Thursday, 17 May 2018 14:34

What Not to Ask: Interview Best Practices and Common Faux Pas

Written by   Charles Read, CEO of GetPayroll, and Devon Kirk, director of sales, marketing, and public relations at GetPayroll

As a small business owner, it can be both stressful and intimidating to conduct an interview. What questions should be asked? How much information should be given out about the business? Is a working interview allowed without paying the interviewee? These questions and more can make the process seem daunting.


During every job interview, there is certain information professionals should look to obtain through friendly banter with the potential candidate. However, some questions could come across as a little too friendly and may be perceived as potential discrimination.


On a federal level, there are many areas to steer clear of, including: race, color, national origin, sex, and religion (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964); age (Age Discrimination in Employment Act); disability (Americans with Disabilities Act); and results of genetic testing (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act).


In addition to the characteristics protected under federal laws, various states and local jurisdictions add other characteristics protected by law. Such characteristics include, but are not limited to, sexual orientation, gender identity, service in the military, veteran status, ancestry, arrest record, marital status, and whether someone is a victim of domestic violence.1


Best Interview Practices


Read the resume before the interview. It is important for the interviewer to be prepared and know with whom they are speaking. Schedule the same amount of time for each candidate. It will keep things on track and focused on the questions that need to be asked. Ask the same questions to every candidate to avoid discrimination issues. Create a word document with each question and space to write their answers underneath each question. Consistency among interviews saves headaches and time. Do not write on the resume. Notes that are vague or ambiguous could be misconstrued. Limit small talk. It is possible to inadvertently ask a question that the candidate may view as discriminatory. If a test is included in the interview, be sure to have a printed activity sheet and ensure the test is the same for every candidate. Remember to use some soft skills. The interviewee is nervous. Show some empathy and understanding.


The Working Interview


Avoid working interviews unless paying for the interviewee’s time. According to the United States Department of Labor, being employed is defined as “to suffer or permit to work.” Even though they are doing work for a very short time and on a trial basis, it is still real work. Federal and state laws may state that they have to get paid, but that does not mean it will be equal to the salary they would get when they are actually hired. Minimum wage is all that is required by law. If they work more than eight hours during that day, they may also be entitled to overtime pay.2 Be sure the candidate is aware that it is a working interview and knows the amount of time that he or she will be required to perform. There have been several cases where a candidate did a working interview, claimed unemployment, and won. It happens.


Interview Landmines


Business owners are so busy with daily tasks of running and managing the business that it can be easy to forget to prepare for interviews. breaks common interview landmines down and provides ways to avoid them.

1. “Failure to define a clear picture of the job requirements. Have a clear picture in mind of the desired performance required from the position being filled.

2. Failure to create a scorecard for the interview. List the key accomplishments and skills wanted in the person that will be hired and score each interviewees’ skills from one to five.

3. Failure to ask open-ended, accomplishment-oriented questions. Good interview questions help the interviewer learn everything necessary to make a judgment about the candidate.

4. Failure to listen. In most interview situations, interviewers should be asking open-ended questions, listening, asking a follow-up question, listening, and then repeating the process.”3


Common Interview Questions


In every interview, there are common questions that almost every interviewer asks. These include:


  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Tell me about your top strengths and weaknesses.
  • What would you consider your greatest
  • career accomplishment?
  • Why did you leave your last position?
  • Tell me why you applied for this position?
  • Why do you want to work for us?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Why should I hire you?
  • What are your salary expectations?
  • Do you have any questions for me?


10 Interview Questions to Avoid


Typically, interviewers should avoid direct questions about marriage, children, illegal activity, religious or political affiliation, credit history, or social affiliations. However, simply rewording a question can make it more appropriate. Here are 10 interview questions rewritten so that they can be asked without the interviewer getting into trouble for discrimination.


“Are you a citizen?” While this may seem like a seemingly straightforward question to decide workplace eligibility, it is strictly hands-off. Instead, ask if the candidate is authorized to work in the United States.


“How long have you lived here?” Familiarity with a city or town may be important to the job that is vacant. However, it is important not to ask an interviewee about their residency. Instead, ask directly about their current situation. They can always volunteer more information later. For example, “What is your current address? Do you have any alternative locations where you can be reached?” may be more appropriate alternatives to ask.


“What religion do you practice?” Employers may want to find out about an interviewee’s religion to determine their weekend availability, but it is important to not ask this question. Instead ask, “What days are you available to work?”


“Do you belong to a club or social organization?” This particular question could be too revealing of political or religious affiliation or activity. Also, this question has little or no relevance to a candidate’s abilities or qualifications. However, if an interviewer still wants to ask this question, it is important to focus the wording on work. “Are you a member of a professional or trade group that is relevant to our industry?” is much more tailored to the task at hand.


“How old are you?” While this may seem like a seemingly harmless question, it is quite loaded. Asking about an interviewee’s age can ultimately set an interviewer up for discrimination based on age. Instead, ask if a candidate is over the age of 18.


“How much longer do you plan to work before you retire?” Once again, this type of question leaves a potential employer vulnerable to discrimination allegations down the road. While they may not want to hire someone who is planning on retiring in a few years, they cannot dismiss an interviewee for these reasons alone. “What are your long-term career goals?” is a much more palatable version of this question.


“Do you plan to have or currently have children?” It is clear that, with this question, the concern is any family obligations that may interfere with work hours. Get straight to the point of work schedules and availability. “Are you available to work overtime on occasion? Can you travel?” addresses those concerns directly.


“Who is your closest relative to notify in an emergency?” Although this question is not completely off-putting, it assumes information about the interviewee’s personal life. “In the case of an emergency, who should we notify?” should be asked, instead.


“How far is your commute?” Although hiring an employee who lives close by may be convenient, candidates cannot be chosen based on their location. Instead, ask “Are you able to get to work at 8 a.m.?”


“How do you feel about supervising men and women?” This question, although it may seem like a valid concern, is not acceptable. The candidate may not have any issues working with the opposite or same sex, and the interviewer can seem crass for even bringing it up. Opt for a question such as “Tell me about your previous experience managing teams.”


Many interviewers take a cavalier attitude towards interviewing. After all, they will never see a candidate again if they are not hired. However, an interviewer never knows how a candidate will feel after leaving the interview and what actions they may or may not take as a result of how they felt they were treated during the interview. Ask the right questions, document their answers, and be consistent in each interview.


Finally, do not interview alone. If possible, have another person from the company or hiring team in the interview, as well. That way, there will never be an opportunity for a he-said, she-said situation, if ever charged with discrimination.


1 Binford, Tammy. “Bringing on New Employees? Don’t Let Applications, Interviews Trigger
Legal Woes.” HR Daily Advisor. September 29, 2017.
2 Vulcan, Nicole. “Are You Supposed to Get Paid for a Working Interview?” The Nest.
3 Herrenkohl, Eric. “5 Interviewing Mistakes Hiring Managers Should Avoid.” Monster.

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