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Oct 11, 2014
by James

5 Interview Questions You Should Never Ask

Posted in Great Interview Questions - Bad Interview Question Asker

In the last several years it’s become clear to me that companies need to start rethinking their interview process and the questions that they ask.

While some companies have begun to design modern assessments, most are simply reusing the same questions that have been asked for the last 100 years.

To be truly effective at interviewing, you need to spend time constructing questions that have the ability to uncover the skills or motivations necessary to be successful at your company.

So why do we, as interviewers, continue to fall back to the line of questioning that began at the dawn of the industrial revolution?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do want to share a list of 5 interview questions you should never ask — or at least the way that they’ve traditionally been asked.

Improving your approach to these questions will help you improve your likelihood of conducting a proper talent assessment.  Here they are:

1.   Tell Me About Yourself

This is quite possibly the most popular question asked by every interviewer and most definitely the one you should stop asking first.

The problem with this question is that it’s just too broad.     Do you want candidates to tell you where they grew up?   Where they went to school?  That they have 49 tattoos?

When I ask hiring managers why they ask this question, they usually respond that they “want to see what the person chooses to talk about”.   They say it “says a lot about a person”.

Actually it doesn’t.

Candidates are really intimidated by this question because they don’t know what the heck you’re looking for so they give you some B.S. story that they think matches the situation.

So ask yourself…are you really trying to get to know the person or are you trying to play some “let’s see what they tell me” game?

I think you will get to know someone infinitely better if you ask them very specific questions about their background and let them choose what they tell you within the context of the question.   For example:

–   Besides selling envelopes, what are some other things outside of work that you’re really passionate about?

–  When you’re not working, what are some things that you like to do?

–  I see you went to school at Penn State.  Why did you choose Penn State and why did you choose Marketing?

–  Tell me about your favorite place to vacation or travel?

Spending a little time breaking down that “Tell me about yourself” question will help you get to know your candidates on a much deeper level — and they’ll feel more comfortable in the process too!

2.    What are your Strengths and Weaknesses?

So here’s the question that every interviewer is prepared to answer. They probably spent the night before the interview writing a list of perfect answers to this question and not a single one of them are true.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear the words…

–  I’m great at multitasking.

–  I’m a natural leader.

–  I’m too hard on myself.

–  I’m a perfectionist

These answers and this question get you no where.

Now I don’t want to totally cast this question aside because I have found value in using it from time-to-time but there’s a special way that you have to ask it.     When you do it properly, this question can take up to 30 minutes, but it could be the most valuable 30 minutes you spend with the candidate.

Instead of asking “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses” here’s what you say:

1.   So, Bob, as a part of our interview process (should you move forward) we do a very thorough reference check which includes contacting your current and former managers.   And we ask them some very simple questions.  One of those questions is about your strengths and weaknesses as a (Marketer).

With that in mind, I going to ask you to predict what you think they will tell me and why, by using an example of a time when you exhibited a particular strength or showed an area where you needed development.   Does that make sense?

Okay, let’s first start with the easy part.   I want you to tell me about 5 of your key strengths and give me an example that your current or recent boss might be able to expand on?

[Be sure to probe for examples]

2.  That was great Bob.   It sounds like you have some solid strengths.  Now let’s talk about those areas where you might have struggled a little bit in the past.   We all have areas where we need to improve, so with your managers in mind, can you share with me some areas that they might indicate that you tripped up in the past or maybe you just needed some extra development?  And I’d like us to try to get 4 of these as this will help us focus on your development early on in your career if you’re hired here.

[You’ll really need to probe for examples here.   And if you want, you can ask for specific weaknesses like – what do you think they’ll tell me if I ask about the types of people you work best and worst with?]

If you choose to go down the path of asking these questions, just make sure you fully commit to it.   Probe, ask for examples and be sure to throw in the part about “thorough reference checking”.   You should absolutely be doing reference checks but even if you don’t, the mere intent is enough to pull some honest answers out of your candidates.

Oh, and one more thing…if a candidate gives you a strength such as “I’m a perfectionist” when you asked them for a weakness — call them out on it by saying “You know what, that sounds an awful lot like a strength to me.   Tell me why you think that’s a weakness?”  Or “I’m going to ask you to pick something different, okay?”

3. Why Should I Hire You?

This is another example of a question that every candidate sees coming from a mile away.   As a result, they’re well prepared to give you their top 3 bullets that they’ve been trained to deliver since birth:

–  I’m a hard worker.

–  I have the experience you need.

–  This job and this company are a perfect match for me.

If I wanted to hear rehearsed lines I’d watch a movie.   If you really want to ask something similar to this question, be very direct and specific about what you want.     You could ask questions such as…

–  If I hire you for this job, tell me what would you do in the first 90 days to ensure that you will be able to deliver the goals that I shared with you for this role.

–  Tell me about a similar role that you had to this one and give me 3 examples that illustrate that you made a positive impact.

–  What have you done in your current role to differentiate yourself from your peers as an outstanding performer?

Hopefully by now you see a theme emerging.   The theme is being specific and avoiding general or broad questions.   If you just spend some time asking candidates what you really want to know, you’ll be amazed at a whole new world of data that pours in.

4.   What Would Your Best Friend Say About You?

Well, if they’re my best friend, wouldn’t they say really nice things about me?    If you’re asking this question, my guess is, you’re probably also asking something like “What would your worst enemy say about you” too, right?

Again, with this type of question, I have to ask — what is it that you’re trying to find out?     Whatever it is, just ask that question.

For example, if you’re trying to find out how they build strong relationships (which is what I think this question is about), just ask them something like:

–  Tell me about a time when you went over the top to do something nice for a co-worker?

–  Give me an example of a time when you had to build a key relationship with someone at work.   Why was it so critical and how did you approach it?  What were some challenges?   How would you approach it differently in the future?

–  Tell me about a time when you had to mend a relationship at work.  What went wrong and how did you repair it?

5. Trick Questions

Okay, so this last one is really just a general request for all interviewers to stop asking questions that really don’t have a purpose other than to “see how someone thinks”.

“How many square miles of pizza will be made in Italy today?”

If you want to see how smart someone is, give them a relevant, difficult problem to solve.

And I would caution you about putting people under pressure to think on their feet in an interview or on the spot.    Some of the greatest thinkers in the world are slow thinkers who need time to process thoughts.    If you want to explore this topic further, I recommend you read the book “Quiet.”   It’s a fascinating walk through the introvert’s mind and how slow, quiet thinkers outperform fast talking, quick thinking extroverts.

In summary, the use of a modern, relevant, and well-structured questions will better allow you to effectively evaluate whether the candidate fits the requirements of your job, the fit of your culture and the motivational profile you’re seeking.    Taking a modern approach to old questions can reap huge rewards but you need to identify what you’re really trying to learn about your candidates and then commit to finding those things out through active listening and probing.

Is there an old school interview question we missed?     Feel free to share your opinions in the comment section.


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