Main image of article Questions You Should Never Ask in a Job Interview

Despite improvements to the interviewing process, everyone still holds onto a few clichéd interview questions they love to ask (for example: “What is your greatest strength? And your greatest weakness?”).

Those kinds of questions can actually prove pretty tough for both interviewer and interviewee. On the interviewer side of the equation, do the candidate’s answers actually give you information you need to make a hiring decision? Is there even a “right” answer?

Who’s Really in the Hot Seat?

The current labor market is tight—especially in tech. How does that impact interviewing dynamics?

Let’s say we were in a recession with high unemployment. A bad economy often puts the employer in the greater position of power. But what happens when good candidates are sparse? The power balance shifts, and for interviewers, it becomes even more important to set the right tone in the hiring process. Yes, you have a job to offer… but so do many other companies. And while you are screening the candidates, they are also screening you.

Many interviewers ask questions that are designed to put the candidate in the hot seat. For example:

  • Why are you leaving your present company?
  • Why are you the best candidate for this job?
  • What is your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?
  • What are your salary requirements?

Yes, each of these questions has some merit, but it all comes down to how you ask, as well as when you ask. If you mess up, these questions come off as not only clichéd, but also a bit too “gotcha.”   

“You want to get as much information as you can in that 30-minute conversation,” explained Mark Stagno, partner at tech recruiter Winter Wyman. “And that doesn't happen through these very targeted ‘gotcha’ questions. It happens by getting [the candidate] comfortable and allowing them to speak at length. Honesty comes through the more that someone talks. They can't give you canned answers because you'll see right through that. They start to open up as they get more comfortable.”

Bryan Zawikowski, vice president at executive recruiting firm Lucas Group, agreed with that idea. “In this environment right now, where it is terribly difficult to find people, avoid questions that have a negative overtone. Every candidate that you interview is going to have multiple choices. And if you want to be that choice, stay positive.”

The Problem with Open-Ended Questions

The good news: You asked an open-ended question in the interview. The not-so-good news: It wasn’t specific enough, particularly to the job for which you are hiring.

Just because you ask an open-ended question doesn’t mean you’re getting what you need. Be specific. Link it to the skills needed for the position. For example, don’t ask: “What has been your greatest success?” (In life? In work? Yesterday?) Instead, ask: “Give me an example of a successful project you led using Agile. What was your role in the success? What did you do specifically? What might you do differently looking back?”

Another popular open-ended question: “What is your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?” But think about it: Can you really trust the answer to this question? Smart candidates know some variation on this question may come up, so they put together a well-rehearsed answer they think will please, instead of giving you something truly honest.  

Instead of asking for strengths and weaknesses, Stagno suggested, ask how they leveraged those strengths in past situations: “’Give me an example of how you did this at your past job’ is still a better way to get at that than just the open-ended, ‘What are your strengths?’”

“Any question where someone can just speak at a very high level with no detail,” Stagno added, “gives you a lot of fluff and no real substance.” Avoid hypothetical questions, as well. A smart candidate will figure out what you want to hear.

What are Your Salary Requirements?

You have dozens of résumés to sift through, and you settle on fifteen that you feel are promising. But you don’t have eight hours in your schedule to interview all fifteen folks. A common practice is to ask the candidates to state their salary requirements up-front. In this way, you figure, you can eliminate the ones who want too much money.

It’s a reasonable step and if candidates do their homework and research the going rates for the position, they should be able to give you a number. But it’s also a tricky situation.

Simply put, the candidate doesn’t want to go too low for fear of cheating themselves out of a good salary. But if they go too high, they might not make the cut.

“You want to have a process that everybody feels good about,” said Ryan Sutton, district president at Robert Half International. “Because when you make that hire, the last thing you want is them thinking they left money on the table, especially in this competitive market.”

Career coach Rita Friedman suggests another path. “Instead of making a torturous game out of someone’s livelihood, provide applicants with a transparent snapshot of the budget for the position. This will more quickly weed out the ones who are out of your range.” Perhaps more to the point, you won’t lose good candidates who simply aren’t as adept at guessing the “right” number.

Compensation has become more about the offer process than the interview, Sutton pointed out. “When you want to attract the right hire, compensation is how you bring it to closure. It's no longer a part of the interview. But it's a hard thing for a lot of hiring managers to mentally see the divide between recruiting and hiring when it’s in the same conversation.” Sutton recommends making a note in your interview protocol to transition from the interview to closing.

Be careful, too, of your wording when inquiring about salary. Asking about salary expectations is acceptable, but in an effort to address pay equity, it is illegal to ask for a candidate’s pay history in many states and cities.

Asking Good Questions

What are good interview questions? In short, those that gather information specific to the position. “Use competencies as your guide,” advised career coach Jaci Tusman. Develop interview questions that go to the skills and competencies you want; ask candidates to speak about past behaviors and situations where they exhibited that skill.

This method, known as behavior-based interviewing, gets you the best interview, suggested Sara Ferraioli, managing director at Winter Wyman. “If you can really get to the meat of the individual and what they've done rather than the canned hypothetical, you're going to get a better sense of the person.”

Start with a solid job description, Tusman advised: “Then go look up competencies online—there’s hundreds of them. Find at least three or four that you're looking for in the job and develop your behavioral questions around that.”

But can’t the candidate also fake their way through these questions? Maybe… if they are an exceptional storyteller. In the end, trust your gut. If it’s telling you that something doesn’t jive, go deeper and ask the candidate for more specifics.

You only have so much time in the day. Pick the best questions that will get you the most data and information about the candidate. Get rid of the hypothetical and vague open-ended questions, and focus on the skills and behaviors actually needed in the position.