Are Your Interview Questions Alienating Candidates?

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Nov 3, 2020

Most people would agree that job interviews can be the stuff of nightmares for hopeful candidates who are keen to impress a prospective employer. It’s true that the interviewer wields a certain amount of power as the gatekeeper to employment, but that doesn’t excuse lazy or arrogant questioning. 

Interviews work both ways, of course. While the decision to hire may give the interviewer an advantage, a candidate also has the power to choose whether they want the job. That’s especially true when it comes to the most talented candidates, who may be fielding a variety of offers from other companies. 

As an interviewer, you want to find the right person to fill a position at your company. You also want to make a good impression so that your company will stand out as an appealing place to work. Even in a competitive job market, a negative experience at the interview stage can put people off.

Many interviewers fall back on a tired and ineffectual playbook of interview questions that many candidates find annoying. This doesn’t just make people uncomfortable; it can also give a bad impression of a company’s working culture. Some candidates may lose interest and withdraw from the hiring process altogether.

Recently, surveyed 2,000 Americans to find out about the worst interview questions they had been asked. The results revealed that certain types of questions really turn people off, and may even indicate a level of unconscious bias that recruiters need to nip in the bud. 

What motivates interviewers to ask stale and predictable questions such as “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Is there a rationale behind interview cliches such as “What would your superpower be?” Are these questions really effective ways to identify and attract talent, or do they turn off the best candidates? 

Interviewing Is an Underdeveloped Skill

The main issue is often that the interviewer isn’t really prepared for the task. They might lack expertise or knowledge about effective interview strategies, be stressed and distracted, or view their role of interviewer as an extra responsibility that takes time away from other work. 

When interviewers don’t have a clear idea of how to manage an effective interview process, it makes sense that they resort to the “interviewer’s playbook” of stock questions such as “What is your biggest weakness?” or “Why should we hire you?” The problem is, these questions often don’t really get the information that you’re looking for.

Superficially, it seems logical to ask a straightforward question like “Why do you want the job?” However, if you ask predictable questions, the result will be scripted answers that can make the hiring decision even worse. It’s important to approach each question as more than just a box to tick.

It’s OK to ask questions about people’s professional qualities, experience, and ambitions, of course. This is necessary in getting to know if a candidate is compatible with the role. You want to find out what makes them tick, what motivates them to achieve goals, and learn how they have met with challenges and experienced growth.

The key is to be sincere in your communication. Ask tough and insightful questions, and listen to what people have to say. Dig deeper, and ask follow-up questions. Ask them to explain with examples how they would be an asset to your company. Aim to get to know the candidate, and to show that you are taking the interview seriously.

Candidates Deserve Respect

Sometimes, an interviewer is so busy thinking of the next question, or mechanically ticking boxes, that they disregard the stress that they are inflicting on the interviewee. Asking questions that focus on negative experiences, for example, can feel purposefully challenging to people who are striving to make a positive impression.

A tricky question such as “What would your worst enemy say about you?” can cause stress and anxiety for an interviewee who is keen to give a satisfying answer, but also wants to frame themself positively. Similarly, asking about an experience of failure, or the worst thing about their last job, can really make people feel uncomfortable. 

Rather than putting people into a difficult position, it’s much better to take a more constructive approach to your questions. Shift your focus to asking about how they have overcome challenges, or their experience with conflict resolution, for example. Listen attentively, take notes, and ask follow-up questions, but don’t set out looking for faults.

Interviews Need Not Be Confrontational

The interview questions that survey respondents disliked the most were “clever” questions such as “How many gas stations are there in the U.S.?” and creative challenges such as “You have one minute to sell me this pen. Go!” Some questions like this can feel random, irrelevant, or purposefully intended to put people on the spot. 

Testing people’s creative thinking skills or asking them to demonstrate their talents might feel like an easy way to make a choice. The candidate who gives the cleverest answer stands out, after all. But do they really show the qualities, skills, and expertise for the job? This kind of question doesn’t necessarily help the most talented candidates stand out, and can really alienate some people. 

It’s not only confusing and stressful to answer a question like this, but it can also give a bad impression of the interviewer. Are they trying to be clever, rather than trying to get to know whether they are actually suitable for the job? That’s really frustrating, and feels like a waste of time.

It’s really important to think about what you want to achieve in your interview strategy. Are your questions fair, respectful, and relevant, and are you really taking the time to listen to what the candidate has to say? You’re much more likely to recruit someone who is eager to join your team if you invest the time, energy, and resources to support a constructive and communicative interview style.

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