Interview Questions That Are Risky to Ask

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Avoid spending time in a minimum-security prison!  Just kidding, but you know that questions like,  “Are you pregnant” are illegal.

Having personally conducted over 6,500 hiring interviews of candidates for executive positions, and having written 5 books on interviewing (the latest:  Topgrading: 3rd edition), I frequently am asked what interview questions NOT to ask.  That happens to be a good question to ask…! The “wrong” questions could get you a law suit, drive away A Player candidates, or simply NOT reveal anything important.

Here’s my advice:
Do not ask questions that are illegal (at national, state, and local levels). You already know not to ask questions that reveal age, religion, race, etc. The Topgrading Interview has been vetted by a leading employment law firm, Seyfarth Shaw.  In Topgrading books, they continue to say they cannot find any law suits connected to Topgrading or specifically, the Topgrading Interview.   Topgrading Interview questions are all relevant to the job.

Ask questions about hobbies, interests, etc. outside of formal interviews.  Sure, have meals, team get together, play golf, or whatever to test candidate social skills. But be careful with “get to know you” questions that might trigger responses that reveal forbidden areas (volunteering at the church, protest marches, etc.)
Use structured interviews, in which all candidates are asked the same basic questions (EEOC insists on this). Follow up questions are fine, but stick to the topic.  There are four interview guides used in Topgrading (phone screen, competency, in-depth chronological – the Topgrading Interview, and reference check: all are structured).
Don’t expect competency (behavioral) interviews to reveal much. They are super easy for interviewees to make things up: “Pat, please describe a time you were well organized.” We’re okay with including competency interviews as long as they are followed by the much more revealing Topgrading Interview. A Ph.D. dissertation vetting Topgrading case studies found that 2/3 of Topgrading companies abandoned competency interviews because they did not add value.
Skip the trick questions.  Zappos is (in)famous for asking candidates, “How weird are you on a scale of 1 to 10?”  People have told me the “right” answer is between 5 and 7 because the company wants employees who are kind of weird but not too weird. People can learn through contacting people in a company what is asked and expected for responses.  So candidates can trick the employer when the employer uses trick questions. Topgrading questions are not secret – candidates are asked about every job:  successes, failures, key decisions, key relationships, and what bosses would list as the interviewee’s strengths and weaker points. While you’re trying to trick candidates, candidates will trick you right back!
Ask very few hypothetical questions.  “How would you handle it if your manager asked you to do something illegal?”  The candidate can make up anything.  More revealing is if the standard questions produce a real-life example. For example, if you suspect that the candidate is too willing to please bosses and worked in a company that did illegal stuff, a follow-up question could be, “At Acme, were you ever asked to do something illegal, and if so, please explain.”
When in doubt, change the subject.  In an interview suppose the candidate volunteer’s information that reveals a “forbidden” area: “I joined a different church at that time and …” You might interrupt and say, “No need to discuss religion – let’s get back to the job – what did you like most about that job?”
Use interview approaches associated with proven improvement in hiring success.  By “proven,” case studies should be of named companies and include quotes from the CEO and/or head of Human Resources.  “Anonymous” case studies are, of course suspect.
Use two interviewers. General Electric improved from 25% to 50% high performers hired using the Topgrading Interview. CEO Jack Welch asked me how they could improve on that number and I responded, “Jack, in all of the interviewing workshops at GE we use 2 interviewers, and I’m sure a tandem Topgrading Interview approach will produce better results.” That was a short discussion; Jack implemented it, GE shot up to 90% high performers hired, and GE became the most valuable company in the world (in market cap).

Conclusion: Interviewing need not be difficult or risky. Follow the above advice and you will conduct the most revealing interviews of your career…and stay out of trouble!

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