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The Dos and Don'ts of Conducting a Job Interview

Filed under Hiring Workers. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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When you are conducting an interview, keep in mind your role as the interviewer includes both conveying and obtaining information. Part of this process is knowing what interview questions to ask and perhaps even more importantly, the questions you shouldn't ask in an interview.

Conducting an interview is a major step in the process of hiring an employee. The interview is an employer's chance to obtain information from a job candidate that expands on a job application or a resume. It's also a chance for the applicant to elicit information about the business and the position to help them make a decision as to whether to accept the job offer if one is made. Therefore, it is imperative that you prepare for an interview, particularly if you're new to the hiring process.

While conducting an interview does not have to be a stiff and formal sit-down, there are distinct parts to an interview, and each of them is important. The following outline is a guide to handling each part of interview:

  • Establish rapport. Greet the applicant with a pleasant smile, firm handshake, and a casual statement or two. Outline the interview objectives and structure. For example, say "In the time we have, I would like to..."
  • Gather information. Verify specific information from the resume. Be certain to use open-ended questions (how, what, when, etc.), and always follow up a yes or no answer with an open-ended question.
  • Give information about your business and even "sell" the position. Be sure to do this after you've let the applicants answer your interview questions. If you tell the applicants exactly what you're looking for first, they can adapt their answers to fit what they perceive as your needs.
  • Close the interview. Thank the candidate for his or her attention and interest. Indicate what the next step will be and the time frame within which it will occur.
  • Evaluate your notes and compare candidates. Complete an evaluation form or firm up your notes, noting specific information about the candidate wherever possible. Rate the candidate. This is crucial. You may not trust your memory to recall the detail of the interview at a later point in time.

Avoid trouble and do not make any notes about an applicant that could be discriminatory.

For example, a white male applicant for a secretarial position arrives for the interview dressed in a suit. A black female interviewing for the same position arrives wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. While it is legally defensible not to hire the black female because of her clothing choice, the reason for rejecting that particular applicant should factually describe that "the applicant appeared for the interview in sweatpants and a sweatshirt."

What the documentation should not be is an open-ended statement that the black female was rejected because she "did not have the proper appearance." The statement is not specific enough and could be interpreted to mean that she was rejected due to race or sex, even if that was not the case.

In conducting the interview, the most important things to keep in mind are:

  • your role as the interviewer
  • which questions to ask and how to ask them
  • which questions not to ask

The Interviewer's Role

Your role as the interviewer includes conveying the following information to the applicant:

  • the nature of the job
  • the skills you want
  • pay, although some interviewers do not discuss pay until a job offer is made
  • benefits
  • working conditions
  • information about your business

Be prepared for an applicant to turn the tables during an interview. Applicants are sharper these days, and most applicants will have some questions for you, too. For high-quality applicants, it may be the employer who has to sell his or her business as the place to work. You have to give applicants information that keeps their interest in working for you high. But don't oversell — it can lead to employee dissatisfaction or costly turnover or worse.


In an actual case, a Denver employer was held liable for convincing an applicant to move from New Orleans and take a position even though the employer knew that the project the applicant was being recruited for was in serious financial trouble.

What if an applicant asks tough questions? Be honest. Again, there's no sense in giving applicants a false sense of what to expect.

Think Ahead

If an applicant asks about the possibility of becoming a co-owner in the business somewhere down the line and you don't have any intention of ever taking on a partner, don't lead the applicant on and tell him or her that it's a possibility. The person may accept the position for that reason alone, and when it becomes clear that it isn't going to happen, you'll have one resentful employee on your hands. Not to mention that you might be held liable in a breach of contract lawsuit, if the employee decides to sue!

There are questions you will want to ask your candidates during an interview so you can gather pertinent information. On the other hand, there are some questions that you just shouldn't ask in an interview.

What Should You Ask in an Interview?

In getting information from job candidates, you should ask yourself if the information is really needed to judge an applicant's competence or qualifications for the job. If it's not, don't ask it. Even if there is no specific legal requirement that you must uphold, asking irrelevant questions may offend your applicant or damage your business reputation.

Tools to Use

It is important to know what you are going to discuss with a potential employee to minimize the time spent on the hiring process. The Business Tools contain a sample job applicant interview script that you can use as a starting point.

Follow these guidelines for the types of questions you can ask and how to ask them:

  • Ask performance-based questions.

If you want to ask about an applicant's organizational skills, don't ask: "Are you organized?"

Do ask: "Tell me about a time when your organizational skills made a project successful," or "How did you organize your work in your last job? How did you handle the unexpected?"

  • Once an impression is formed about a specific performance skill, ask a question that seeks contrary evidence to be sure you have not reached an erroneous conclusion. However, don't try to seem like you're trapping the applicant.
  • Listen carefully and evaluate the information you are obtaining. Follow-up questions may be needed to obtain additional information.
  • If you don't understand a response, ask about it.

While you'll probably want to take notes during the interview, do not make notes about how an applicant looks even if it's just to remember who's who. Don't make any notes about gender, race, religion, color, or age. If you do, it could be used against you later if you are subject to and have violated anti-discrimination laws.

What if you're not subject to federal or state anti-discrimination law? Even in that case, this practice is not a good idea. Avoid problems by finding a less risky method of remembering the applicants, such as by remembering those with the best answers to your questions.

Questions Not to Ask in an Interview

Pre-employment interviews have traditionally been instruments for eliminating, at an early stage, unqualified persons from consideration for employment. They have also, unfortunately, often been used in such a way as to restrict or deny employment opportunities for women and members of minority groups.

If you have 15 or more employees, you are likely subject to federal laws prohibiting discrimination in hiring. Many states also have laws that mimic federal discrimination laws and apply them to smaller employers, sometimes even those employers who have one employee. Therefore, you are limited in what types of questions you can ask.

What if you're not subject to anti-discrimination laws? Even if you are not subject to laws prohibiting certain types of inquiries, we recommend that you stay away from them.

Therefore, in seeking information from a job applicant, you should ask yourself:

  • Will the answer to this question, if used in making a selection, have an inequitable effect in screening out minorities or members of one sex?
  • Is this information really needed to judge an applicant's competence or qualifications for the job in question?

Basically, stay away from any question that concerns:

  • race
  • religion
  • age
  • ethnic background
  • gender
  • marital status
  • national origin

In addition, increasing numbers of states and municipalities have statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual lifestyle or preference, or smoking habits. Remember the rule of thumb is that if it has nothing to do with the position you're trying to fill, don't ask.

Some questions that could be considered discriminatory include:

  • Are you married?
  • What is that accent you have?
  • Where is your spouse from?
  • Are you engaged?
  • Do you have children?
  • Where are you from?
  • Were you born here?
  • What is your ethnic heritage?
  • What church do you go to?
  • How old are you?
  • When were you born?
  • When did you graduate from high school?

Some questions you might ask are things you consider small talk and aren't meant to get information for use in discrimination. It doesn't matter. Don't ask them. Be on guard even when you're chatting informally. (We recommend that you stick with conversations about the weather and other neutral topics.)

If an applicant should offer some information voluntarily about one of these areas, we recommend that you ignore it. Don't respond to it and don't follow up on it. Don't even include it in your notes. It could be used to prove you discriminated if there is a notation about the applicant's protected status.

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