4 Most Common Interview Questions to Avoid (and 4 You Actually Want to Ask)

With college graduation approaching, a surge in job openings and more people switching jobs or re-entering the workforce, asking job candidates the right interview questions is critical to make the most of the job interview.

On the other hand, asking inappropriate interview questions can spell trouble for employers and lead to claims of discrimination or bias.

First, the questions you want to stay away from. Some may be common knowledge, but the new work world has changed the way we interact (more virtual) and communicate (more casual), and even seasoned managers, HR, and company recruiters can benefit from a refresher.

For some practical insights and tips, I recently connected with Maggie Smith, VP, of Human Resources for Traliant, a compliance training company that offers online training on preventing discrimination and harassment, diversity, equity and inclusion and other topics.

Beyond complying with local, state and federal anti-discrimination laws, HR and hiring managers should consider their motives. “It’s important to take time to think about what and why you’re asking certain questions,” Smith said. “Are you consciously or unconsciously screening out certain people? If the initial interview questions don’t relate to someone’s experience and qualifications to do the job, that can be a red flag.”

4 interview questions to avoid

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says it’s illegal for an employer to discriminate against a job applicant because of their race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy), national origin, age, disability or genetic information . Further, employers may not base hiring decisions on stereotypes and assumptions about a candidate because of these personal characteristics. Here are four questions to avoid:

1. How old are you?

Asking someone’s age or what year they graduated is a form of age discrimination, which for people 40 and older is prohibited under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Even so, age-biased language pops up regularly on job postings that emphasize ‘digital natives’ or ‘young, energetic go-getters.’

2. Do you have any children?

Generally, the best practice is to avoid questions about a candidate’s family status or whether they have kids or plan to. It could be perceived as an attempt to discriminate for or against people with kids or those with caregiver responsibilities. Recently, the EEOC published guidance on avoiding caregiver discrimination.

3. Your name’s unusual. Where are you from?

This is another example of a question that may seem like small talk, but it’s not relevant to the job, and could be used to discriminate or show bias toward people based on their ethnicity, accent, national origin or culture.

4. Do you have any disabilities?

Under the Disabilities Act (ADA), employers can’t ask candidates about the nature or severity of a disability or what medications they are taking. However, it is okay to ask candidates if they can perform the essential job duties, with or without accommodation. Here again, the best approach is to focus on a candidate’s ability to do the job.

Asking the same set of questions to all the candidates for a particular position is an interview-compliance best practice. Once that’s covered, it’s time to learn more about the person beyond the resume.

4 interview questions to get the conversation flowing

“Whether the interview is face-to-face or virtual, you want to connect on a human level,” Smith said. “By really listening and being approachable and inclusive, you are reflecting the qualities of your company culture values, and helping candidates feel comfortable opening up about the kind of work environment where they can bring their whole selves to work.”

1. What did you learn about our company that made you want to apply for the position?

This question can reveal how prepared candidates are going into the interview and whether they were curious enough to learn a bit about your company and industry. An informed candidate will also ask more meaningful questions, which benefits them and HR and hiring managers.

2. What do you value most in a job and organization you work for?

This opens up conversations around work culture, flexible work options, different work styles and what candidates need to feel connected, supported and valued.

3. Can you share some examples of projects or situations where you thrive and others that were more challenging?

This question is a way to discover candidates’ likes and dislikes. Knowing what they are passionate about and how they approach a new project can lead to a conversation about job satisfaction and motivation.

4. What are your expectations for the position?

There’s no right or wrong answer. The idea is to give candidates an opportunity to discuss their understanding — or surface any misunderstandings — about the position and set realistic expectations.

Bonus question: Have some fun. “Asking something that isn’t work-related allows candidates to share another dimension of themselves,” Smith said. Some examples include: ‘What would your perfect day look like?’ or ‘What’s the last show you binge-watched?’ or ‘What are you reading now?’

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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