The Worst Interview Questions

Some of the most common interview questions are also some of the most ineffective.

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Nov 28, 2023

“Tell me about yourself.” It remains the most popular interview question among recruiters. About 60% of recruiters cite it as their top question. Too bad that the question is also the worst question to ask candidates. Here’s why:

Prepared speeches. People tend to come in with rehearsed scripts to address this exact question. Even if they don’t, it becomes a divide between those who came ready and those who didn’t. So you’re not judging the content of what candidates say; you’re judging the preparation for the interview.

Social desirability. There’s a risk of social desirability, whereby candidates tailor their responses to what they think you want to hear. This could even be adjusted for the role — a different pitch for a manager than for an HR recruiter. In essence, the answer doesn’t truly reflect the person but rather what they believe you expect them to say..

Time drain. It’s a broad question that can eat up a significant amount of time with candidates as they delve into personal history. “I was born here, lived there, married with three kids, studied this, got a master’s in that…” Each candidate starts from where they feel is most relevant, putting the onus on you to guide the conversation. However, it’s interviewers that should lead the interview, and doing so takes a question that is way more specific.

Candidate disdain. Research shows that 60% of candidates expressed dislike for this question. It irked them. Contrary to popular belief, it didn’t “break the ice” or create a comfortable atmosphere. Many candidates wonder, “You’ve got my resume, so why rehash what’s already written?”

Biased information. You may end up gathering information that you legally cannot use in hiring decisions (marital status, kids, etc.). In other words, you may be introducing bias. Even putting legalities aside, knowing personal details that candidates may reveal risks unconsciously affecting your perception and preferences that have nothing to do with one’s ability to do the job.

Rather than ask the most cliched question in recruiting, you’re better off aiming to be more precise and targeted in your questions. You’ll get more relevant answers by instead focusing on situational-behavior questions.

For instance, if you’re keen on examples of how someone has handled challenging customers in the past, start with specific questions about their customer-service background. Ask about experiences dealing with clients at a previous job, the communication methods used, and if the person has faced difficult customers. Frame your queries to elicit detailed examples related to the specific requirements and situations related to the position.

Or, if you’re looking into someone’s coding skills and want to know if the candidate can handle others’ code, start by asking directly about the person’s coding experience. Inquire about programming languages, types of projects the individual has undertaken, and if the person has ever encountered bugs in code.

More Bad Questions

While “Tell me about yourself” may be the worst offender, there are other questions to avoid during interviews:

Hypothetical questions. Asking someone, “What do you think you’ll do in a crisis situation?” or “What would you do differently today if faced with a similar event?” prompts speculative answers. “Where do you see yourself in five years is perhaps the prime cliché in this category.

A better approach is to reframe future-oriented questions into past tense: “Did you face a similar situation in which you behaved differently? Tell me about it.” Or inquire about specific past experiences: “Did you handle a faulty report or a stuck machine?” Any question about the past tends to yield more concrete insights than hypothetical future scenarios.

Overly general questions. Asking broad and nonspecific questions often results in unclear or generic responses. For example, “Describe a period when you had to adapt to a change in work” can lead to vague answers.

Instead of asking about a general project, focus on specific situations. For instance, inquire about experiences with events like system malfunctions: “Have you encountered a situation where there was a malfunction in the system? How did you handle it?”

Or, when discussing a project, delve into specific feedback scenarios: “While working on this project, did you ever receive feedback that required a meaningful change in your course of action? What was the change needed, and how did you address it?” This approach helps to extract more detailed and relevant information from candidates.

Inquiries about difficulties, failures, challenges, and successes. Asking about such things can be subjective. For example, when someone is prompted with, “Tell me about a failure in your job,” it’s more about personal perspective than concrete events. The same event might be viewed differently by different people; someone might be overly critical of oneself and label something less than perfect as a failure. This doesn’t necessarily provide insight into the person’s actual behavior in job-specific situations.

Instead, shift the focus to potential challenges in the future role. Ask candidates if they’ve ever encountered similar difficult situations and, if so, how they handled them. Inquire about their behavior in those instances to gain a clearer understanding of their approach in job-specific scenarios.

Self-analysis questions. Questions that delve into self-analysis assume that being self-aware automatically leads to action, change, or improvement. However, the ability to act is best demonstrated through actions, not merely self-reflection or self-awareness. This includes inquiries about strengths, weaknesses, and suitability for a position.

Asking a candidate what they believe they did wrong might steer us in the wrong direction. Just knowing what went wrong doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they’ll get it right the next time.

Let’s reflect on ourselves for a moment. We’re all familiar with our shortcomings, whether it’s smoking, indulging in unhealthy snacks, or spending too much time on social media, among other things. But making a change or adopting new habits isn’t always a walk in the park. Merely knowing what went wrong isn’t sufficient; in the interview, we’re looking for the potential for future action. Self-awareness, on its own, just doesn’t cut it.

Ultimately, tailoring questions to extract relevant information that directly aligns with the job at hand is more important than clichéd and often overused questions that almost always fail to elicit the details you need to know.

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