Career Advice Jun 21 2012

The Stupid Stuff Recruiters Ask Job Candidates

By Kelly Eggers

If you've been in the job market in the last few years, and more people have, you've probably had your share of frustrations. From not getting the job, to having to take a pay cut, to dealing with the anxiety of searching for a new position while overall unemployment is at its highest in decades, job search is a stressful endeavor.

Then there's the stuff interviewers ask.

After publishing a story called "Ten Dumb Things Said During Job Interviews," FINS decided to turn the tables and asked job candidates about the stupidest things hiring managers asked. Complaints of double standards came flying in. Interviewees can't forget a period in their resume or arrive five minutes behind schedule, respondents argued, but interviewers can blow off meetings and simply stop responding to applicants post-interview.

It goes -- almost -- without saying that there are some questions a hiring manager should never ask. Questions about race, gender, national origin, color or religion, and in some cases age, can give a candidate cause for a lawsuit if they're not hired.

"Asking the question itself doesn't mean they violated the law per se," says Raymond Peeler, senior attorney adviser with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "but if the applicant doesn't get the job and files a complaint, that question could be used as evidence to show that they were biased in deciding not to hire them."

The interview process is one that's typically emotional for job seekers, and one bad remark in an otherwise positive meeting can sour the entire process. "People will say, 'I will never forget that interview,' about things that happened two decades ago," says Kate Zabriskie, owner of Maryland-based Business Training Works, which helps train companies in soft skills. "It leaves a lasting impression."

We turned up these examples of bad interview questions, comments and behavior committed by interviewers themselves.

"Sorry, I can't meet with you today. I need to clean out my garage."

"Several years ago I was moving to Chicago and interviewing there with various media outlets," says Sean Smith, president of Third Street, a Chicago-based branding firm. "A decision maker from one of the three media outlets asked if I would be available to meet that Saturday morning to talk further, and I happily agreed." When Saturday came around, Smith received a phone call on his way out the door from the interviewer. "She called and told me that she wouldn't be able to meet because she needed to clean out her garage."

The issue of timing with interviewers seems to be a recurring problem. Several candidates reported other scheduling challenges, like interviewers claiming that meetings were actually scheduled for a different time, or making candidates wait upward of 45 minutes to collect them for the interview. Regardless, Zabriskie says it communicates a serious lack of professionalism.

"Don't overschedule yourself and make people wait 50 minutes," says Zabriskie. "It's not a doctor's office." People may be taking time out of work, have a long distance to travel home, or paying for a baby sitter or day care to make the meeting. If you must make them wait, Zabriskie suggests sending the receptionist out. "He or she may say 'Roger is running late today, and we wanted to give you an opportunity to reschedule if this not convenient for you. Otherwise, we wanted to let you know that it'll be another 30 minutes.'"

"How would you make a sandwich?"

This question and others like it fall into the category of "behavioral questions," says Darrell Gurney, author of "Never Apply for a Job Again." "The advent of behavioral interview questions over the last couple of decades has helped hiring managers get more into the personality and psychology of candidates," he says. Some of the questions, however, "have verged on the ridiculous," such as the sandwich query.

Behavioral interview questions that help explain someone's thought process can be a good predictor of the future, says Gurney, but they only work when interviewers can pull something tangible and useful out of the response. That isn't likely when you're asking them whether they put mayonnaise on before the turkey, what part of a s'more they're most like or which character they'd be on "Friends." "Unless you are a serious psychologist and know about what it means if they put mayo on or whatever first, it's ridiculous," Gurney says.

These questions serve a purpose, however, when problem-solving is an integral part of the job, Zabriskie says. Common questions like "How many ping-pong balls would fit in an airplane?" or "How many pianos were sold in Brazil last year?" can help illustrate a candidate's train of thought.

"She kept asking me about her ex."

"I once had a family friend interview me for a job," says Dan Rosenthal, web services and technology manager for the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. Rosenthal met with the woman, only to be asked probing questions about his father's friend, whom the interviewer had been romantically involved with a few years earlier. "She then accused me of being standoffish," he explains, "but didn't take into account how uncomfortable it was to be brought into an interview only to be asked for information on a person she'd been previously romantic with. It was awful."

Inappropriate personal questions can raise legal issues. "Once, I was asked when I expected to start a family so the interviewer would know if I was worth his time in training me," recalls Lisa Chenofsky Singer, a New Jersey-based career coach. "After that, I took off my wedding ring before going on an interview."

Another respondent reported that her interviewer stared at her chest the entire time, while another was asked not only if she was married, but if she was "happily" married.

"The most embarrassing and inappropriate question was when I was interviewing for a web design gig," says Ysmay Gray, now the chief executive of MetroSeeker, a site providing relocation advice. "We meet up at a cafe, and she starts telling me the kind of design and features she is looking for," she explains. "Completely out of the blue she says, 'When was the last time you had an orgasm?'" Gray stammered a bit before the woman explained that she was writing a book on sex and wanted to collect her commentary. "In our half-dozen emails before the meeting, she never mentioned that."

Bringing up anything too personal -- finances, political affiliation, religion, sexual orientation, race or age -- can be seen as offensive and could lead to legal liabilities in court down the line. "Even if they tolerate it now, there's no guarantee they'll tolerate it forever," says Lauren Miller, vice president of Leadership Gold 4 Women, a Texas-based organization that provides career coaching services to women. "You cannot afford to open yourself up to a lawsuit by skirting the rules of acceptable office behavior."

"She ate with her mouth open."

"Just out of college, a woman interviewed for a job on the help desk of a well-known company in New York City," says Jeffrey J. Fox, author of "How to Land Your Dream Job." The female interviewer spent the meeting eating her lunch. "She ate with her mouth open, talked with food in her mouth, licked her fingers," Fox says. The candidate was extended an offer and accepted it, only to regret it. "The candidate... immediately discovered the company culture was toxic: rude, ill-mannered, inconsiderate and losing customers," Fox says. "Lesson learned."

Experts say the issue extends beyond talking with your mouth full. Such behavior on the part of a hiring manager suggests your prospective boss can't manage his or her time. "You send a message that the candidate's time isn't as important as your time, and that you might expect them to keep such a frantic schedule as an employee," says Miller.

Showing up dressed unprofessionally is another no-no. "I once had someone interview me for an office-setting job in bare feet," says Amy O'Hara, an account executive with Allison+Partners, a San Francisco-based public relations firm. "She explained that she had been in the labs earlier in the day, wearing sneakers, and didn't think sneakers were appropriate to interview someone in. But apparently bare feet were?"

"What would your mother say about you?"

"A couple of years ago I had an interviewer ask me, 'If your mother was here with us, what would she say about you?'," recalls Kelsey Meyer, the vice president of Digital Talent Agents, a Missouri-based branding firm. "I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful mother who I am very close to, but my gut reaction was to think, how on earth could this interviewer ask a question about my mom? The interviewer didn't know if I had a good relationship with my mother, if my mother was still alive, or if I even knew my mother!"

Meyer isn't the only job seeker who said she was asked about her mom. "I was asked if my mom was proud of me," says Elle Kaplan, chief executive and founder of Lexion Capital Management, a New York-based private banking firm. "When I said yes, the interviewer said, 'Most moms are proud of their daughters because they have given them grandchildren. You have not done that, so is she proud and hopeful, or accepting of your career choices?' "

In either scenario, interviewers crossed a personal-professional boundary without a lot of forethought or context. "I thought this question was very ignorant because she asked it with the thought that everyone has a traditional relationship with their mom," Meyer says. Whether it is a parent, sibling, friend, husband, boyfriend or another personal connection, it is callous and slightly rude to assume that these people would have the best insight -- or any insight at all -- into the candidate's professional work ethic.

"Where do you see yourself in five years?" and "What's your greatest weakness?"

These two interview staples are among the most common complaints from job candidates. Experts say that's understandable -- there doesn't seem to be a consensus on how to answer these questions without winding up with a foot in your mouth.

"No one in their right mind is going to tell the truth and say they are unmotivated, don't want to work and like to sleep in," says job search strategist Kyra Mancine. "They might as well rephrase it and say, 'Tell me a strength that you are going to turn around to look like a fault.' 'I'm too organized,' 'I'm too prompt.' Give me a break!"

The trouble is that it is hard for candidates to determine something safe and original to say in response to either question. "Asking outdated questions from a time when jobs were more linear and corporate culture less individual, just doesn't work," says Colleen Sheehy Orme, a business journalist who has been responsible for hiring throughout her career.

Still, interviewers who are attached to these questions should consider modifying them. "Some of the worst questions are ones having nothing to do with the job," says Josh Tolan, chief executive of SparkHire, an online resource for job seekers. "For instance, asking a candidate what the hardest time they've had in their lives was and how they handled it." He suggests modifying the question by limiting it to situations that will directly reflect on them as an employee. "If you ask about a difficult professional decision you'll get an insightful answer about the candidate's work history."

Absolutely nothing

In a 2009 survey of more than 10,000 job seekers, New York City-based executive recruiting firm FPC found that 42% of respondents find the lack of response to their application is the most frustrating part of looking for work. While hiring managers argue that they receive too many applications to respond to each resume individually, a common complaint is that, even after the candidate has come in for an interview -- sometimes driving hours or taking time from work to do so -- they never hear back on the company's decision.

Promising to keep candidates in the loop, and actually following through on that promise, should be a common courtesy, and is part of being a "host," Zabriskie says. "Even if they were a horrible interview, you should still send them the letter." Formalities hiring managers expect applicants to follow, like sending thank-you notes and communicating their interest or disinterest in a position should be reciprocated, experts say, if for no other reason than the candidate took the time to help you fill a vacancy.

Write to Kelly Eggers at

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