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Questions Never to Ask a Candidate

Ask What You Want to Know

by Johanna Rothman

Generic image illustrating the article
  If you’re asking candidates any of these questions, you should stop now. Johanna tells you why.  

Do you have questions that you have honed over years of interviewing, questions you are certain tell you everything you need to know about a candidate?

You might be right. And you might be asking an irrelevant question that doesn’t buy you any information at all, except reinforcing your preconceptions about a candidate. Those are strong words. I can back them up.

Here are some of the worst questions to ask a candidate. If you are asking any of these questions after I try to dissuade you, let’s go have a beverage together over on the discussion forum and discuss why.

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

There are several problems with this question. The first is that it’s hypothetical. A hypothetical question, “How would you,” allows a candidate to be hypothetical in answering the question.

Hypothetically, I’m perfect. My husband and children can attest to the fact that I am not. Other people can too, but we’ll stop there. When you ask a hypothetical question, you beg the candidate to answer the question in an arm-waving fashion. Don’t do it. You want answers based on a candidate’s real experience, answers that point to how a candidate will work for you, in your context.

The other problems with this question are: Who moves Mt. Fuji at work? Why would you want to? This question doesn’t reflect the reality of your workplace, unless you are in construction, or some form of major earth-moving. If you are hiring technical people, how can they answer this question?

Oh, there are plenty of answers online. It’s a fun question. But this question is in the category of puzzles and riddles that are irrelevant to how most of us work at work.

If you cannot draw a direct correlation from the question to your work, don’t ask it. I am serious. That means no math puzzles unless the candidate has to solve math problems. No manhole cover problems unless the candidate has to determine manhole cover answers. And no Towers of Hanoi problems, unless the candidate has to solve those for work, either. Each of these is an irrelevant question, because they don’t assess how the candidate works.

I can hear you asking me now, “What do I ask instead?” Ask great behavior-description questions, such as, “Tell me about a problem you solved recently.” Now, you sit back and let the candidate talk. I have more guidance about this in Hiring Geeks That Fit.

Tell Me About Yourself

Some interviewers like to start an interview with this question to put a candidate at ease and build rapport. Their instincts are good. You do want to build rapport and put a candidate at ease. But this particular question? Not so hot.

This question is too vague for anyone with more than a few years of experience. The question wastes interview time because it doesn’t help the interviewer get to either technical experience or cultural fit. If you replace this question with a question like this one, “Tell me about your most recent project: what was your role?” followed by, “What kinds of challenges did you have?” then you start to have a conversation and you learn what the candidate thinks a challenge is. That puts a candidate at ease, because the candidate has a concrete question to answer. It’s also a great cultural fit question, because it tells you what this candidate finds challenging.

Tell Me About Your Weaknesses or Strengths

If you ask me this question, I can make any weakness sound like a strength. Any, at all. “I tend to be intense at the end of a release, when we’re focused on getting the product out the door. I want to make sure we release a great product.” Who could argue with that? Well, what if the release criteria are date, date, and just the date, and I want to focus on something else? That might be a problem, right? But not the way I’ve phrased my weakness. You can’t tell that from the way I answered. By the way, I wouldn’t do that. No, sirree. I would say, “Let’s stick with the release criteria. We do have release criteria, right?”

Candidates who’ve had any interview coaching know how to present their weaknesses in the best possible light. Candidates who haven’t had coaching are thinking like mad, trying to turn their weaknesses into strengths.

And, how can you tell if a strength really is one? I once interviewed a developer who told me—unasked—that his major strength was his ability to see the architecture fully formed before anyone wrote a line of code. I was astonished. “How can you do that, before you see any features?” “I’m just that good,” he pronounced. Okay. Maybe he was, but his arrogance arose in other places, too. I didn’t think he was that good and neither did the rest of the team.

Many of our weaknesses and strengths are culturally-dependent. Okay, maybe not when I was improving my writing, and my colleagues were saying, “A verb, JR, a verb!” But that was easy to describe. I could easily say, “I used to have my memos go through six rounds of review. Now they go through three rounds of review.”

I describe myself as blunt and direct, feedback I received from more than one manager. When I give talks, I often say this is a feature in a consultant, but more often a defect in an employee. It’s a cultural issue. What people can talk about is a part of the culture.

Instead of asking about strengths or weaknesses, consider a question such as, “Tell me about the problem you solved that you have the most pride in. When was it and what happened?” Now, let the candidate talk and tell you the story of his or her success. How long ago was it? If it was more than a year or so ago, ask for a more recent example in this way, “That was great. Do you have a recent example of something you did that you have a similar pride of ownership about?”

You can also ask the candidate what he or she is learning. “Tell me what you are learning about these days.” That’s a leading question—it presupposes that the candidate is learning something. If you want a non-leading version of that question, you can use this question, “Do you do anything specific to increase your knowledge of your field,” which is a closed question. If the candidate answers yes, you can ask, “Please tell me what it is,” and wait for the answer.

Where Do You Want to Be In Five Years?

During an interview, we are curious about the candidate. We do want to know where people want to be in five years. And, if our organizations could guarantee employment that long, this seems like it might be a good question.

But we have so many unknowns that this question, as it stands, is not a great question. With a little refinement, we can make it into a great question. The real question is this: “What do you want to discover?”

Do you want to know if a candidate has ambition? In that case, ask this question, “Tell me about a time you wanted a particular role. What did you do?”

Do you want to know if a candidate wants to remain technical? In that case ask, “Are you looking to remain technical or do you see yourself moving into some other role?” It’s always best to ask directly.

It depends on what you want to know. When one manager asked me this question long ago, I sat there and debated with myself. I answered truthfully, “I don’t want to be sitting in your chair. I want to be your boss, or your boss’s boss.” See what I mean about the blunt and direct? I did receive an offer from those folks. But I decided to go somewhere else where the pace was faster.

Make Your Questions Sell You and Your Company

When you transition from irrelevant questions, such as the “How do you move Mt. Fuji?” question, you have to think much harder about your questions. You have to craft your questions. Use your job analysis (see my previous article, “Finding the Geek Who Fits,”) to identify what’s essential to the job and ask about that.

The problem with irrelevant questions is that you have One Right Answer in mind. When someone supplies a different answer, you think, “Oh no, that can’t be right,” and consider rejecting the candidate. Rejecting candidates who don’t fit because of their technical skills or because they don’t fit the culture is perfect. Rejecting them because they flunked an arbitrary irrelevant question? Not perfect. And it’s not a way to sell the candidate on your organization.

Before you use the same old questions, ask yourself: How well is this question working for me? Should I keep it or retire it?

For more guidance on interview questions, see Hiring Geeks That Fit.

Johanna Rothman helps leaders solve problems and seize opportunities. She consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. She enables managers, teams, and organizations to become more effective by applying her pragmatic approaches to the issues of project management, risk management, and people management. She writes the Pragmatic Manager email newsletter and two blogs on Please do go there, wander around and subscribe!

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