What Not to Ask In an Interview

Apr 19, 2013

stoolYou have read all about what to ask in an interview as well as magic questions that will solve all your hiring problems. What about what not to do?

Make no mistake. An interview is not an opportunity to GetToKnowYa, but rather a verbal test. It has subject matter, questions, and answers that are scored. But you need to ask yourself: just exactly what are you testing for? The ability to answer silly questions? Whether you want to be friends? Whether you can trip up or intimidate a candidate? Haven’t you seen the thousands of books candidates read to fake their way through an interview?

How about learning whether the candidate has the right set of job skill s? You know, so you don’t have to waste everyone’s time?

If You Don’t Know What You’re Looking for, Any Question Will Do

If you don’t know the exact skills you are looking for, about the only thing accomplished by asking better questions is not being considered a fool by the candidate. Quality candidates do not like working for fools. Fine-tune questions all day long, but if you don’t know exactly what skills the candidate should have to succeed, you have not done your job.

Knowing what to look for requires asking employees in the job what KSAs they use day in and day out to get things done. Pay close attention to those words.  I did not say “what they accomplish.” I said, “the KSAs they use.” Do you think a manager knows them? Good luck with that. Managers are usually the ones who wrote the specs in the first place and are the first to criticize because you don’t send them what they need. Unless the manager is also a jobholder, you are talking to the wrong person. Jobholders tell you what works and what doesn’t (of course they don’t use those words … you have to figure them out).

Don’t Use Questions That Are Easy to Fake

You might have heard about asking behavioral questions. You might have even built a list of them. But, behavioral questions are worthless unless you have first done the homework outlined above. Interviews are like a stool with three legs. Questions are only one leg. They will make you sound better, but don’t you really want to discover the frequency and quality of the candidate’s KSAs?

You see, knowing what a candidate accomplished in a past job is only part of the equation. You need to translate that information into whether he/she can use those skills in the future job. Asking only about accomplishments seldom tells you anything about skills … and you need to know skill-information because it’s the bridge between the old job and the new one.

Know How to Score the Answers

Let’s say you knew the competencies, asked the right kind of behavioral questions, and even got some complete answers (getting complete answers is often very difficult). What do they mean? How do you score them?

Many of the behavioral courses I know leave out those teeny-weeny details … like balancing on a stool with two legs. You have to get best/worst answers from the same experts you questioned about the job. They can tell you what works and what doesn’t. Standardized scoring guides help you stay on course during the interview and decide whether the candidate KSA described from the past is strong enough to work in the future.

Don’t Rely Entirely on Interview Data

Sometimes people have not had the kinds of experience you need, might not articulate clear answers, or might be telling you a fairy tale. Interview data always has to be supported by validated tests and surveys. By validation, I don’t mean buying into junk science or believing wild vendor claims. They will only cost you money and poor employees. Junk tools never live up to their promises (tests that force-fit people into little boxes or quadrants are prime examples).

If your managers like workshop tests, it’s usually because they were amazed when they answered 10 questions about extraversion affirmatively, and their feedback said they were extraverted. Wow! Try explaining that a workshop test might measure differences between people, but that does not mean it predicts skills or job performance. Only trustworthy tools deliver trustworthy results.


Screening out unqualified people is a challenging task. It can only be done effectively if you know precisely what to look for, know how to ask questions that minimize faking, work from a standardized scoring guide developed in collaboration with hiring managers, and confirm data using a combination of other validated tools. After all, isn’t that what you were hired to do?

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