Interviews can be nerve-racking for both the candidate and the interviewer. Both parties want to make a good first impression and to represent themselves well. Candidates worry over their answers, and employers wonder if they’re asking the right questions.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to interview questions, but some questions are better than others at getting to the heart of someone’s professional experience and the kind of employee they are. And while you’re trying to get to know your candidates, it’s important to keep in mind that some questions are actually illegal to ask, while others are simply hard to answer and don’t end up being helpful.
Don’t accidentally ask a candidate something that turns them off from your company – or worse, gets you in some sort of legal trouble. To help you understand hiring best practices and improve your hiring process, here’s our list of ten questions not to ask in an interview.
Illegal interview questions
To start, let’s discuss some illegal interview questions. These questions are not only inappropriate, they are barred by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and asking them could put you at risk of legal action. Here are five types of questions that should be avoided entirely.
1. What country are you from?
Hiring managers aren’t entitled to know a candidate’s country of origin or nationality. Race and ethnicity questions are also off limits. This includes questions like:
- Where were you born?
- Are your parents from the US?
- What’s your race?
One question you can ask is: “Are you legally allowed to work in the US?” You may also ask for proof of citizenship once a candidate is hired.
2. Are you married?
As the EEOC puts it: “Questions about marital status and number and ages of children are frequently used to discriminate against women and may violate Title VII if used to deny or limit employment opportunities.”
In general, questions about a candidate’s family status should be avoided. Here are a few more examples:
- Do you have children?
- Do you plan to have children?
- Are you single?
You may think you’re making innocent small talk with a candidate when you ask them questions like this, but always remember, these kinds of personal questions aren’t relevant and won’t help you determine how they’ll perform in the role.
3. Are you religious?
Sometimes the intent behind these types of questions is as innocent as wondering if a candidate can work on Sundays or will need any religious holidays off. However, you are not allowed to ask if a candidate is religious or even if they go to church on Sundays, but you can ask what days a candidate can work.
4. Are you disabled?
While you are allowed to inquire whether someone can perform the duties of a job, you can’t ask any questions about medical conditions or disabilities.
Other off-limits variations of this question include:
- Have you ever had a workplace injury?
- Have you ever filed a claim for worker’s comp?
- Do you have a medical condition that would prevent you from doing this job?
5. How old are you?
Questions around a candidate’s age are also a no go. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects job seekers over 40 from being disadvantaged in hiring due to their age.
Other questions that are off-limits:
- How long have you been working?
- What year did you graduate high school?
Low-quality interview questions to avoid
In addition to the questions like “Are you pregnant?” and “What year were you born?” that should be avoided due to anti-discrimination laws, there are also questions that simply aren’t a good use of yours or your candidate’s time.
Here’s what not to ask in interviews if you want to really get to know a candidate and get the information you need to decide if they’re the right fit:
1. Tell me about yourself.
This seems like a good opener to an interview, a chance to get the overview before you dive into the specifics. But everyone interprets the correct way to answer differently. For example, one candidate might begin with their childhood in Nebraska and another might launch into why they are a good fit for this job.
It’s better to be specific upfront and ask about what you really want to hear. Are you asking this question to know about their career goals, why they want this position, or to understand them as a well-rounded person?
2. What is your biggest weakness?
Oh, the quintessential interview cliche. This is one of the first questions we’re taught we’ll be asked when we learn what a job interview even is (along with “what is your biggest strength?”).
Aside from its generic “ick,” there doesn’t seem to be much value in answers. Most people have been taught to turn their weaknesses into strengths or they have prepared an answer that isn’t actually going to tell you what they’re struggling with professionally.
If you want to know their weakness, ask about a project they’ve worked on in which they experienced challenges to completing that project. Have them describe their process for overcoming those obstacles. This is often more helpful for you as a hiring manager because it gives you insight into how reflective and self-aware the candidate is about their work. Obstacles happen to everyone, but did they learn anything from them?
3. If I offered you the job, would you accept it?
Unless you are explicitly offering the job, this question has no place during the interview. Chances are candidates wouldn’t say ‘no’ in the moment even if they did need more time to reconsider (which will only leave you angry if they later decide to turn down the job after you do offer it).
There are other ways to judge if a candidate is excited and would be committed to the position. If you’re trying to judge their feelings about taking the job, ask about what excites them about this opportunity or what questions they have. If they struggle to come up with an answer, that could be the red flag you’re looking for.
4. Why hasn’t anyone hired you yet?
You’re worried why they’ve been on the job market for awhile; there must be something wrong with them, right?
Firstly, a candidate who has been searching for a new position for some time doesn’t equate to “unfit to work anywhere” – chances are the right fit just hasn’t come up yet and it could be you! Secondly, chances are they don’t know and asking them to speculate about what makes them unhirable sends the interview into an unproductive and depressing spiral. Thirdly, ouch.
5. Can you explain this gap in your resume?
As an employer, gaps in a resume may seem concerning, but asking a candidate about them in interviews can be off-putting.
Consider this: Sometimes people take time off to raise children or care for a sick loved one. Sometimes gaps in a resume mean someone took off work to travel and see the world. Other times, there are gaps in a resume simply because an applicant left off irrelevant work experience.
When interviewing, don’t focus on what’s missing. Focus on the information you have and ask clarifying questions that don’t make someone explain a time in their life that they left off a resume for a reason.
Interview questions you should ask instead
Interviews are an important time to get to know candidates and ask questions that can help you make better hires. Focus on fact-based, opinion, and behavioral interview questions like:
- What were your dates of employment?
- What were your job responsibilities?
- Have you ever worked with X software?
- What would you do in X situation?
- Where do you see your biggest opportunities for improvement?
- Tell me about the last time you received feedback and how you responded to it.
- Tell me about a time it was particularly important to make a good first impression with a client.
For more on the types of interview questions we recommend asking, check out this video from Natalie Morgan, CareerPlug’s Senior Director of People:
Bad interview questions can create a negative candidate experience – and at their worst, they can even get you in legal trouble! Taking the time to prepare your interview questions ahead of time can help you steer clear of questions you shouldn’t ask, and instead focus on thoughtful questions that will help you get to know your candidates and begin building a working relationship with them. To take your interviewing skills to the next level, be sure to check out our Ultimate Guide to Interviews.
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