5 Questions to Never Ask in an Interview

At Agile 2009, I had some informal discussions with hiring managers about how to hire for their agile teams. I’m considering writing an ebook. If you think that’s a good idea, please leave me a comment or send me an email. In the meantime, I was surprised by some mistakes hiring managers make. These are my top 5 questions never to ask in an interview (for an agile team or any team!):

  1. Tell me about yourself. This question is too vague for most candidates and wastes everyone’s time. You want to know more specifics, such as how a candidate has contributed to current and previous projects, how they’ve added value to the organization.
  2. Where do you want to be in 1, 2, 3, 5 years? Can anyone actually answer that question? It doesn’t provide you any information. One hiring manager told me he wanted to know how ambitious a candidate was. I asked him why he wanted to know that and he had no answer 🙂 If ambition is something you’re looking for, a better question is “Tell me about a time you wanted a promotion. What did you do?”
  3. Tell me about your strengths or weaknesses. This begs the candidate to turn all weaknesses into strengths and for candidates to tell you motherhood and apple pie stories about themselves. Better questions are: “Tell me about an achievement you feel proud of” and “What areas have you been working on increasing your knowledge of or increasing your skills in?”
  4. Tell me about your boss. The candidate’s manager may not have been the one who hired the candidate into the organization. Without context, it’s not clear what you are asking. You might want to know “Tell me how you interact with your manager”although I’m not sure why you’d want to know. I want to know more about the candidate’s role on the team and how the team works.
  5. Are you married/have children/belong to a church/<any other illegal question>? Don’t go there. Does it really matter if the candidate is married with two children or single with a dog? Or something else? It matters if the candidate can do the job. You can ask, “Are there circumstances that prevent you from being here 9-5, since we have our daily standups at 9am and we pair until 5pm?” or some other question like that.

Make sure you ask questions about the candidate’s ability to do the job, not anything to satisfy your curiosity about tangential facts.

8 Replies to “5 Questions to Never Ask in an Interview”

  1. Re: Where do you want to be in 1, 2, 3, 5 years?

    I sometimes ask a question along these lines to figure out if a developer candidate is looking to move out of development and into project management or into a more typical management position. Often times developers want to focus on depth and/or breadth of the technology they’re interested. Either direction is fine but they are very different and can tilt the scales when matching up a group of candidates to the company’s needs. Is there a better way to gain insight what a candidate will be looking for to step-up their career in 12 months?

  2. Your post makes a lot of sense. I guess recruiters need to update their archaic set of questions with specific questions like these.

    I feel asking the questions, What are your strengths/weaknesses is truly a waste of time. You are forcing the poor guy to speak flowery language and use puffery.

    I know some brilliant people who are reticent to boast about themselves, that does not mean that they are not worthy of selection.

    So dear recruiters, ask specific questions as they get specific answers!

  3. I personally like “Tell me about yourself” but I replaced it a couple of years ago with “Is there anything else I need to know that we haven’t covered?”. Both give me an opportunity to watch the interviewee think about something other than technology, or at the very least demonstrates how much through they’ve put into this interview.

  4. Totally agree with 2 and 3.

    For #4, I like to ask tell me about your best and worst boss ever….you gain insights into the candidate when they answer this.

  5. This article is a very good one. I argue with some of these comments, being not good with interviewing, and how some of the candidates responses may be misinterpreted or they are passed by due to some detail however relative it may be.

    For one, tell me about yourself – how much more do I have to tell… did you not read my application, cover letter, and resume? Nope pretty much covered it all, so once I’m management I can stop doing duties that are required for my position also??? Besides, when in an interview and asked that question your abruptly haulted in conversation and thought process, as to filling the position correctly and debating if you want to work for the guy your sitting in front of (meanwhile, someone whom you just met is requesting information you wouldn’t tell your closest friend or family member).

    My #1 thought about the interview is …. If you don’t want a flawed candidate don’t seek a human at all! Don’t ask for ones weaknesses if you refuse to deal with 1 0r 2 imperfections. I have an unresolved issue of being late. Whether it’s 1 minute or 30. I rarely make it on time. I have tried just about every thing under the sun, it may work one day but the next is a whole different story. I am willing to stay after or start the next day a little early to put in the required time. My productivity level is higher and quality of my work is much better than those who are always on time. So tell me would you rather hire 2 employees to do the job or me and deal with unintentional tardiness??
    Now when asking about our best and worst boss. So you want me to bad talk my old boss? For what reason? Does this effect the way I conduct myself in this position? No. Does this have anything to do with me not being able to fulfill expectations at this company? No. So must I do the very thing that I am morally against and what you will later ask me not to do?
    What do you all feel about someone to refuse to answer a question during an interview?

  6. As a successful owner of many businesses with as few as 150 employees, there are often underlying reasons why some of these questions are asked.
    “1. Tell me about yourself” – This may be asked simply to help the candidate relax and talk about things that interest him/her. Interviews can be nerve racking to some people and talking about a topic that they are comfortable with might make them feel more at ease and also open up otherwise undiscovered passions that might add to a team’s cohesiveness. A great team isn’t all about work, but about team building.
    “2. Where do you want to be in 1,2,3,5 years” I argue that some people CAN answer that question… people with passion, drive and focus on their career. Not to say that goals do not change, but through my hiring of literally thousands of employees throughout the years, my most successful employees had clear concise goals on where they saw themselves in the not too distant future and always took steps to get them closer to that goal. Also, as an employer it s always nice to know in a potential candidate could be a long term asset vs. a short term asset. An employer will invest more in an employee whose goals may coincide with the company’s needs.
    “3. Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses” Believe it or not, a lot of people have never thought about their weaknesses until this question is asked. How can somebody try and improve their weaknesses if they have never even thought about them before? All employers know that everyone has weaknesses – that will become evident in no time. The question is, is the employee aware of their weaknesses and taking steps to improve on them?
    “4. Tell me about your boss” Although I don’t exactly like how this question is worded, an open ended question like this can reveal a lot about a potential candidate. If the candidate like an easy going boss, and not a boss that got on his back for being 15 minutes late, it may show lack of discipline or respect for fellow team members… or alternatively it might show that this candidate works best on his/her own. Further questions after the initial “tell me about your boss” questions should determine if the candidate will be a good fit for the position he/she is seeking.
    “5. Are you married…..” Yes, I agree. Totally illegal and should not be asked. Other than finding out if the candidate is single or “available”, there is a real motive to why this question used to be asked. It is more about availability and willingness and ability to go above and beyond the 9-5 if required. Hypothetically take two individual candidates with the exact same qualifications with the following exception. One is not married and has no girlfriend/boyfriend/children. The other is married with children and responsibilities. If the job required frequent overtime, frequent weekends to be worked, late nights and even overnighters in some crunch situations – which employee is likely going to be able to do that? It is a fact that some people are married (as they should be) and some are married to their work.
    I am not crazy about the wording of all of the above questions, but before they are completely dismissed, realize that there may be reasons for asking them. Also, realize it is YOU that is applying to THEM for employment, so they can ask you whatever questions they feel is appropriate to choose the best candidate (with the exception of illegal questions of course).
    My suggestion is to be honest, contribute to an open dialogue exchange that goes in both directions. That little interview process might open the doors for years of great compatibility and satisfaction between employee and employer. Just because you don’t understand why something is being asked, doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason for it.

  7. I agree with Rob totally for all the questions. II think it is great for asking these question if we want to find employees who what to grow and scale-up and who also want to improve themselves.

    But if we want to find a programmers who want to stay as programmers for 10 -20 years down the road and who necessarily do not need to improve themselves as a human being but only need to improve their technical skill sets, then I see the point of not asking these questions.

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