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Fourteen crass questions managers should not ask at interview

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Written by John Berry on 31st August 2020. Revised 22nd February 2021.

6 min read

online Interviews sam-mcghee-4siwRamtFAk-unsplashWhen asking questions at interview, the manager is looking for evidence that the interviewee is going to excel in the job. Simply, if your questions don’t provide evidence, don’t ask them. If your questions can’t be objectively scored against a required competency (developed from the job description), don’t ask them.

Here are fourteen questions that fail in all of that.

  1. “Tell me what skills you bring to the role?”

This allows the interviewee to sprout out boilerplate skills like, “I’m very organised”, or, “I work well with people”. You, as interviewer, don’t learn if these are really skills they possess. You don’t learn if they have simply rehearsed the answer, giving commonly desirable answers that most interviewers would be impressed with.

  1. “Tell me a time when, as a manager, you’ve asked others for help and support?”

So what does an answer with several instances tell the interviewer? That they need help frequently, or that they don’t? And what does the type of help sought suggest? No response can tell you anything about the interviewee’s ability to do the job.

  1. “Tell me about a time when you had to manage someone who was a bit challenging?

This question’s not so bad. But it would be better framed by describing a scenario and asking for some of the approaches that the interviewee might take in working with someone who is challenging. That would show if the interviewee could apply management skill to a real situation.

Asking about history tells little about the future.

  1. “Tell me how you manage a busy workload. What tools would you use?”

Potentially this allows the interviewee to trot out some boilerplate stuff about using a diary and tagging things for importance, and then maybe standard approaches to slicing the day into time slots. But it says nothing about whether their tools are effective.

This question is better assessed by using a skills test.

  1. “What impact is taking this job going to have on your home life?”

This one is super-crass. No answer is scorable. If the interviewee says, “none”, what is the interviewer to conclude. And what if they say, “absolutely huge”?

Bluntly, it is no business of the interviewer. And it verges on discrimination. Asking this of a woman may breach equality legislation, for example.

  1. “How would you go about building an effective team in the job?”

It is very difficult for the interviewee to say what they’d do in a job with which they are yet not sufficiently familiar. The question needs to be turned into a scenario – ‘given this scenario, what techniques would you use to put an effective management team in place?’

  1. “What would you achieve in the first six months?”

This is another of those questions that makes no sense to the interviewee unless they’d been doing the job and had time to reflect.

Better to ask how the interviewee would go about determining what their objectives would be for the first six months. That way the interviewer can tell if the interviewee has appropriate knowledge and skills to think strategically and build meaningful objectives.

  1. “Where will you need help in this job?”

This one is almost too crass to discuss. The simple answer is, “I don’t know”, because of course the interviewee isn’t in the job.

A good answer might discover how the interviewee would conduct a personal skills audit or competency framework based on the job description.

  1. “What do you think the four biggest challenges are in this job?”

Unless the interviewee has been doing the job for a while, they are unlikely to know the answer to this. And any answer risks the interviewer declaring the interviewee ignorant – for indeed, of course, they are.

This question could be made good by describing a scenario from the job, and then asking how the interviewee would approach the scenario problem.

  1. “What plans do you have to fill the gaps in your team?”

Again, this question prompts the, “I don’t know”, response because no manager will know until they’ve conducted an analysis and talked to many people in their teams. This question is not therefore of any value.

It could be re-invented to invite the interviewee to say how they would build a strategy, and then go on to say how they would analyse the strategy to reveal a manpower plan.

  1. “What problems do you think your staff will face in the coming months?”

It’s getting repetitive – but you get the idea! Any idea of problems is speculative until a manager has done their analysis. And again, any answer could simply be dismissed by the interviewers as not relevant, hence damning the interviewee for their ignorance.

  1. “What experience do you have in setting up a management team?”

OK, now we’re getting closer. But again, the interviewee risks their answer being declared wrong through ignorance. Again, it would be better to turn the question round to ask about the techniques the interviewee would use – for example, a strategy, competency framework, job descriptions and manpower plan.

  1. “Tell us about a time when you had to appraise the performance of others?”

Any manager with decent experience will have had to appraise their staff. It’s what managers do.

So, what is it that’s meant here? Is it about how to assess performance? Is it about the interviewee’s understanding of some of the issues of scoring performance? Or is it about understanding the purpose to which the appraisal might be put – to develop staff or to castigate them?

  1. “What is the last bad decision you made and now did you recover from the fallout?”

Really? Seriously? What on Earth does that tell the interviewer about anything?

These fourteen questions have one thing in common – they ask for historic snippets. Prospectively, if the responses chime with the ideas of the interviewers, then the interviewee will do well. If not, they’ll do badly – and the result will be a challengeable and subjective selection decision.

The questions don’t probe for skills and knowledge. They don’t probe answers that give any idea of how well the interviewee will do in the job. They don’t tease out answers that predict future performance.

Developing questions for use at interview is a skilled job – and you won’t find them on the Web! They are unique and specific to job. Questions must relate to objective decision criteria.

Now see our companion blog for the ten crass things managers should not do when recruiting – and why.

And call us to discuss how to develop real interview questions.