HR professionals need to stop asking these questions

When HR professionals sit to discuss ideas on streamlining our hiring process, one of the conversations that inevitably crops up is on new questions that can help us get a better look at the inner workings of our candidates.

But HR professionals in our clime rarely discuss the questions not to ask at interviews.

Primal decency demands some questions are out of line during interviews. “What’s your tribe?” for instance. The answer to this question has no bearing on whether or not an individual can deliver on tasks and work in teams. For the purpose of this article, I won’t be going over the clearly offensive and discriminatory questions such as the example above, but only debunking some that are more popular in interview halls.

You may wonder, “why should I bother about the question I ask? Whether it’s biased or otherwise? I’m the one giving out the job, am I not?” It’s very well to think that, but the last thing you want as a recruiter is having top talent walk away from your company because they felt uncomfortable, discriminated against or even worse, because they surmised the company has the wrong priorities as illustrated by the sort of question the HR asked.

Even when your intentions are harmless, mark these questions off your interview list if you are serious about funneling in top talent into your company.

1:  What did you hate most about your last job?

Your intention might be to learn what they value in a job or perhaps learn things that might inform your future interactions with them. The unwitting consequence is that for candidates who lack good sense, they will rattle on about the many negatives in their old company. For those are more prudent, they may simply refuse to say anything they hate about that company. In the final analyses, chances are, you won’t be learning anything useful from asking this questions.

A better alternative question might be: “What do you most enjoy about working on projects or in teams?”

2: Do you have kids or plan to have kids?

This question and others in its general vicinity like; “are you married?” are not just personal but discriminatory. The reasons why HR professionals ask them are not hard to tease out. Most of us have had experiences with employees with kids who arrive work late, take a lot of off days, close early, not deliver on time etc.  Fundamentally, though, not all employees with kids make these demands. This question doesn’t put the candidate at ease, and might lead them to think you would overlook them because you believe they will be distracted by family. In that case, they might simply leave your interview hall and straight to the corner office at an employer who knew not to ask that question.

A better alternative question might be: “You may be required to work overtime sometimes, will this be a challenge?”

3: What is your greatest weakness?

This one has been around forever. The question had validity for its first few seasons in the interview hall. People answered genuinely and unbarred the contents of their workplace weakness. But candidates have gotten smarter, thanks to Google. Most candidates now simply pick a strength they are averagely good at and claim to be working on it. In the long run, you at the other side of the table will not learn anything from asking this question.

A better alternative question might be: “What leadership skill have you tried to improve over the past few years?”

4: Do you drink or smoke?

I have had recruiters argue over this. For one recruiter, her reason for asking this question was because it’s a culture element where they needed people who could fit in and have good fun. In their line of business, networking was key and there is a lot of Friday night hanging out involved. However, asking such straitjacket question at this ignores the possibility that while the candidate might not smoke, she might be comfortable around such an event and might even help clients explore other ways to have fun.

Even when the organization has a no-smoking policy, company culture documents are made to let employees know what’s permissible and what’s not. To ask a discriminatory question such as this at the interviews is to possibly deny your company of top talent.

A better alternative question could be simply: “how do you have fun?”

For most HR professionals reading this, alarm bells going off would be “how then do we know they are a culture fit. If we recruited someone only to fire them few months in because they couldn’t fit culturally, what then?”  It’s understandable that we don’t want to go through the recruitment process endlessly for the same role, but coming right out and asking these questions is not good sense. One of the more wholesome ways to learn some of the things we can’t learn from interviews is through background checks. The background lookup on top executive talent is one of our fortes at The African Talent Company. In our experience working for brands across Africa, these background lookups are better poised to provide a more objective outlook on the person of the candidate. Sometimes, they even throw up pleasant surprises.


The power to pinpoint talents, explore leadership options, increase employee engagement and increase your organization’s earnings reside in HR Data analytics. Know your human resource and know how to make the best of them. The African Talent Company can help. Call or drop us an email.

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