes talking about your interviewee's French lit class, you probably aren't going to have time to get the critical information you need about this possible hire.

4. Don't ask "What are your weaknesses?"

This is a popular interview question for anyone hiring new employees, says Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group, a creative and marketing staffing agency. Unfortunately, the answers to that question, Domeyer says "can, at times, elicit generic or canned responses." Really, do you think anyone's going to volunteer that they have a short temper or like to stretch their lunch hour to an hour and a half so they have time to play Candy Crush every day?

Domeyer suggests that a better question to ask job candidates is, "Can you give me an example of a work situation that you wish you would have handled differently?" Having the person describe the situation and then explain their response and alternative actions will help you evaluate their critical thinking skills and determine how they might react in potential situations at your company.

Critical Issues to Bring Up

Once you know what topics to avoid, your next step is making sure you include the following four tips in any interview you have with job candidates. These topics can help you determine which prospects will be a good fit for your business.

1. Do find out whether your interviewee will fit into your company's culture.

Yes, you want somebody who's competent, talented, smart and all those other critical elements. But you're also looking for a skill people hopefully picked up in kindergarten: the ability to play well with others.

"No matter how talented a candidate is, if he or she doesn't fit in with the team and detracts from the culture, it's a no go," says Pat Petitti, co-founder of HourlyNerd, an online talent marketplace featuring MBA grad students and alumni. Petitti also says that it's important for as many people at your company as possible to interact with the candidate—"in as casual a way as possible"—so you can get a sense of whether they fit in. While this is easier to do if you don't have very many employees, you should still have a few other employees get the chance to speak with the job applicant and provide you with their feedback.

Whether you're hiring your first employee or your 41st, Petitti says, "The single most important thing to explore in an interview is whether the candidate is a cultural fit."

2. Do investigate whether the job candidate is competent.

As important as it is to make sure the candidates a good cultural fit, it's just as critical to determine their competency. "I believe the interview to be one of the single most important things in business," says James Pillow, who recently hired his first employee, a graphic designer, for his company, FanCastle.com, which sells college apparel online. Before he started his own business, he worked in the corporate world as a sales manager and had experience interviewing hundreds of prospective employees.

"The simple fact is," Pillow says of employee interviews, "this is the [time] where you'll talk to the people who will be running your company."

3. Do talk up your company.

Don't become so wrapped up in your employee's work experience or the duties the job requires that you forget to sell your business. "You need to show the candidate why your firm is a great place to work and build a career," says Katie Essman, a metro market manager at accounting staffing agency Accountemps. "Do team members have flexibility and work-life balance? Do they advance quickly and work on interesting projects?"

Whatever it is that makes your company a draw for new employees is what you want to be sure to point out during the interview. As Essman points out, "What you say could plant the seed that separates your company from others."

4. Do determine whether the applicant really wants the job.

You may have no idea whether you want the employee yet, but Essman says it would serve you well to ask a few specific questions near the end of the interview that can help you determine just how interested the prospective employee is in your company and the job they're applying for.

For instance, you should ask if they're interviewing for any other jobs right now. The goal is to determine whether your prospective employee is close to finding another job, Essman explains. If you like this candidate, you may need to move fast.

Another good question to ask: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested are you in the job?" "If the candidate isn't interested, you can move on to other people," Essman says. "If they're interested with some reservations, you can address them immediately."

Of course, not every applicant will be honest with you, but looking them in the eye when you ask the question will probably help you discover the truth. And while it may seem like the type of question that's a trap—after all, who's going to admit they don't want the job while they're being interviewed for it—even job candidates would agree that answering a few trap-type questions is better than taking a job and feeling trapped in a bad partnership.

This article should not be taken as legal advice; small-business owners should consult their attorneys about the laws relating to what can and can’t be asked in job interviews.

Read more articles on hiring & firing.

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