Questions you should avoid asking in interviews

When planning what questions you want to ask candidates in job interviews, planning what you don’t want to ask is just as important as planning what you do.

The wrong question asked in an interview can have immediate negative impacts:

  • It can lead the candidate to conclude that they don’t want the job.
  • It’s a waste of time – both for you and the candidate.
  • IT doesn’t provide you with any information to help you make a decision.
  • And in a worst case scenario, it could result in a complaint being made against you (or at least, the candidate sharing a negative story about your company with others, which is bad for your brand).

While some interviews are formal with scripted questions and a panel of interviewers, other interviews may be more conversational with casual questions that allow general discussion to flow. There is no particular right or wrong interview style or type of questioning, however what is important is that certain inappropriate topics are not raised. 

What subjects should you avoid?

Avoiding inappropriate topics might sound simple in theory. However it’s not always obvious which questions may be construed as insensitive or a violation of the candidate’s privacy. Even when a question seems harmless and is made with the intent of getting further information, it’s imperative that interviewers are aware of how they phrase the question so as not to offend the candidate or appear biased.

To keep it simple, any question related to a interviewee’s citizenship, marital status, sexual orientation, gender, family status, disabilities, appearance, personal information (such as their age and how many dependents they have), national origin, political preferences (unless relevant to the role) or criminal history should be considered off limits.

While you might be interested, for example, to know if the candidate has any children as the role requires a considerable amount of travel, this can potentially be offensive or upsetting to candidates who are unable to have children, have lost children or have decided not to have children. It can also potentially appear biased – that you don’t want to hire someone who might be planning a family, or who does/doesn’t have children.

Some exceptions to this rule

Like all rules, there are of course some exceptions.

The distinction between an appropriate and inappropriate interview question can often come down to phrasing. When in doubt, attempt to keep the question work-related or role specific. For the interviewer to protect themselves from asking an inappropriate question, and to protect the candidate from being put in the position to answer it, it is recommended to phrase the question so that it directly relates to specific occupational qualifications.

For example, instead of asking the interviewee if they have a disability, medical condition or physical ailment that might impact their ability to do the role, it is better to ask if they are able to perform the specific duties of the position they are interviewing for. In doing so, the interviewer can satisfy their need to understand the candidate’s physical ability to perform and handle certain tasks and responsibilities in a legal, non-offensive and unbiased way.

Other questions to avoid

In addition to avoiding questions that can potentially be offensive, biased or illegal, you should also try to avoid cliché questions – that is, questions that get asked all the time and candidates have likely prepared a stock standard answer to them.

Questions such as “what’s your greatest strength/weakness” and “where do you see yourself in five years” signify to a candidate that you haven’t put much effort into your interview guide and potentially your recruitment campaign.

Particularly in a tight job market, an interview is also an opportunity for the job seeker to decide between multiple companies as to who they would prefer to work with. How their interview was conducted and the questions they were asked is a critical part of their assessment of you as a manager, and the culture of the company. The questions asked are a direct reflection of the employer’s interest in getting to know their candidate more deeply.