Bias-Free Hiring: Interview questions not to ask

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The purpose of an interview is to assess the candidate's skills and abilities to successfully enter into a new job and perform the essential duties of that job. Bias-free hiring removes any interviewer biases that may interfere with this assessment, including questions that don't assess the candidate against these job duties.

The federal and each provincial human rights legislations protect Canadians from discrimination on a number of human rights protected grounds, such as gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, and age. In hiring, asking questions related to these protected grounds would be a violation of human rights legislation.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission provides guidance with respect to what can and cannot be asked in an interview. Hiring? A Human Rights Guide identifies both permissible and prohibited questions for each of the human rights protected grounds . For the most part, human resources professionals and hiring managers know that they can't ask questions such as:

  • Are you planning to have more children?
  • Where are you from?
  • This is a pretty physical job - do you think you'll be able to handle it because of your age / gender / disability?

But there are a number of other questions, even questions touted by human resource websites as great interview questions, that should not be asked for a number of reasons. We've grouped these questions into six categories discussed below.

Category 1: Questions unrelated to the duties of the job

These questions can appear to be job-related but in actuality don't help to assess whether someone can effectively carry out the duties of the job. For example: conduct research, provide excellent customer service, deliver programs to children and youth, manage a work team, make a presentation, etc.

Some of the questions that we've come across in our consulting work that are asked in interviews but are unrelated to the manager's assessment of the candidate's ability to do the job include:

  • Tell me about your dream job.
  • What is more important to you – the money or the work?
  • Describe a typical work week.
  • What motivates you?
  • Why do you want this job?

When designing interview questions you need to start with the job description and determine what the key skills and qualifications you need to assess through the interview, reference checks, and perhaps a written or practical test. From there, you can develop interview questions that will help you determine if the candidate has the skills and abilities needed to succeed in the job and how these have been demonstrated in the past.

You should be able to objectively score the candidates' responses to these questions. A relevant behavioural-based or situational question gives you much more insight into how someone would perform in a position than any of the above questions.

Category 2: Culturally-biased questions

These are interview questions that may be difficult for the candidate to answer because they are culturally-biased. These questions include such as:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Why should I hire you?
  • Why do you feel you are the best candidate for this position?
  • What accomplishments in your career to date are you most proud of?

Candidates from a number of cultural backgrounds may find it difficult to sell themselves because confidently speaking of their accomplishments can be seen as "bragging" and is frowned upon.

As an alternative, you can ask candidates at the beginning of the interview to review their resume with you. This helps ensure that all interviewers are fully aware of the jobs the candidate has held and are assessing the candidate on the skills and abilities needed to be successful in each position. You can also get at some of this information by asking behavioural or situational-based questions such as, "Tell me about a time when you had to develop a presentation from scratch. Can you walk me through your process of researching and preparing the presentation?"

Category 3: Questions that the seasoned candidates can easily answer

In a bias-free hiring process, the goal is to get beyond our first impressions, stereotypes, and judgements about each candidate in order to assess their skills and abilities against the duties of the job. This means forgoing some of the traditional interview questions that may not be helpful in assessing the candidate's skills and abilities. The seasoned candidate may be adept at answering these questions, but it may be difficult for others, who may a more suitable candidate for the job.

The seasoned candidate knows the standard interview questions and has prepared for them. They have well-rehearsed responses and have taken time to devise their interview strategy. Some people have even taken courses and workshops on job-seeking that include interview preparation and practice.

The result is that they tell you what you want to hear – which is not necessarily an honest or accurate reflection of them as a person or of their skills and abilities. In addition, their performance in the interview does not typically correlate to good job performance.

These individuals do well with questions such as:

  • What is your long-term career objective?
  • Why do you want to work for this organization?
  • How long would you work for us if hired?
  • What is your philosophy towards work?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • When have you been most satisfied in your career?
  • How would you describe yourself?
  • What do you think of your current boss?
  • Tell us why you are interested in this position?
  • Where do you see yourself in 3 to 5 years? What are your goals?
  • How would you describe your personality?
  • What experience has given you the greatest rewards?
  • What are you doing to improve yourself, physically, mentally or spiritually?
  • How would you react if I told you your interview has been terrible so far?

Category 4: Questions on organizational fit

Many organizations are also concerned about ensuring that they hire individuals that are a good fit for the organizational culture. It may be important to ensure that the candidate is committed to, for example, continuous learning, family-centred service delivery, or is able to work well on teams. But you need to make sure your questions aren't excluding people from diverse communities, backgrounds, and identities.

Rather than ensuring a fit organizational values, some of the interview questions we've come across, can be exclusionary. They can suggest to the candidate that the organization may not value employees from diverse communities, backgrounds, and identities, or doesn't value different working styles. The candidate may feel that you are looking for someone who fits in and that the manager and organization will not be flexible and make adjustments for different personalities and working styles - regardless of how effective or skilled you are at your job.

These include questions such as:

  • In what kind of work environment do you do your best work?
  • What type of people do you like to work with?
  • How would you describe your working style?
  • When reporting to a manager, what management style supports you in doing your best work?

Category 5: Things you should be telling them

Questions in this category include information you should either provide to the candidate or work with the successful candidate to determine once they have been hired. These questions include:

  • What kind of salary do you need?
  • What do you feel this position should pay?
  • Please give me your definition of the position.
  • If you were hired, what would your priorities be for the first 6 months?

If it is not disclosed in the job ad, candidates should be informed of the salary when invited to the interview. Asking candidates about their salary expectations could even disadvantage those new to Canada or new to your sector who may not be familiar with appropriate salary ranges.

An alternate approach would be to open the interview by telling candidates what they need to know about the job, such as reviewing the job duties, salary and priorities for the position or work team. With this information, the candidate will be able to provide relevant examples during the interview that connect back to the job and the skills and experience you are looking for.

Category 6: Puzzles, Riddles, and Other Tricks

These are the questions that websites describe as truly showing you how a person thinks because they are unexpected. These puzzles, riddles, and other tricks are routinely asked by IT companies such as Google. The problem is that people think that these questions, which are thought to assess creative out-of-the-box thinking, can be used for any position. But these questions are not relevant for most positions, are impossible to score, and don't clearly tell you how the person will perform on the job.

Some of these questions include:

  • You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?
  • Is there intelligent life in outer space?
  • Why do people climb mountains?
  • If you have to live your life over again, what one thing would you change?
  • If you were an animal, what animal would that be?
  • If you had enough money to retire right now, would you?
  • If you had to eliminate one of the 10 provinces, which one would it be?
  • If you learned you only had six months to live, what would you do with your remaining time?
  • If you were a brick in a wall which brick would you be and why?
  • Are your parents disappointed with your career aspirations?
  • How many light bulbs are in this building?

If you are interested in knowing how someone approaches a problem with a client or approaches a research project, a behavioural-based or situational question would provide you with more accurate and relevant information. Some tips for interview questions:

  • Use the job description to identify the essential skills and abilities needed for the job. Determine which of these skills and abilities are best assessed through a written or practical test, through an interview, and from reference checks. From there, interview questions should be developed and clearly linked to the skills and abilities needed to do the job.
  • Develop the responses which you will look for in the candidates' responses.
  • Attach a score to each question.
  • Use an interview panel when interviewing. Require each interviewer to write down each candidates' responses to each question.
  • Ask each candidate the same questions.
  • After each interview, have the interview panel discuss the candidate's responses and come to an agreed score for each question.

This article is adapted from information included in Turner Consulting Group's Bias-Free Hiring Guide, a 100-page guide to support organizations throughout the hiring process. It can be ordered from

Tana Turner is Principal of Turner Consulting Group Inc., an equity, diversity and inclusion consultancy firm in Toronto.

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