When interviewing candidates, is it okay to ask…

Posted by | July 8, 2021 | Employers, Recruiting tips

When interviewing candidates, is it okay to ask blog header

By Carolyn Brown

Does the thought of conducting an employment interview fill you with dread? Are you worried that you are going to say the wrong thing and be accused of discrimination? Or are you concerned that you won’t ask the right things and employ someone who isn’t a good fit or capable of doing the job?

Know that you are not alone.

We have heard your call for some clarification on what you can and cannot ask in 2021, and below, you will find a beginner’s guide to questions you should and shouldn’t can’t ask in a job interview – you are welcome.

Legally off the table

First of all, let’s begin with what you can’t ask. The New Zealand Human Rights Act outlines several areas in which it is illegal to discriminate. These include:

  • Age – unless they will be selling alcohol and therefore have to be over the age of 18. Protection against age discrimination also only applies to those over the age of 16.
  • Relationship/Marital status
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Religious and ethical beliefs (excluding for pastors and clergy)Nationality or ethnicity
  • Political stance
  • Marital Status
  • Disability
  • Family status – Including if you are pregnant or planning to be anytime soon.
  • Employment status

All of the above should not impair someone from doing the job unless the role’s requirements require a specific ability to do something, e.g. carry heavy weights. But even then, you cannot just assume that an applicant could not complete the task based on the above criteria.

Now I know it can be difficult not to ask the above when you have excitedly created a picture of an ideal candidate in your head. But remember, ten out of ten instances of unconscious bias are born from perception, not reality. For example, I once had a prospective employer ask, “how would someone of your age cope with marketing to a younger generation”. After I had recovered from the shock of being asked a clearly discriminatory question, my reply was – “the same as anyone good at marketing; my age is irrelevant.” FYI, I didn’t get the job but would have turned it down if I had been offered the role. Don’t forget; you are also being interviewed for the position of a good employer!

Other questions that fall under the discriminatory umbrella through association include:

  • Where are you from? Note – this differs from someone beginning their interview with a pepeha. A pepeha is a Māori custom and is given, not asked for. Asking someone where they are from can be seen as postcode discrimination, e.g. dismissing someone as suitable because they come from “the wrong side of town”.
  • Is English your first language? First language English speakers can fail a comprehension test too.
  • How long have you been working? This can be seen as age discrimination, i.e. have not worked long enough to have any experience (too young) or have worked so long, they must be due to retire (too old).
  • Do you have any health problems? You can ask this question if environmental hazards may aggravate a health condition, e.g. working in a pet shop when you are allergic to fur. But do explain why you need to know and consider the applicant’s view as to whether it will be an issue or not.

Questions that reveal nothing

Behavioural-based questions are a common way of determining if an applicant matches the skills-based competencies you have set for the role. However, some questions are now considered irrelevant or unhelpful in assessing whether someone is suitable for the position. These include:

  • What do you consider to be your biggest weakness? Most candidates will have looked up the ideal answer to this question or lie to ensure you don’t think badly of them. For example, this person probably exists, but I doubt they will ever have replied – “I am a compulsive gambler who can’t work with anyone who doesn’t look like me, and I like to start the day with a beer to ensure it will be a good one.”
  • Where do you see yourself in five years? Whilst it is great to have a career goal, if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that no one can accurately predict what will happen in the future. In reality, the only answer you want to hear is “still being an awesome employee for your organisation”, so why bother asking it.
  • Tell me about yourself? This question is far too open-ended, and because it is not related to any of the role’s core competencies, there is ample opportunity for unconscious bias to rear its ugly head. It is better to ask them how their past experiences relate to the job and if there is anything they may have missed from their CV that they would like to tell you about now.
  • Why should I hire you instead of someone else? The interviewee has no idea who the other candidates are, better to ask them how their experience/skills match those of the role.

Questions that reveal all.

Do ask questions that are related to the job description and key competencies. Recruitment agencies suggest using a SMART line of questioning to reveal whether the candidate has the skill and ability you are looking for.

SMART stands for:

  • Specific task – ask them to describe in detail how they have/would approach a task.
  • Measurable – ask them to explain how they knew that a task had been successful, i.e. what measurements were used to track success.
  • Action – ask them what action/s did they undertake to achieve the desired outcome.
  • Result – what were the outcomes, and how did they compare to expectations. What did they learn from the experience?
  • Timeframe – was the task completed within the expected timeframes? How/why not?

In asking these questions, you will discover how good the candidate is at understanding, monitoring their performance, learning from an experience, and how well they work to deadlines.

To assess how well a candidate fits in with your organisation’s values and culture, recruiters also recommend asking questions that require descriptive answers that reveal the conditions the candidate works best. For example:

  • What management style do you prefer to work with?
  • What is your preferred working style?
  • Do you like to work alone or as part of a team?
  • Tell us about an occasion where you have had to work as part of a team. What role did you play?
  • What is an essential factor that must be present for you to do your best work?

Still not feeling confident?

If the thought of conducting a job interview really does fill you with dread and sweaty palms, however, perhaps the best thing you can do is bring in someone whose day job is to interview candidates. Hiring a recruitment agency may seem like an expense you can’t afford, but so is hiring someone who is not suitable and eventually requires starting the recruitment process all over again.  Remember, the whole purpose of a job interview is to find someone who will be an asset to your organisation. And, sometimes, assets require investment to acquire the best.



About Carolyn Brown

Carolyn enjoys writing stuff that engages readers, makes them feel like they are in a conversation with the screen, and doesn’t require a dictionary on standby to make sense of what she has written.

When she is not creating content, she likes to keep busy volunteering for various not for profits; throwing sticks to her step-dog as they walk along North Beach in Christchurch, and enjoying the company of friends. If you would like to know more, head on over to her website www.writecopynz.co.nz or email her at [email protected]

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