The Seven Deadly Sins of Interviewing

Bad interview
Some interview questions are a no-no

Interviewing is still one of the most common methods that employers use to evaluate candidates. It’s their crucial step in selecting the right person for the role. But how effective is your interview technique? In this article, we’ll look at the biggest interviewing mistakes employers make. I’m calling them the “seven deadly sins of interviewing”.

Obviously, I’d like you to have a read through the whole article. But I know that people are busy and time is precious, so here’s the TL;DR summary. The seven deadly sins of interviewing are:

  1. Asking inappropriate questions
  2. Asking banal questions
  3. Not testing the candidate’s knowledge & experience
  4. Asking closed questions
  5. Succumbing to “first impressions” bias
  6. Not having selection criteria or taking notes
  7. Failing to let the candidate ask their own questions

If you want to understand what I mean by each of these, keep reading!

Hiring is an investment decision

You cannot underestimate the importance of your hiring process. You obviously want to hire to best candidate for the job. You’re going to be paying them, so you want someone who’s going to be an asset for your business.

However, hiring a lemon will be costly. Managing a poor performer can be hugely time consuming. You will need to explain how they’re falling short, set clear expectations, give them time to improve, monitor their progress and so on. If you end up dismissing them, you must have followed a fair and reasonable process. This all takes time and effort. Meanwhile, you will have been paying them a salary. Plus, of course, their poor performance will not have helped your business.

You are responsible for your hiring decisions

Some employers wave away these issues. “Just fire them! Why not? We’ll have a probationary period in their employment contract. Besides, they can’t claim unfair dismissal within the first two years anyway.

This attitude misses the point by a country mile.

As an employer, you are responsible for your hiring decisions. If you hired someone, then you decided they were the right person for the job. If you hired a lemon, then you have to take responsibility for that.

It’s rare for a diligent employer to have been misled by a candidate. More likely, you either did a mediocre job during the selection process or you dropped the ball on the due diligence and background checks.

Probation periods

Employee being firedYou can’t rely on probation periods. New employees often need time to get up to speed in a new environment. Therefore, performance problems often won’t become apparent until later. Besides, there’s a psychological “honeymoon period” where a new employee will put in maximum effort in a new role.

Besides, employment law does not define or recognise the concept of a ‘probationary period’. Sure, you can include one in an employment contract. But there’s nothing in law that supports them, e.g. by waiving any employee rights within probationary periods.

No unfair dismissal within the first two years

Not all performance or behaviour problems arise within the first two years anyway. Even if they do, you can’t assume that dismissing someone with less than two years’ service makes you safe from an employment tribunal claim.

There are some exceptions. There is no minimum service limit for claims where:

  • discrimination influenced the dismissal decision
  • they were dismissed over a health and safety issue
  • the dismissal was a consequence of “whistleblowing”
  • they were dismissed for legitimate trade union activities
  • they were dismissed for asserting a statutory right
  • the dismissal breached the terms of the employment contract (wrongful dismissal)

Even if they have no claim, using the two year qualifying period to make deliberately unfair decisions is ethically questionable. It could damage your reputation as an employer.

Finally, having to defend against a claim can cost you several thousands in legal fees. It’s very unlikely that you can recover your costs, even if you win. Therefore, many employers will try to settle with the claimant even if they know the claim is weak. That sticks in the craw!

Yes, if you settle it will be cheaper than arguing the case at a tribunal. But you will probably still have to pay a considerable sum for the settlement.

The bottom line? Don’t rely on the qualifying service period for unfair dismissal to correct poor hiring decisions that you made!

The Seven Deadly Sins of Interviewing

#1 Asking inappropriate questions

You should only ask interview questions relevant to evaluating the candidate against the requirements of the role. Don’t ask “small talk” questions of a personal nature.

You definitely cannot ask questions that suggest your selection decision will be biased against any of the protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage or civil partnership
  • pregnancy or maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex (gender)
  • sexual orientation

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from being treated unfairly in any of these areas.

Here’s a real-world example…

After a talk to local business people on discrimination, a young lady told me about an interview she’d had with a previous employer. At that interview, she was asked if she was planning to have any children.

By asking that question, the employer has almost certainly broken the law. It suggests that the employer’s decision over the candidate’s application is going to be influenced by their pregnancy or maternity.

The young lady replied by asking if having kids was going to be a problem. The employer said something along the lines that they “didn’t want to have to deal with the costs and disruption of having someone out on maternity”.

Wow! Okay, the employer definitely broke the law there.

You might escape a discrimination claim if you could demonstrate a clear business justification for asking. For example, if the nature of the role presents a genuine health and safety risk to expectant mothers.

But in this case, it was blatant discrimination. The employer clearly intended to look unfavourably on any candidate planning to have kids.

Also, male candidates might take child-related time off work too. There’s paternity leave and also shared parental leave. The latter allows the other parent to effectively share the traditional maternity leave allowance.

Do you think this employer would have asked this question of a male candidate? No? Well, then you’re looking at sex discrimination here too.

How can they prove it?

You may think that the onus is on the candidate to prove discrimination occurred. So, if they’re relying on a verbal comment, they can’t actually prove you said it. Therefore, you’re off the hook. Right?

Wrong!

Consider the earlier real-world scenario. Let’s assume that the young lady was a good fit for the job, based on the advertised job description. Now, let’s say she didn’t get the job with a standard “sorry you were not successful” form letter.

She could make a complaint, alleging that she was the victim of discrimination because:

  1. she was apparently a good fit for the role
  2. the employer asked about her pregnancy/maternity status
  3. the employer gave no other reasonable explanation why she was unsuitable

It’s true that she can’t unequivocally prove that the employer asked anything about having kids. However, there’s enough here to show that she could have been discriminated against.

The burden of proof shifts to the employer. If there was no discrimination involved, how does the employer explain the decision not to award her the role?

This may seem harsh on the employer but it’s like this for a reason. Anyone with more brain cells than teeth will avoid putting anything discriminatory in writing. If you only hear discrimination complaints that come with absolute proof, people could get away with verbal discrimination with impunity!

Remember these simple guidelines. You risk losing a discrimination complaint if:

  1. You say or do something discriminatory (intentionally or otherwise)
  2. The other party feels you treated them unfavourably as a result
  3. You can’t provide a reasonable alternative explanation for your decision or behaviour

Here are some examples of questions asked the wrong and right way:

Wrong: “do you have kids or family commitments?”

Right: “are you able to work overtime or travel if requested?”

Wrong: “is this your maiden name?”

Right: “are any references or qualifications under another name?”

Wrong: “where are you from? How long have you been here?”

Right: “are you legally entitled to work in the UK?”

Wrong: “how can you do this job with your disability?”

Right: “what adjustments should we make to accommodate your disability?”

Wrong: “have you got a criminal record / any convictions?”

Right: “do you have any unspent convictions?”

You don’t need to walk on egg shells. Just be mindful of how you phrase your questions.

#2 Asking banal questions

A job interview is a bit like a first date. You and the candidate are both sizing each other up for mutual compatibility. You both want to make a good impression. Job candidates are going to try and present themselves in the best possible light. Often, they will try to mask their shortcomings and tell you what they think you want to hear.

Now, your time is precious. You have a limited amount of it to spend in interviews. You need to use it to really assess the candidate for the job. Don’t waste time asking stupid or weak questions.

You should plan your interview questions in advance. These should align with a set of criteria that you will assess the candidate against. Sometimes, the candidate will say things that may prompt you to pursue a line of questioning you didn’t pre-plan. But being prepared with a plan and set of criteria means that every candidate starts out on a level playing field.

For each question you plan to ask, make sure it passes these tests:

  1. How is this question relevant to the role and the assessment criteria?
  2. Does this question give me useful insight or just what the candidate wants me to hear?
  3. Will this question test or challenge the candidate’s skills, abilities or thinking?

Here are some examples of commonly asked questions that fail these tests:

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

The farce is strong with this one. Almost nobody has a sincere answer to this question because few of us know for sure.

Numerous surveys and studies are finding that, on average, people change jobs every 3 to 5 years. Even if that’s not the candidate’s intention, what are they supposed to say?

Pretty much any answer you get is going to be useless. You’ll either get some pretentious twaddle about vaulting up to a senior position, or some vague an uncertain hand-waving about how they’ll still be here doing, well, something.

In fact, the only good answer would be: “if you keep me fulfilled, motivated and well paid, I’ll still be doing this job”

A better question to ask the candidate is “how does this role fit in with your career development plans and aspirations?”

Why do you want this job?

Ugh. This is another feeble question to ask. Their application letter and CV or resumé should explain why they’ve applied (if not, why are you interviewing them?) It also whiffs of a master-servant mentality in the interviewer. It’s as if they’re doing the candidate a favour just by talking to them.

You are looking for a valuable asset to join your team. Therefore, better questions to ask would be:

“What about this role interests you most?” or “what makes us interesting as an employer?”

What is your biggest weakness?

This question is an interview cliché and mostly a waste of time. Very few people are willing to admit their shortcomings in an interview setting. Some people think that you can get insight from how the candidate answers. You will find that this is rarely true in practice.

Sometimes you may get an honest answer but this is very rare. Often, the replies you will get will be pseudo-strengths disguised as weaknesses: “I care too much”, “I work too hard”, “I’m a bit of a perfectionist” and so on. Either that, or the candidate will shift uncomfortably, struggling to know what to say.

Making the candidate uncomfortable may be great for interrogations but is not a good job interview technique. Disarming a candidate and putting them at ease usually encourages more honest responses. Or it may cause the candidate to underestimate the cunning of your questions. Either way, you get better insight and the candidate will see you as someone they’d like to work for.

Some people think that an uncomfortable candidate reveals how they respond under pressure. Well, maybe. Yes, you want someone who can cope under pressure. But we’re talking about positive pressure caused by deadlines, results and expectations. Overcoming these can be rewarding for an employee. Adversarial, interrogative pressure is a negative pressure. It suggests an autocratic, oppressive culture in the workplace.

A better question for interviewers is “tell me about a time in your previous role when things went wrong; how did you resolve it and what did you learn?”

For candidates, a good question to ask interviewers is “if you could change anything about your organisation, what would it be?” The interviewer works in the environment, so their answer could be telling!

#3 Not testing the candidate’s knowledge & experience

You choose which candidates to interview based on the strength of their applications. But remember that a well-written cover letter and CV is, in effect, a marketing document. The candidates are trying to sell themselves to you.

Of course, an alarming number of candidates do a poor job at writing cover letters and resumés, but that’s a separate topic.

Anyway, the point is that you shouldn’t take their application at face value. Design some questions to probe the depth of their skills and experience.

However, this should be more than just a Q&A test. For example, when interviewing for software engineers, there are some fundamental knowledge questions. What does this code mean? How would you implement that? There is a place for those sorts of questions. But you also want to see how the candidate thinks, how they approach a problem.

So, for the same example, I might present a candidate with a complex scenario where a system is not working correctly. The candidate may think I’m asking them to solve the problem. I’m not. What I’m really doing is evaluating how they approach the problem. What rational troubleshooting techniques they use. How they apply their experience, understanding and insight to the problem. How far they go down a rabbit-hole before realising and trying another approach.

As a former Vice President of a multinational IT company used to say: “your resumé gets you the interview, your attitude gets you hired”

So, make sure your questions present a challenge and show how the candidate thinks.

#4 Asking closed questions

A closed question is one that can be answered with a one-word answer. A yes or no question. An open question is one where the candidate has to elaborate.

There are some questions which are always going to be closed. “Do you have a valid driving licence?” or “are you qualified or certified in …” and so on.

But these are application form questions, not interview questions.

At the interview, you should ask open questions. These would be questions beginning with “tell me about…” or “how did you…” or “explain…”. You get the idea. Most closed questions can be re-phrased to be open. Here are some examples:

Closed: “have you used Foo Software before?

Open: “tell me about a project you delivered using Foo Software

Closed: “are you good with customers?

Open: “what do your customers say about you?

Closed: “our projects have tight deadlines; can you work under pressure?

Open: “explain how you would manage a project with very tight deadlines

#5 Succumbing to “first impressions” bias

A long time ago, I befriended a colleague who was a lovely chap and very bright. Although he was quick witted, he clearly didn’t have enough experience for his current role. Over drinks, I asked him how he got the job in the first place.

“Ah”, he replied. “In the interview, I saw he had a picture of himself on a yacht the wall. So I steered the conversation to boats and we got on like a house on fire. I blagged my way through the interview.”

Numerous studies have shown that we form a first impression extremely quickly. One Princeton study found that people tended to make snap judgements in only 100 milliseconds. Far too quickly for any rational thought.

We like to think that we’re not biased. That we’re fair, rational and free from prejudice. But is that really true?

We hear stories about how the same application can be sent out under two names; one Western and one non-Western. The applications from the candidate with the Western name gets offered significantly more interviews.

Even if we don’t have such overt racial prejudices affecting our judgement, there are other factors. The firm handshake. The more physically attractive candidate. The prestigious university on the CV. A quick establishing of rapport.

When a superficial attribute causes a positive first impression, it can influence our perception of the rest of the interview. This first impression bias is sometimes called the ‘halo effect’.

You are only human. You must accept that, like it or not, you are susceptible to cognitive biases. That’s okay, as long as you can be mindful of their influence.

Having a planned set of questions and a set of assessment criteria helps. When you evaluate the candidate against the criteria, make sure you have objective reasons for your decision.

Having more than one person conduct the interview (together or separately) could also help. However, it’s a good idea to have some diversity among the interviewers. This reduces the chances of all the interviewers forming similar first impression biases.

#6 Not having selection criteria or taking notes

If you’ve been reading through this article, you know that I’ve mentioned this before. However, it’s important enough to call out specifically.

You should always have the following:

  1. Candidate evaluation criteria based on the role requirements and person specification
  2. Objective scores or ratings for each candidate you assessed against those criteria
  3. Summarised notes of what was discussed at the interview

The notes (3) don’t need to be verbatim. You need to focus on the candidate, so a summary of key points will suffice. Your notes (3) should support your assessment (2).

There are several reasons why this is a good idea.

Firstly, if the new hire doesn’t work out, you can review your interview records as a ‘post-mortem’. Try to identify what you missed and how you can improve next time.

Secondly, it’s much more professional, not to mention courteous, to provide some feedback to unsuccessful candidates. It also reflects well on your ‘employer brand’.

You can use these interview records to give honest, tactful feedback to the candidate. Maybe even highlighted some positive areas, if there were any. Obviously avoid anything that suggests your decision was influenced by any of the protected characteristics (see ‘inappropriate questions’ above).

Finally, imagine that an unsuccessful candidate challenges your decision – or worse, makes a discrimination claim against you. These interview records help you defend against any such challenge or claim.

Remember, if the candidate has a reasonable discrimination concern, the burden of proof may shift to you to demonstrate your decision was fair and reasonable.

Don’t forget that data protection and privacy rules apply to candidates. You should only retain their application and interview information for as long as necessary. I usually delete (or securely shred, if on paper) candidate data after six months. If I’ve heard nothing from the candidate, the window for any claims should be closed by then.

#7 Failing to let the candidate ask their own questions

Too many interviewers forget to give the candidate a chance to ask questions. Although you’re assessing a candidate for a role, an interview should be two-way street.

Not only is it the right thing to do, the candidate’s questions can be useful. You can sometimes get some insight into their priorities. Do they ask about money, benefits or career opportunities? Do they show any curiosity or interest in your company?

I always remind candidates that they are interviewing the employer too. They should use the opportunity to see if this is the right employer for them.

Earlier, I drew an analogy between a job interview and a first date. You and the candidate are both sizing each other up for mutual compatibility. That’s going to be difficult if the candidate can’t (or won’t) ask any questions of their own.

Sometimes a candidate may be shy or nervous. That’s why I said earlier that putting a candidate at ease is a good idea. It reduces the chances of it being a one-sided interview.

Final thoughts

We’ve only looked at my top pick of the most common interview flaws. I doubt that there is any “perfect formula” for interviews. Also, the nature of the role and the culture of the employer may vary hugely. Plus, some employers are using testing centres, psychometric assessments and practical examinations as part of their selection process. But if you use interviewing, then hopefully this article has given you food for thought when you’re next hiring!