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Job Interview Questions: The Good,
The Bad and the Illegal

Eric Ciechanowski
By Eric Ciechanowski
Last Updated: December 28, 2021

As a hiring manager going into interviews, you are going to want to come prepared with an arsenal of helpful, insightful questions that will help you to determine if a candidate is the right fit for a job. But between legal landmines and questions that produce vague answers, it can be tough to know exactly what questions to pose to your potential new employee. This guide will walk you through what questions to avoid at all cost, which ones won’t get you helpful results, and the best questions to find out what you need to know.

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Questions to Avoid at all Costs

There was once a time when employers could legally ask candidates just about anything – personal and otherwise – during the hiring process. However, societal norms and laws have shifted to avoid issues of discrimination in the workplace. Employers must now avoid asking any questions that may be deemed intrusive or exclusive. This includes anything about the candidate’s religion, age, gender, sexual orientation and family life. According to Lianne Charton, COO and President of AccuSource, Inc, “asking these types of questions is not only risky, but also useless as the most negative candidate information usually makes its way to the surface during the background/drug screening process.”

Illegal/Risky questions include:

  • How much do you currently make?
  • Will your religious affiliation impact the work you do, or your availability for work?
  • How many sick days did you take at your last job?
  • Are you married? Do you have children? Are you planning to have children?
Keep in mind that additional legal limitations/regulations may exist within EEOC, local and other federal regulations, and it is important that hiring managers understand these laws before going into an interview.

Questions That Won’t Get You Very Far

Blatantly illegal questions aside, there are many interview questions that simply won’t elicit the best information out of a candidate. Some of these are old stand-bys that any smart candidate will have a canned answer to spit out at you. Others may leave them confused, inclined to embellish, or leave them with a negative impression of the job. Here are a few examples of questions to avoid, with better alternatives.
  • "Why do you believe we should hire you over the other qualified candidates?"
Anne Bolender, head of Public Relations at Badger Maps, finds that this question gets similar, rehearsed answers from all candidates. Instead, she suggests asking, "What is you're greatest strength and how could you apply it to what you would be doing over here?"
  • "What is your biggest weakness?"
The 'weakness' question comes up in many interviews, but that doesn't make it a good one. Because it is such an expected question, the answer is almost always a negative trait that has been spun into a positive. While it may or may not indicate the employee's level of honesty, it doesn't tell you much more about what they can bring to your company.
Instead, Steve Pritchard, HR Consultant for giffgaff, suggests asking about a personal challenge that the candidate has faced at work and how they handled it. "This question is a great alternative because it lets you discover how your candidate handles change in the workplace," shared Pritchard. "Plus, their answer will demonstrate everything you need to know about their approach to work and whether they will be suitable for your role advertised."
  • "What animal would you be and why?"
These off-the-wall questions can be fun and set a lighter tone for the interview, but they can also catch the interviewee off guard and don't actually tell you that much about them as an employee. A better line of questioning might be "Tell me about something you are passionate about." It isn't directly work-related, but it will give you a sense of what makes this person tick.

The Best Interview Questions

The best interview questions are those that provide valuable insight into the character, attitude, and qualifications of the candidate before you. Daria Pantaleone, Talent Acquisition Manager at PrimePay, suggests evaluating any question you pose to see if it meets these standards. “Before asking any question during an interview,” she advises, “ask yourself: Is this information really needed in order to judge a candidate’s competence or qualifications for the job at hand?”
Some of the best questions to get to that information are "behavioral" questions, in the format of "tell me about a time when…" They are open-ended, and reveal candidates' problem-solving, decision-making and communication skills in a working environment. Some examples include:
  • What is the most difficult decision you have had to make at work? How did you arrive at your decision? What was the result?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work closely with someone whose personality was very different from yours.
  • Tell me about your greatest achievement at work and what impact it had on your job.
  • What's the most constructive professional feedback you've received? What did you do with the information and how has it impacted you?
An interview is all about getting to know the person across the table who wants the job. As an interviewer, come prepared with questions that will reveal much more than a resume could tell you, while avoiding asking anything potentially illegal or discriminatory. Instead, take the advice of the experts and focus on questions that can provide insight into how candidates will behave at your company in both positive and negative situations and what they can offer your organization.

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