You can’t ask that (can you?)

2 November 2018

Inappropriate questions abound in job interviews. So when does a question cross the line? And at what stage does a question verge on being illegal? We take a look at some examples and provide some common sense advice for interviewers and interviewees.

The age question

When Jack applied for a job and got an interview, he was confident his skills, extensive experience and personable manner would get him over the line.

An experienced people manager with tertiary qualifications in a sought-after field, Jack had taken a redundancy from his previous employer. The interview for a new job started well before this question threw Jack:

Where do you see yourself in five years?’ the interviewer asked. ‘Any retirement plans?

At 53, Jack was not a young man anymore, but he had no plans to retire any time soon. He enjoyed the challenge of work and the company of colleagues and was technically on top of his game. His health was excellent and he planned to work for a long time yet.

And yet, then and there, he felt the job slipping from his grasp.

While the interviewer didn’t explicitly ask Jack his age, they are veering into dangerous territory. Asking a candidate their age in an interview and ruling them out on these grounds can amount to age discrimination. There are better ways to ask about someone’s goals and ambitions and five years is a timeframe that just doesn’t make sense these days with employees increasingly switching roles and careers.

While this question isn’t ideal, you like Jack might find yourself in the same predicament. So how do you respond? How about:

That's a tough one to answer with any certainty. But I’m looking for an opportunity to demonstrate my skills, build my career and develop professionally. I’m a loyal employee and I’m hoping that the company I work for will in turn be loyal to me and support me to excel in the role.

Age discrimination undoubtedly persists. Almost 30 per cent of 1,655 human resource personnel who responded to a question about age discrimination in a 2015 survey said it existed.

They said there was probably an age which their workplace would be reluctant to recruit workers. That age is 50 (see Australian Human Resources Institute 2015, Figures 21 and 22). But Australians are expected to live 10 years longer than they were 50 years ago and improvements in health mean older Australians are looking to extend their workforce participation. Smart employers will embrace this untapped workforce and reap the benefits.

The money question

When university graduate Kate, 24, was asked in a pre-job online questionnaire what she thought her salary should be for the job she was interested in, she was stumped. ‘I really didn’t feel equipped to answer this,’ she said.

‘I was looking for a job that suited my interests, my academic learning and my skill set. The job description looked good. But I’ve had one short-term job since uni last year so I’m no expert on remuneration. I thought the company should know what the position involved and what they were prepared to pay. Their question seemed unfair, especially for those new to the workforce. So, while I was really keen on the job, I was left wondering if I really wanted to work for this sort of company.’

There are risks if you do suggest an amount. You’ve just put a limit on what the company is going to pay you—even if they were prepared to pay more.

For the record, Kate initially left the question blank on the online form. Except it wouldn’t let her proceed. So she put ‘zero’ in the questionnaire, hoping this would at least lead to some discussion for which she would be prepared.

If you are offered an interview, we suggest flipping the question back on the employer and asking them what salary the business has in mind. Remember, an employer’s first offer will often be at the lower end of the salary scale. Treat these discussions as a negotiation and don’t be afraid to ask for a higher salary – just make sure you can justify your claim for a higher salary.

The weakness question

The interview question "what is your greatest weakness?" is asked all too often. But it tells us more about the inadequacy of the interviewers than any flaws in the interviewee. It invariably sparks a defensive response from the candidate. The answers tend towards the inane. "Too focused on making sure everything is right." "I tend to work too hard." “I really need to have a coffee before 10am.”

So what is the interviewer really looking for? They want to know that a potential employee can discuss areas or projects in which they could have performed better. Recognising that failing, to whatever extent, can be viewed as a learning experience.

A better question might be, "What would you like to get better at?" or "What would you do differently if you had the chance to do that particular job again?"

More dud questions

If your company or organisation is asking these questions, you should perhaps reconsider your approach:

  • Can you tell us about yourself?
  • Can you tell me about your family circumstances?
  • Why are you here today?
  • Why should I hire you?
  • What are your strengths/weaknesses?
  • What would your last boss say about you?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • What can you bring to this role/the organisation?
  • How strong are your computer skills?
  • How do you feel about working in a team?

These questions will only get you answers that are rehearsed and a waste of time. You’ll get the wrong person for the job and end up recruiting again sooner than later. Or you may even offend someone and miss hiring the right person.

Better questions focus on the candidate’s specific experience and skills and the attributes they can bring to the organisation. Questions like::

  1. Initiative: Can you give us an example where you showed initiative in your last position—perhaps doing more than you were asked to achieve a result?
  2. Resilience: Could you share with us a task or assignment where you had to overcome significant barriers?
  3. Leadership: Tell us about an example where you were either part of the team or led the team. What did you do specifically to help the team achieve their goals or results?
  4. Success Factors: A key success factor for this role is xxx. Can you describe how you’ve managed to achieve something similar in a previous role?
  5. Adaptability: How would achieving this success factor in the job for which you are applying differ from attempting to achieve it in your previous role

Discriminatory and illegal

Some questions are just plain illegal and could amount to discrimination. Employers are required by law to avoid discrimination when recruiting staff in Australia.

Questions about age, race, gender, religion, marital status and sexual orientation should raise a red flag. So tread carefully.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, employers should not seek unnecessary and potentially discriminatory information from applicants when they develop selection criteria or prepare interview questions. It could be discrimination if employers do so and then rely on this information in deciding not to offer a candidate a job (see the Step-by-step guide to preventing discrimination in recruitment fact sheet).

The bottom line is that too many businesses and organisations are wasting their time and that of their prospective employees through poor interviewing skills. The objective is to get the best person for the job using the most efficient, effective—and legal—recruitment process.