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Use the right questions to find the applicant best suited for the position

Job interviews are an essential — and sometimes stressful — part of building an organization. Asking appropriate questions during the interview can help you streamline the process.

Don't ask this

Avoiding discrimination based on a job applicant's race, religion or sex is fairly straightforward. What can be trickier to recognize are seemingly neutral or conversational questions that might actually have a discriminatory effect.

For example, questions about children or family background might come from polite curiosity or simply a desire to make conversation in an awkward situation. Intentionally or unintentionally, however, the responses might influence your hiring decision. Even if your intentions are genuine, the result might be discriminatory.

In the U.S., interview topics prohibited by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) include:

  • Plans to become pregnant or have children
  • Marital status
  • Sexual preference
  • Race, ethnicity or ethnic background
  • Age (unless the intent is to confirm that the applicant is age 18 or older)
  • Disability status
  • Citizenship status
  • Use of drugs or alcohol

In the U.K., interviewers must be aware of the Equality Act 2010 (which brings together existing discrimination laws and regulations into one act). The act defines nine "protected characteristics:"

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

It's against the law to discriminate based on any of these characteristics or to ask questions about any of them (nor about plans to have children). You are, however, allowed to ask about health and disability under strict circumstances — if, for example:

  • There are necessary requirements of the job that can't be met with reasonable adjustments
  • You're determining whether someone needs help to take part in a selection test or interview
  • You're using "positive action" to recruit a person with a disability

Ask this instead

The best way to get the most valuable information from a job interview is to ask questions that get at the applicant's abilities and goals. Ask open-ended, competency-based questions to reveal key qualifications and experience — being careful to raise questions in a way that doesn't pose a potentially discriminatory effect.

To assess experience and approach to work:

  • What are your current roles and responsibilities?
  • In what work situations do you feel you've been most effective?
  • How do you plan or organize your work?
  • Describe an experience in which you acted as a leader.
  • Describe a time when you experienced setbacks or failure at work. How did you handle that? What was the eventual outcome?
  • How would your supervisor describe you?
  • How would people you've supervised describe you?

To assess ability to do the job:

  • Are you eligible to work in this country?
  • Are you able to travel? Work overtime? Change your schedule on short notice?
  • Are you able to meet the physical demands of the job?

To assess fit with your organization's culture:

  • What about your current workplace do you enjoy the most?
  • What habits or behaviors of colleagues do you find the most challenging?
  • What qualities in a supervisor do you appreciate or respect the most?
  • What do you look for when you're putting together a team or committee?

If you're staffing a permanent position, you'll also want to get a sense that an applicant is in it for the long haul. To determine whether the applicant's personal career objectives match your organization's goals and mission:

  • Why are you looking for a new position?
  • What does our mission mean to you?
  • What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself professionally in one year? Three years? Five?
  • Are you willing to move or relocate if necessary?
  • What types of professional development have you found most beneficial?
  • What professional organizations do you belong to?
  • What professional development opportunities will you seek out?

A job interview gives you a relatively short time in which to meet an applicant and make a hiring decision that could have long-term consequences. By asking the right questions, you'll find the applicant best suited for the position.

This article draws on the expertise of YourPeople, a U.K.-based firm that provides outsourced human resources services across all sectors.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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Baltimore-based writer and educator