Questions to avoid when interviewing a candidate

man sitting at a computer taking a phone call

When you’re getting ready to ramp up your hiring, you’re going to eventually go from handling a handful of potential candidates to dozens, or maybe even one day hundreds. Ad-hoc interviews and preparation don’t really work at that scale. So you’ll probably start whittling down the best questions that will screen for the right candidates.

But it’s also essential to figure out what you shouldn’t ask. There are questions you shouldn’t ask for obvious legal reasons. But some questions can be a total waste of time, and ones that could quickly turn a candidate off. The interview process always says a lot about the company itself, and you’re trying to sell them as much as they are trying to sell you.

You also want to ensure you have a proper interview etiquette simply for your reputation. Sites like Glassdoor can be great for helping candidates understand the companies they’re interested in joining in, but it can also be a double-edged sword. You don’t want a negative review stemming from a bad experience, whether that’s on Glassdoor or through typical word of mouth.

Protected categories to avoid when interviewing a candidate

The first place to start when it comes to interviewing questions you should avoid are the ones you legally have to: protected categories. You have to avoid any questions related to any of the following categories:

  • Race, color, or national origin
  • Citizenship
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Gender identity or sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy status or number of children
  • Marital status
  • Mental or physical disability
  • Military or veteran status

You also have to be very careful because questions that may seem innocuous enough—like the ones that you’re just using for small talk or to warm up the candidate—may end up running into a protected category. A question as seemingly benign as one about someone’s accent can run into those categories, even if you don’t intend to do so.

In addition to those protected categories, it’s a good idea to avoid asking about current compensation generally. It’s not legal to do so in New York or California. Still, it’s also probably not a particularly useful question in the first place as you’ll end up having a lengthy discussion about proper compensation anyway when you’re getting ready to hire someone.

The best thing you can do is prepare well ahead of time to avoid those categories. Which leads directly into...

How to prepare your panel for the interview

One very common trap that panelists in an interview may fall into is all of them asking the same question. That can come in the form of just asking about their background or something about their current role. But it’s important ahead of time to ensure everyone on the panel isn’t just saying something along the lines of “so, tell me about your background” or “tell me why you want to work here.”

What was supposed to be a two-minute elevator pitch could then end up being a 15-minute life story, and chew up time that would help you learn what you need to know from that candidate. You also don’t need everyone asking why they’re leaving their last job.

The best way to avoid a trap like this, and others, is to make sure each panelist knows that they’re interviewing for something specific. If an employee is coming in to screen for how well they would work across multiple teams, they should dive straight into that. Find out questions about their history working across various groups, or throw scenarios at them. Each panelist should both lean on their strengths and what they should expect.

You’ll want to ensure that your panel has thoroughly reviewed the candidate’s profile, whether that’s in a tool like Greenhouse or checking out their LinkedIn profile. It’s also better if you have your interviewers meet and discuss ahead of time the questions that they’re going to ask, so there is as little overlap as possible.

The final thing that they’re reviewing for is, well, whether they’d want to work with this candidate. Make sure that’s what your panel is screening for in the conversations when they are preparing. They want to know if they’ll be able to do the job they need to do, if they seem enjoyable to work with, and if they seem to align with your organization’s values.

Photo credit: Christina @ on Unsplash

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