Eight interview questions not to ask candidates

There are tons of great interview questions to ask based on the skills you’re looking for. These are a few to avoid.

Whether you’re a first-time manager or a seasoned executive, hiring is tough. You'll likely base your decisions on information you glean from interviews. But your interviews are only as good as the questions you ask, and the road is lousy with pitfalls. There are tons of to ask based on the skills you’re looking for, and many to avoid. Let's talk about those questions to steer clear of.

Avoid questions that are not directly job-related

1. “If I shrank you to the size of a nickel and put you in a blender, how would you escape?”

Popularized in the late 90s and early 2000s by tech giants like Google and Microsoft, these questions were once seen as titillating opportunities to evaluate a candidate’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Over the past 5-10 years, however, the corporations that brought these questions mainstream removed them from their interview agendas. In 2013, a Google HR executive told the New York Times that these brainteaser questions “are a complete waste of time” and “don’t predict anything.” No surprise here. Unless that role involves shrink rays and blenders, this question won’t tell you much about how the candidate will do the job. Questions like these don’t measure any real skills or practical experience, leading to unintentional bias when evaluating candidates side-by-side.

2. “What is your greatest fear?”

You’re not the candidate’s psychiatrist, so let’s not psychoanalyze. In addition to throwing the candidate off, questions like this may lead you to conclude how someone will perform based on their emotions, not their skills or experience.

3. “What makes you think you can cut it here?”

Aggressive questions that pressure candidates to “sell themselves” don’t necessarily relate to the job and risk scaring the right candidate away. Interviews aren’t offered to everyone. If you’ve invited a candidate to interview, you likely already know that they’ll “cut it” based on information you already have from a resume or referrals. Keep in mind that the candidate is carving out their time to speak with you to share their qualification and explore a mutual fit. The interview is as much their assessment of the company as it is yours of the candidate. As such, consider the candidate’s time by demonstrating your interest in them. If sales skills are essential, ask questions about the candidate’s sales experience. This approach is polite and will provides you with a more realistic signal into their skills.

Avoid questions that are limited in scope

4. “Do you know the difference between PowerPoint and Keynote?”

Effective interview questions provide candidates the opportunity to highlight their knowledge, skills, and experience. Asking quiz-like questions with a single answer fail to let candidates demonstrate their skills and experience. If there are specific skills or knowledge you’re looking for from your applicants, consider requesting a work sample or take-home assessment where they can show off their skills and abilities in a mock exercise that mimics the actual job.

5. “Teach me something.”

This is a common interview question and can certainly be managed well. Responses could demonstrate process, creativity, storytelling, teaching skills, and critical thinking, but it might be more effective if all candidates received the same thing to teach. For example, “teach me how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” can show all these, and can get the question answered in a few minutes. But without parameters, this question may be biased toward the person who simply thinks of the fun or more compelling topic to teach, not the actual skills behind that topic. Prompting all candidates with the same question levels the playing field, reduces bias, and makes side-by-side hiring decisions much easier.

6. “What is your greatest weakness?”

You’ve probably seen it in an interview prep article like this one or even have even been asked this very question in an actual interview. An honest response to this question could tell you something about a candidate’s self-awareness or ambition, but since this question is so popular and the “right” answers are posted all over the internet, it is likely that the candidate will answer with what they think you want to hear.

Remember that time David Wallace interviewed Michael Scott on The Office?

"What do you think is your greatest strength as a manager?"

"Why don’t I tell you what my weaknesses are? I work too hard, I care too much, and sometimes I can be too invested in my job."

"Ok. And your strengths?"

"Well, my weaknesses are actually strengths."

If you really are looking for weaknesses, frame your question in a way that doesn’t lend itself to a canned response. Try, “Tell me about a time you found you needed a deeper level of skills or expertise to do your job well. What did you do about it?” This behavioral interview question prompts the candidate to share real examples in which they may have had a job-related weakness. This approach will get you more pointed responses and a stronger signal on candidate skills as they relate to the job you’re hiring.

Avoid questions that may be inadvertently discriminatory

It goes without saying you should never ask illegal interview questions such as those regarding race, sex, national origin, age, and religion. You can find more info on that here. But there are many less-obvious interview questions to avoid, too.

7. “What do you like to do on the weekends?”

Personal questions are tricky. While it’s important to get to know the candidate — after all, you may be working together — this can lead to bias in your hiring decisions and open yourself up to discrimination risk. On top of that, off-the-cuff interviews with casual questions like this one give the least-dependable results. Being friendly and showing interest in the candidate is certainly important, but remember: interviews are for hiring professionals, not finding your new best friend.

8. "What is your experience managing a team of all men?"

While this question might seem focused on (a woman’s) management skills, it inherently discriminates on the basis of sex. A hiring manager likely wouldn’t pose this question to a male candidate. At the end of the day, questions related to gender and other legally protected classes are always off-limits. Asking the same questions across all candidates, a hallmark of structured interviewing, helps ensure biased questions like this one will never come into consideration.

tl;dr: An interview is your chance to dig deeper on information about the candidate’s experience and skills. Don’t squander the opportunity (or back yourself into a legal tight spot) by asking questions that typically yield unhelpful information. If you’re asking about something that doesn’t relate directly to the job, it’s probably not something you should ask. To find and keep the best match for your role, stick to evaluating the skills deemed necessary to do the work.