Coburg Banks | Multi-sector UK recruitment agency

5 Pointless Interview Questions, We Should All Stop Asking Candidates

By Mark Wilkinson | Aug 22, 2016 | Assessing Applicants

woman looking upwards with a question mark on her headI know; interviewing candidates can be boring, frustrating and laborious.

And with roughly just 60 minutes to make an informed decision – it’s pretty damn stressful too.

So you need every single question to count; to reveal something of value, to keep the conversation going and to impress your candidates in the process.

Unfortunately, the five extremely common but utterly pointless interview questions in this week’s blog certainly don’t do that! Let’s take a look…

1. What’s your biggest weakness?

Really? Are people still asking this awful cliché?

The age-old and entirely predictable interview question is so over-used that almost every single job candidate will be prepared for it.

And unfortunately, 9 times out of 10, you’re not going to get an honest answer. You’re much more likely to get a canned response that can be turned into a positive like…

  • “I’m a perfectionist.”
  • “I work too many hours.”
  • “I’m a little bit too passionate when it comes to my work.”

And can you even blame them? What do you expect them to say?

  • “I’m a bit lazy on a Monday morning.”
  • “I really don’t know how to work Excel.”
  • “I struggle to get on with other people.”

If you genuinely want to find out about a person’s weaknesses, you should take a different approach.

  • You could ask their referee.
  • You could coax it out of them using technical questions or even an aptitude test.
  • Take a hard look at their CV and attempt to spot any possible shortcomings.

There’s simply no point asking the question if you’re not going to learn anything new about your candidate.

Recruiter Pro Tip

As a bit of a cheeky little alternative, you could phrase the question like this…

“When I ask your referee, what will they say your biggest weakness is?”

The fear of getting caught out will yield a much more honest answer – and of course, you don’t actually have to ask the referee anything of the sort!

But in general I’d just steer away from it – it often makes candidates feel uncomfortable and they’re certainly not going to be impressed by such a cliché!

To find out what else your candidates might be lying about… click here.

2. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Again, because this cliché is so well-known, most candidates will be prepared for it – and most will fib…

Because let’s be honest, most people don’t know where they’re going to be or how they’re going to feel in one month’s time, let alone in five years!

Many candidates are just going to say what they think you want to hear.

The stock answer is: “I’d like to be working for your company, in a stable, senior position that I have reached through steady progression” (or something along those lines).

It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to get a remotely interesting (but damning) answer like “travelling around the world,” “working for Google,” “living in Australia.”

Always think to yourself: am I going to learn anything new, interesting and genuine by asking this question?

3. How do you handle conflict?

There are a few variations of this old gem, but each question is essentially two-fold: ‘are they likely to start conflicts in the workplace (and if so, why)? And when someone else gets confrontational, how can they cope with that?’

You can probably expect a generic answer along the lines of ‘I had two colleagues who were arguing about X, Y and Z, so I stepped in and calmly spoke to them both until the issues were resolved.’

This removes all blame from the candidate and shows how great they are sorting out other people’s issues… But is this really the answer you were looking for? And is it even true?

The problem is this; you don’t really want to hire someone who gets involved in conflict but by asking the above question, you’re pressurising people into admitting that they have, at some point, been involved in a conflict.

So your candidate is in a lose-lose (lose) situation; say they’ve never had any conflict and risk irritating you, make up a cheesy story (like the one above) or admit to being involved in a conflict – which is bound to put you off.

This is all likely to make your candidate feel uncomfortable and worried about answering negatively – so why bother?

Instead, use your initiative…

  • Have they hopped around many different workplaces, spending little time at each?
  • Have they ever been let go? Why?
  • Do they come across as friendly or abrasive?
  • Do you think they’d fit in with the rest of the team?

Your own observations will reveal more than a forced, pressurising interview question.

4. Why do you want to work for this company?

“I just need a job,” “I hate my boss,” “I want more money,” “my commute is a pain in the arse…” are just some of the many (perfectly acceptable) reasons why people might want a new job.

A lot of the time it’s not because they really, really (really) want to work for you, specifically.

So by asking this loaded question, you’re asking your candidates to fib, exaggerate and generally just stroke your ego a little bit; it’s just pointless – and a bit awkward!

Recruiter Pro Tip

Ok, so occasionally you may get a candidate that just really, really (really) wants to work for your particular company – but you’ll probably be able to tell if that’s the case.

They’ll know loads about you, they’ll be enthusiastic and emphatic and probably won’t be applying for other jobs; generally, that passion will shine through.

You don’t need to ask the pointless question!

5. Who would you prefer to be; superman or batman?

You probably recognise this or a different version of the weird, left-field question…

  • If you could be a breakfast cereal, which would you be and why?
  • If you could be a cartoon character, who would you be and why?

In my experience, there are three kinds of interviewers who ask these questions and each of them is looking for someone a little bit different…

  • Someone who offers a fun, light-hearted answer that shows off their friendly nature.
  • Someone who gives a more serious answer, revealing a complex business analogy.
  • Someone brave enough to question the very relevance of the question. 

So essentially, your interviewee has to make a snap decision on what you want from them, knowing that you could be looking for a variety of very different things…

Wouldn’t you be just a little bit put off? Is it really worth it?

If you are dead-set on asking one of these left-fielders (for whatever reason), I have 3 tips…

  • Be light-hearted about it. Can you imagine how weird it must be for candidates when a straight-faced, serious interviewer asks them “what kinds of biscuit would you be and why?”
  • Don’t judge them too harshly. Like I said, it’s a difficult question and they’re bound to be a little bit taken aback. Don’t reject them on the basis of one, silly question.
  • Be fair on nervous interviewees. These types of questions are dead nerve-wracking and if your candidate is already nervous, it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Click here to find out 25 more, crazy interview questions (and why they’re a waste of time)!

So there we have it…

5 absolutely pointless interview questions that we really should stop asking candidates.

If you’d like some more advice, check out these blog posts…

Or, if you’d like general guidance on recruitment, HR, interviews and employee engagement, click here to subscribe to this (weekly) blog today.

Good luck interviewing.

- Mark Wilkinson
Mark Wilkinson

Mark Wilkinson

Mark is one of the founders of Coburg Banks and heads up the permanent recruitment division of the business.  Every day he helps companies with their recruitment projects, sourcing the very best individuals for their vacancies.  He understands recruitment inside-out.

> More blog posts by Mark Wilkinson

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