What NOT to Ask in an Interview: A Guide to Interview & Candidate Red Flags

Red Flag Interview Questions

To ask or not to ask? That is the question. Employers use interviews to find out if a candidate will be a good fit for a job. However, interviewers need to be aware of questions that are unethical or that could stray too far into a gray area. The following 10 questions are a few examples of terrible questions to ask. Not only can your organization get sued for asking some of them, but they have nothing to do with the candidate’s ability to do the job and may end up hurting your employer brand.

1.) Are you a United States citizen?
This question is illegal, and you also can’t ask where a person was born or if they speak a language that is unrelated to the role. Instead, you can ask if a person is authorized to work in the United States.

2.) Are you married? Do you have children?
These are the sort of questions that can come up while making small talk with a candidate, but you really shouldn't ask them. If you end up rejecting a candidate, they could argue that you denied them the job because they have children or because of their marital status. There’s a good chance the candidate will bring up their children or significant other on their own, but try to bring the conversation back to the role.

3.) Your name is exotic, where are you originally from?
This is another one of those questions that can potentially come up in casual conversation, but you should never ask it. It’s illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of national origin, and if you ask it, you could be accused of discriminating against them. 

4.) Did you take any sick days or extended medical leave last year?
This is an around-the-bush way of asking someone about their medical history or if they are disabled. This is illegal! A better question to ask is, “If we spoke to your previous supervisor, what would they tell us about your attendance?”

5.) Where do you live?
This sounds like a perfectly innocent question. Since most resumes note the candidate’s address, this question isn’t necessarily illegal, but it’s best avoided. If a candidate lives in an area mostly inhabited by minorities, you risk lawsuits for racial discrimination. Managers are often worried about attendance, and it’s natural to assume that people living far away won’t be able to arrive punctually. You can instead ask “Will transportation to and from work be a problem for you?”.

6.) What year did you graduate college?
You should never ask this because it points to age discrimination. Age may sometimes be considered an occupational qualification, however. For example, if a job has physical demands, you’re likely to want a younger employee. Asking if they’re legally allowed to do the job or if they’ll have any issues with physical demands are appropriate question alternatives.

7.) Are you/have you been a drug user?
This illegal interview question targets recovering addicts. If the question doesn’t specifically refer to illegal drugs, it poses a discrimination risk. You probably want to know how reliable the candidate is, but asking about current illegal drug use isn’t useful. Few, if any, people would say yes, so you’ll get a clearer answer from a legal drug test.

8.) Have you ever been arrested?
The fact that someone may have been arrested doesn’t mean they engaged in criminal conduct. Arrest questions may have an underlying racial discrimination intent since some ethnic minorities get arrested more often than others. Obviously, you want to make sure that your new hire won’t engage in unlawful behavior. This is why running a simple background check makes this question easily avoidable.

9.) What clubs or organizations do you belong to?
You can ask someone if they belong to any professional groups that are relevant to the role, however, you can’t ask what organizations or clubs they belong to privately. For example, if the candidate is part of Alcoholics Anonymous or an LGBTQ Alliance, answering this question might give up information the candidate would rather not share and isn’t particularly relevant.

10.) Are you pregnant?
This could come up innocently, particularly if the candidate is obviously pregnant. Never directly ask this, and you should honestly never ask anyone this question anyways…for lots of reasons. Same with asking about marital status or how many children they have, if the candidate does bring up the fact that they’re pregnant, try to steer the conversation back to role-related questions.

A general rule of thumb to follow…does the question relate directly to the job and the candidate’s ability to perform a specific task associated with the role? If not, don’t ask about it. This is also why it’s so important that interview questions are the same for all candidates and that questions are based on skills that are required to perform the role.

Candidate Red Flags

Not only are interview question red flags imperative to ensuring your organization doesn’t get in trouble for discrimination, but candidate red flags are something to look out for as well. There are a number of red flags that you can look out for in interviews that should help you spot bad hires. Here’s a few:

1.) Bragging about other offers
If you have a candidate who boasts about other offers they’re considering, it’s a good indicator that they aren’t committed to the job you’re offering. In fact, they could be using your potential offer for leverage. Keep in mind that mentioning other offers isn’t always a red flag. At later stages of the hiring process, it’s perfectly acceptable for candidates to be transparent if they’re talking to other companies.

2.) Lack of ownership
Look out for candidates who gossip about former managers or employers or who blame all of their failures on others. You can’t expect every candidate to like all of their previous roles, but they should keep the complaints to a minimum and remain professional. When candidates show ownership, you can be confident that they’re the kind of person that learns from mistakes.

3.) Unable to explain previous work
When a candidate can’t articulate what they did at their last job, that’s a problem. It shows a lack of confidence and makes it seem like they weren’t invested in their role. Now, it’s totally understandable that some people are introverted, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

4.) Arriving late or missing interviews
Major red flag alert! If candidates are late to the interview, it could mean they have trouble managing their time. Also, candidates who continually reschedule or miss interviews may be unreliable and disorganized. Time management, reliability, and organization are key skills for many roles, so it’s best to avoid candidates who exemplify otherwise.

5.) Making up-front demands
Have you ever had a candidate start laying out demands right away? “I can only work this schedule. I require 4 weeks of vacation. I need paid parking.” These are all examples of demands that point to a high-maintenance employee before they’ve even had a chance to go through the interview process.

6.) Asking no questions at the end of the interview
Candidates who never ask questions may be less ambitious and unwilling to find solutions or take on new tasks. They could also be trying to hide a lack of understanding of the role in general.

While you may not be able to determine if a candidate is a perfect fit by a handshake or a few conversations, little cues in how they handle the interview process are more telling. With these few interview red flags in mind, you’ll be better equipped to make the right hiring decision.

Better Interviews, Brighter Outcomes

Ensuring that interviewers don't ask the “red flag” questions listed above is impossible if you truly have no idea what is happening within interviews. Using an interview intelligence platform allows you to see into every interview that is happening within your organization by recording and transcribing interviews. In fact, here at Pillar, we’re able to flag when “red flag” questions are asked. This way you can reduce the risk of bad interviews and coach your team members to improve and grow in their interviewing skills, leading to better candidate experiences. And when we talk about candidate red flags, these are often things you might not pick up on within the live interview. If you’re able to go back and re-watch interviews, you have the opportunity to take note of red flags and select the right candidate for every role.

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