July 19, 2016

5 interview questions you should absolutely never ask!


Some are illegal, all are bad at predicting job performance


HR manuals and popular blog posts are great references for interview questions you should never ask. These include:

  1. Are you married?
  2. Are you pregnant?
  3. What is your religious affiliation?
  4. What is your race or ethnicity?
  5. Do you have a disability?

Simply put, making a hiring decision based on marital or parenthood status (including future plans!), religion, race, ethnicity or disability is illegal. So just don’t go there.

But you probably already knew that. Below are a five less commonly deplored, but equally bad, interview questions that you should avoid.


1. “How would you rate your ______ ability?”

Whether it’s leadership or technical skills, research shows that people from underrepresented backgrounds in a particular field tend to underestimate their true ability. Shelley Correll at Stanford University, for example, found that men assess their math ability higher than women who perform at the same ability level according to grades and test scores. So avoid asking candidates to rate their own abilities; chances are, they’re not very good at it.


2. “What are your interests?”

While many believe that people whose interests match the content of their jobs have higher job performance, research suggests this is true only to a very limited extent (a rigorous meta-analysis found that the correlation between interests and job performance is only 0.1). Here’s why: Interests influence which kind of careers people try to enter. But once individuals pick a job or career, the quality of their job performance is determined mostly by their mental ability and certain personality traits, like integrity, not by their interests. So stop wasting time trying to suss out whether a candidate is so passionate about accounting she blogs about it on weekends. The truth is her ability to learn new skills will be more predictive of future job success.


3. “What is your favorite coffee/beer/fitness activity?”

Questions about personal preferences that have nothing to do with core job competencies should be avoided like the plague for several reasons. First, there is a mountain of research showing that interviewers already commonly suffer from “similar-to-me” bias. That is, interviewers are more likely to select a candidate for a job if they have similar demographic characteristics, regardless of actual qualifications. Like many biases, “similar-to-me” bias is unconscious and therefore difficult to avoid. Don’t make selecting the right candidate for the job even more difficult because you’re unduly swayed by a mutual love for ultimate Frisbee.


Another reason to avoid these types of questions is that they may signal certain social class norms that can alienate some qualified candidates. I once came across a job description that asked applicants to be prepared to pick and defend their favorite coffee brand. I’m sure the question was meant to be a silly ice-breaker. But it also sent a sign that employees at this start-up can afford, and value, a cup of $6 single-origin Kirinyaga Peaberry coffee from Kenya. Not all candidates will share that value. And, most importantly, it’s probably not relevant for job success.


4. “Have you ever participated in a political demonstration?”

While this question is timely and would probably make for an interesting discussion among friends, it’s not appropriate for a professional job interview. Discriminating against a job candidate based on political affiliation is verboten, so avoid questions that can be interpreted as trying to ascertain political beliefs.


5. “Have you ever been arrested?”

In some states, like California, employers are only allowed to ask applicants whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, not whether they’ve ever been arrested. Since people who have been arrested are often cleared of any wrongdoing, it’s unfair for employers to discriminate against individuals who have been arrested. (And, going quite a bit further, a recent study from Harvard and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst questions the common belief that convicted felons are bad employees. Based on a sample of thousands of military employees, the study found that those with felony criminal backgrounds were actually promoted faster through the ranks and more often made it to the level of sergeant than recruits who weren’t offenders.) If you are concerned about an applicant’s’ integrity—a characteristic that has been shown to be a reasonably good predictor of job performance—ask specific questions that directly evaluate that quality instead.


Getting ready to conduct your own interview? Use Unitive and never ask a wrong question again!