5 Interview Questions You Should NOT Ask…and 4 You SHOULD

When it comes to hiring employees, cultural fit has risen in importance, ranking among the top factors for whether to hire a job candidate. Unfortunately, for small business owners, trying to determine whether a candidate is a “good fit” can lead to discrimination pitfalls, especially when you use small talk as a gauge.

Sometimes small talk can lead to inadvertently asking illegal job interview questions, or being provided with information from job candidates that could be used to discriminate against them.

You should avoid questions that can appear to be discriminatory — ones that relate to where a candidate lives, their age, their arrest record, national origin, credit history, family status, financial status, marital status, pregnancy, race or color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

Here are some good rules of thumb to avoid the appearance of discrimination:

  • Stay away from anything that isn’t related directly to the job.
  • Resist the temptation to delve into personal conversation.
  • Be direct about what traits and skills they’d need for the role and ask the candidate to speak to those things.

5 Illegal Interview Questions You DON’T Want to Ask

While some illegal questions like “How old are you?” are more obvious, others are less so. Some questions seem like “cultural fit” questions, and others simply pop up when you let the interview meander off into small talk. Remember the rules of thumb from above, and avoid letting your interview conversation head toward questions like these:

1. “What part of town do you live in?”  This seems like a harmless question — one that would be asked out of curiosity — but it could be interpreted as an attempt to figure out if a candidate lives in a part of town where mostly minorities live. It’s best to avoid it. If you want to know whether they live nearby because punctuality is important to you and traffic is heavy where you are, then ask candidates if there’s any reason they might not arrive to work on time each day.

2. “What year did you graduate from USC?”  While you may ask a question like this simply because you found something in common with your candidate, it’s no longer innocent when you go in a direction that could help you figure out their age. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits any interview questions that could indicate age discrimination.

3. “Being a start-up, we tend to have younger managers. Would that be a problem?”  This is another indicator of potential age discrimination. While it may seem like a valid question about whether you and the candidate will work well together, by asking this question in this way, you imply that you’ve noticed the applicant’s age and see it as a potential reason not to hire them. A better way to ask this is by leaving out references to age altogether. You could say, “Would you be comfortable taking direction from someone who has less on-paper business experience than you do?”

4. “I hear an accent. Where are you from?”  You may just be curious, but when it comes to national origin discrimination, this question is a red flag. Asking it could hint that you might discriminate against a potential employee due to their accent or the fact that they may be from a different country. If language fluency is important in the role, ask candidates direct questions about which languages they are fluent in. You can also formally evaluate their communication skills as part of your interview process. Just don’t ask them if they’re native speakers or whether English is their first language.

5. “How many kids do you have?”  Even if you’ve gone in to the small talk zone with a candidate who has already mentioned having kids, don’t ask this. In fact, even if you’ve already related to each other about having kids, try to avoid asking any further questions around this topic. Asking candidates about their children or if they plan to have children can signal discriminatory hiring practices.

Here are 4 questions you should ask to help determine culture fit:

  1. How did the culture at your last company allow you to thrive or hold you back? It is hard to phrase questions about the candidate’s previous employers in a way that can give you any insight into how the company operated culturally. This question allows the interviewer to learn about the previous company through the candidate’s perspective of the culture.
  2. Describe the best manager you ever had, what were there characteristics? This will answer questions like What was the boss’ management style, and why did the candidate thrive? How does that management style relate to your management style?
  3. What has been your most difficult or challenging career relationship, and what were the results of it? Conflict exists in every work environment, so it is far better to discuss how the candidate will problem solve through their work relationships than leave it to chance.
  4. How do you like to receive feedback, and how often? Does the candidate see feedback as an annual formality or a constant process of mentorship and development with their best interests at heart? How does that mesh with how things happen at your company? Does the candidate grin and bear it, argue or listen carefully and make changes when feedback is offered?

Obviously you can’t conduct a full interview with only these four questions. You’ll need to ask many other questions to determine whether the candidate has the skills, experience, education and certifications required to capably handle the role you are filling.