Five questions you should never ask in an interview (and three that you should)

It goes without saying that there’s a lot riding on your choice of a new staff member. Make the wrong decision and it could cost your business dearly in lost time, a protracted performance management process and, possibly, an unfair dismissal claim.

So, it’s fair to say that most employers approach the interview process with some trepidation.

You can improve your chances of success by setting aside enough time to carefully think about the role, the experience and skills that are needed and the interview questions that will ensure you find the right person for the job.

The problem is that too many managers replace rigorous analysis with “instant impressions, emotion and gut feel”, says organisational psychologist and author Rob McKay.

Rather than structured and disciplined interviews, it’s often “a general ‘get to know you’ chit-chat”, he writes in Hire with your head, not your heart.

“Most managers hire on knowledge and skill, but they nearly always terminate on personality, attitude and mental ability,” says McKay, director of AssessAdvantage.

It makes sense, then, that the way you ask questions is important.

What should (and shouldn’t) you ask?

“Tell me about yourself”

Don’t ask vague questions. McKay says asking open-ended questions, such as those below, invite answers that are based on opinions.

  • Tell me about yourself.

  • How would your previous employer describe you?

  • What are your career goals?

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

But opinions don’t mean much. You’re really trying to learn examples of past behaviour as a way of predicating future behaviour, he says.

“How old are you?”

Age is one of a number of questions that can be considered discriminatory.

“If you’re requesting information about age, you’re breaching the anti-discrimination legislation in many jurisdictions unless you have a non-discriminatory purpose for requesting that information,” says workplace lawyer Charles Power from Holding Redlich.

For example, it would be lawful to check someone’s age if you’re trying to establish if they’re entitled to a youth wage.

“Are you a team player?”

Don’t ask questions that begin with “Are you” or “Do you” because it can encourage applicants to use lofty or abstract language. Instead, ask questions that encourage applicants to give specific examples: ‘Tell me about a time when you contributed to the success of your team’.

The problem is that while direct questions can be useful, they may also encourage short, closed answers.

So, if you’re asking about achievements,  keep the question broad so that applicants can demonstrate relevant skills or qualities by referring to situations outside the workplace such as: ‘Tell me about your biggest achievement’.

“Are you a good communicator?”

Again, this is a direct question that’s likely to receive a reply of “Yes!”. For soft skills, it’s best to ask for a specific example that demonstrates the capability, such as: ‘Tell me about a time when you had to change your communication style for a specific situation’.

“What’s your family situation?”

You can’t discriminate against a candidate because of their family responsibilities. If you’re trying to work out their ability to be flexible with working hours, it’s best to ask: ‘We sometimes need people to work evenings and weekends. What’s your availability?'.

Questions about marital status, family circumstances, race or country of origin and political or religious beliefs may also be considered discriminatory, says Power.

But there are exceptions to each of these, he says.

“A lawful request to ask information about disability might be to enable you to make any reasonable adjustments that are necessary to accommodate that disability in the workplace,” says Power.

“You’ve got to have a clear lawful purpose for requesting information about a person’s attribute where that attribute or characteristic is something that could potentially form a claim of discrimination.”

In summary, don’t be vague - think carefully about the information you’re trying to obtain, be aware of the anti-discrimination laws, and consider the likely response to your question so that you can phrase it in a way that works for you.

And, try these three questions as a starter:

  • Tell me about a time when you contributed to the success of your team.

  • Tell me about your biggest achievement.

  • Tell me about a time when you had to change your communication style for a specific situation.

Get interview ready

Prepare for your next interview with SEEK’s Interview Builder. This easy-to-use resource provides access to 40 best-practice interview questions in an easy drag-and-drop format. 

Information provided in this article is general only, does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. SEEK provides no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability or completeness. Before taking any course of action related to this article you should make your own inquiries and seek independent advice (including the appropriate legal advice) on whether it is suitable for your circumstances.