Work Relationships

5 interview questions you shouldn’t ask potential employees

Written by Kate Lopaze

We talk a lot about what questions interviewees should be prepared to answer, but what if you’re on the other side of that equation? Are there any danger zone questions (or just plain ineffective) questions you shouldn’t ask? There definitely are, and they range from inappropriate to downright illegal. Let’s look at some of them.

1. How old are you?

Age is always a no-no in an interview. Even if the interviewee mentions it themselves or you can deduce the age based on their resume, you can’t ask about it or use it as a factor in the hiring decision. Per the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), it’s illegal to use age as a discriminating factor in hiring. So by mentioning age, you’re opening the door to potential legal consequences for your company—whether you’re just making small talk or not.

2. Are you married/do you have kids?

Again, illegal, even if it’s just small talk. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) forbids using gender or family status as an element in hiring someone for a role. A question about family status could make the interviewee think you’re fishing to see if she is planning to take maternity leave, or a question about marriage could make the interviewee think you’re trying to determine sexual orientation. It’s best to leave it alone and find other ways to make small talk. And you don’t want to risk making the interviewee feel uncomfortable about having to discuss personal issues. It’s better all around to keep discussion limited to professional areas.

3. If You Were a [blank], what kind of [blank] would you be?

This one isn’t illegal, by any stretch. It’s just not a very useful or effective interview question. Knowing which kind of tree the interviewer identifies with or which former member of One Direction they’d like to be doesn’t tell you much of anything about how they’d approach the job at hand. Whenever possible, you should avoid filler questions like these.

4. What’s your salary history?

What a candidate made before is largely immaterial to what they’d make at your company, unless you’re trying to take the easy way out and determine how low you can go, salary-wise. Either way, it’s not a terribly appropriate or relevant thing to ask someone who’s applying for a specific job. It could put the interviewee on the defensive and steer the conversation away from the job itself.

5. What’s your biggest weakness?

If you ask this, you’re not going to get a 100% truthful answer. Candidates are on to this game, so you’re going to get an answer with spin on it. No one is going to say “Yeah, I’m just not good at motivating myself to get work done in the morning” or “I make a lot of careless mistakes.” And does the spin answer like “I am too much of a perfectionist” really help you make this hiring decision?

When you’re the interviewer and have all the power, it’s important to make sure you’re making a good faith effort to ask the right questions to get someone hired. The last thing you want to do is open legal cans of worms for your company or ask questions that just don’t tell you much about the person you’re hiring to fill this job. Learning to become a great interviewer is just as much a skill as learning to become a great interviewee, and the more you work on what to avoid, the more effective you’ll be.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.