10 Perfectly Legal But Totally Awful Interview Questions You Should Never, Ever Ask

May 16, 2017

There’s nothing illegal about wearing a speedo during an interview, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Similarly, the following interview questions are perfectly legal (unlike these discriminatory questions that’ll get you sued), but you should still think twice before asking them.

Recruiting is a game of attraction that works both ways—you’re not just evaluating the candidate, you’re also enticing them. Even if you’re not skirting the law, your questions might be sending the wrong message and repelling your perfect candidates.

Here are 10 questions you probably want to steer clear of.

Questions that make your company culture sound hellish...

1. “How well do you deal with stress?” “Can you manage yourself in a crisis?”

You might not mean to, but you’re making it sound like your company culture is constant crisis: angry bosses, employees shackled to their desk, crazy-making chaos—sign me up!

If the job actually is high-stress, as many are, the candidate should know that by now. Instead of hinting at it with a sly question, tell them upfront with a brutally honest, warts-and-all job description.

2. “Are you comfortable answering emails after hours and on the weekends?”

Is it still called “work-life balance” if it’s all work and no life? No one wants to be tethered to their work email all the time.

While staying connected during off-hours is a fact of life for many modern positions, it’s not something you should spring on a candidate during the interview—it should be an explicit job requirement that’s clear from the get-go. Instead of an obtuse question, affirmatively say what’s expected (way before the interview).

3. “How well do you deal with strong personalities?”

“Heh, we’ve sure got a few characters here,” you say. But your candidates hear: “Save me from this madhouse.”

There’s a lot to be said about having a lively, culturally diverse work culture—just make sure you’re framing it in a positive way.

Questions that are weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird and don’t actually reveal much...

4. “Which way would a hot dog split as it expands?” “How many basketballs would fit in a blue whale’s blowhole?”

Tech companies are notorious for asking these head-scratchers. Presumably, they’re meant to be profound and playful—but in reality, the candidate will likely feel blindsided and put on the spot. At best, it’s a little quirky and creative. More often, it can seem hokey, pretentious, and distancing.

These kind of “gotcha” questions don’t exactly foster trust—and unless you’re recruiting a hot dog engineer, it’s probably not terribly relevant to the actual job.

5. “If you were ice cream, what flavor would you be?”

Substitute ice cream for tree, animal, or 90s boy band: the question’s still a stinker. Sure, it’s cute and lighthearted, but it can come off as unprofessional or an awkward attempt at pop-psychoanalysis.

Not to say that interviews need to be all starched shirts and purely business—but instead of beating around the bush with a weird question, just ask about their hobbies and interests.

Questions with obvious answers that invite the candidate to sugarcoat the truth...

6. “What’s your biggest weakness?”

“Aw, shucks, sometimes I just work too hard.” “I can be too much of a perfectionist.” This question is engineered to elicit a humblebrag response.

You’re unlikely to ever hear an totally honest answer to this question—what else would you expect? Most candidates will already have a canned answer in mind; instead, try asking about a specific time they struggled and how they overcame a challenge.

7. “Would you say you’re a proactive, detail-oriented team player?”

“Oh, absolutely not—I’m a lazy, fuzzy thinker who’s hard to work with!” said no one ever.

In general, avoid yes-or-no questions, especially if you’re asking about good, ambiguous qualities like attention to detail and stick-to-it-ive-ness.

8. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“Right here, growing into a leadership position and helping the company succeed!” is the automatic answer you’re likely to receive. Even if they’re thinking of this as a short-term gig, candidates have almost no incentive to be honest with you.

Instead of putting them in a position where the truth would be awkward, try asking them what they hope to get out of the job—their answer will give you a better sense of their long-term plans.

Questions that display a lack of interest or attention on your part...

9. “Where have you worked before?” “Where did you go to school?”

These questions are a dead giveaway that you’re not even pretending to have read their resume.

No candidate expects you to read and remember every detail from their resume, but you can at least be polite enough to pull it up right before (or even during) the interview to get the big-picture items.

10. “So, why don’t you tell me about yourself?”

We’ve saved the first for last: this ice-breaker is often the first question on your lips, but it shouldn’t be. Open-ended interview questions are great, but this is a little too open. Are you asking for their life story? Work history? Zodiac sign?

Worse, it’s dangerously close to a dismissive “what are you doing here?” and can signal disinterest. Instead, try opening the conversation with something more concrete (like how they heard of the opening) or small-talky (like the weather).

Finally, a quick disclaimer: this list is all in good fun, and there are probably a few times when it’ll be totally appropriate to ask the questions we’ve highlighted above. At the same time, it’s always important to create a comfortable candidate experience—and many of the questions above can leave a bad taste in their mouth.

For tips on what you should be asking instead, check out this post

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.