IT Employment

10+ useless interview questions... and what you should ask instead

Interview prep guides are full of recommended 'tough' questions, but a lot of them are a complete waste of time. Here's a list of questions to avoid and some better ways to elicit useful information.

How many times have you heard colleagues say they had to run to an interview for 10 minutes and they'd be right back? How many times have you heard IT pros say they were too busy to sit in on an interview with a prospective candidate?

Although the temptation to shortcut or avoid such duty is great, don't miss one of the best opportunities you have to make your job easier. Decisions regarding the hiring of systems and network administrators and their supporting staff shouldn't be taken lightly. After all, if the candidates you hire aren't sufficiently trained or properly motivated, it'll end up meaning more work for you. When interviewing potential new hires, make the most of it. And don't waste your time or the candidate's. Ask professional, appropriate questions that will help ensure you hire the most qualified individual.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: What's your favorite color?

A crazy pearl from way-back-when, many folks believe asking off-topic questions reveals a candidate's personality and creativity. Don't waste time with such nonsense. If you want to know about someone's personality, ask them about their hobbies and how they spend their leisure time.

#2: If you had my job, what would you do differently?

I've heard this before myself. It's ludicrous to expect candidates to understand the intricacies of your position if they haven't had an opportunity to immerse themselves in your corporate culture, work within your budget constraints, and manage the dynamic relationships of your staff. Instead, ask a candidate which management styles they feel are most effective or ask them to describe the best manager they've worked for and which traits made that individual so effective.

#3: What are your greatest weaknesses?

If you haven't weeded out candidates by this stage of the game, you're not going to do it with such lame attempts at confession as this. "My weakness? I'm impatient and exacting. I want everything done quickly, efficiently, and without error." You deserve what you get if you're relying on such lines of questioning. Instead, inquire as to whether a potential hire has found any self-improvement techniques helpful in furthering their career.

#4: What's the most negative thing you've heard about our company?

Another gem to avoid. If you're with a smaller firm, you're going to come across as self-indulgent and arrogant. Honest candidates will think, "What makes you assume anyone's even heard of your company, much less thought something negative of it?" Instead, ask why a potential hire is interested in working for your firm.

#5: Anything beginning with, "If I speak with your present employer ..."

A candidate knows this isn't going to happen. The liability is much too great. Besides, even if you were sufficiently brazen to place such a call, candidates are well aware that their current employer will only verify employment dates and title. Target their references as the subject of the question instead.

#6: Can you work under pressure?

What are employers thinking when they ask this? What do they expect? A candidate's not going to say, "Well, actually, I prefer to work at my own pace, unaffected by other department's needs, crises, or objectives." If you're worried about whether a potential hire could work effectively within your hectic, sometimes disorganized organization, say so.

#7: What was the last book you read?

Who cares? So the candidate's a Stephen King fan. So what? If they tell you they just read One Minute Manager, they're probably lying and telling you what they think you want to hear. I've flown on a lot of planes, spent significant amounts of time in airports, and I've never seen people reading "business" texts. It's always USA Today, sports and fashion magazines, and novels. Unless you're a publishing house, skip this line of inquiry.

#8: Have you ever been arrested/how's your health?

They're both illegal and in violation of federal law, according to Job Interviews For Dummies. Don't go there.

#9: What was your grade point average?

Have you seen the degrees IT professionals possess? What do you care if your new hire aced anthropology at State? You need somebody who can restore a dead T-1 so your customer service department can get back up and running. Ask questions that will give you an idea of the candidate's actual proficiencies.

#10: Would you like to sit in my chair one day?

I found this loser in The 101 Toughest Interview Questions ... And Answers That Win The Job. Even intellectually challenged candidates understand that you're asking whether they're motivated. Why march the combative route where they have to behead you to climb the ladder? Ask them their aspirations straight up and leave the games for grade-schoolers.

#11: How do you manage to live on an entry-level salary?

This question comes from the Idiot's Guide to the Perfect Interview. It's also one that's none of your business. If you have to ask, maybe you should be paying your employees more. Stick to questions that help you gauge your potential hire's ability to perform the tasks you need completed.

#12: How would you evaluate me as an interviewer?

This is a question for an HR consultant, not your candidate. Besides, you don't want to make yourself the centerpiece. Ask candidates questions about themselves that you want honest answers to; not drivel that makes you look like a poor host.

#13: Can you tell me about a time you did something embarrassing?

Do you think someone's really going to spill the beans with, "Well, there was this time I drank too much at the company Christmas party and ..." Don't think this question doesn't get asked, as I found it in a best-selling interview guide. But how is such information going to help you select the individual best qualified to subnet your multinational corporation's data network? Instead, ask how well a candidate eats humble pie, because that's really what you want to know, right?

About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

35 comments
jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Gods, I hate that. I've been in the industry for quite some time, WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU CARE!!?? I mean honestly, I don't even remember my GPA. If I told you it was a 2.5 or a 3.5, it wouldn't matter. What matters is that I'm able to do the tasks at hand and do them well. While I'm barking, I really hate it when I'm asked the "psych" questions...like what kind of animal would you be if you could be an animal, or what super power would you choose if you could have any super power...blech...

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

In the 90's, when I was asked where I wanted to be in 5 years, I told the interviewer (VP of operations) that I would be in his chair before year end. (I was being hired as a temp sales rep with potential to stay on). He laughed and said that I was eager but he had no plans on moving. 4 months later, the company was taken over, HE was out and I was sitting in his chair, renegotiating his lease car (he had a gross purple Mustang) which I promptly gave back and took the cash instead to drive my own vehicle each day. Even I didn't see it happening quite that fast actually, but just from the interview I knew I'd pass him by eventually, he was a poser.

bkindle
bkindle

#5 actually happened to me last year after an interview. I wasn't asked directly but my previous employer was called. The day after was really awkward and I almost was fired because I was looking for another job.

Jerry L
Jerry L

The "illegal questions" mentioned above are not illegal, nor are many of the others that people believe are illegal. It is illegal to base a hiring decision on the answers to such questions. It is certainly safest for an interviewer to completely avoid questions that are, well... questionable. However, if you are asked any of these, how would you prove you were rejected based on the answers to those questions, and not for some other reason? So what do you do if asked one of these? Easy, just leave. It is never a good idea to work for an idiot. -Jerry

Mattcalled
Mattcalled

Outstanding! I have been through so many "coached" interviews that would NEVER have given the interviewer an accurate assessment of either my principles or skills; both of which are vital to the decision making process. Bravo, Erik.

S,David
S,David

Once, when asked about weaknesses, I tried to deflect the question by saying that I really did not spend much time thinking about my weaknesses. Which is true. I think I am rather terrific, most of the time. The man conducting the interview, who was also the owner of the company, replied, "Now you are just bull****ing me! Answer the question!" So, I told him I did not suffer fools gladly. I was offered the job, but turned it down. There is something creepy about an interviewer offering to share details of their sex life in an interview for an IT job. That whole interview set off so many alarm bells and red lights, I am surprised that I was not deaf and blind by the time I got out the door.

michaelov
michaelov

My all time favorite question is: "How would you program a rock, paper, scissors game without using conditional statements?" They were looking for an OOP solution as it was for a java developer position. I didn't get that job but I enjoyed the interview.

Kam Guerra
Kam Guerra

What's your current salary? Completely useless What's your favorite programming language? Flow-matic What technologies do you find interesting? Frozen pizza and microwave ovens Do you speak any other languages? The ol' lady loves it when I talk dirty in NetRexx. If you could have any job in the world what would it be? Hugh Hefners job.

dsousa
dsousa

Loved this. As a chemist for 14 yrs and now an IT person I have been asked the "stock" questions at interviews by HR people who obviously had no knowledge of the technical requirements of the position I was interviewing for and whether I met them or not. Do you know anyone who would answer the greatest weakness question with a real weakness? These type of questions don't get you the most qualified person, they get you the person best at BS.

raycamara
raycamara

I had a question once that asked me, "Was there any type of person that I had trouble connecting with? I answered yes the dumb blonde that thought her CD tray was a cup holder. I actually got the job a month later. Oh by the way this HR personal was blonde. Of course I said at the end of my answer nothing personal. I always say to the interviewer (as early as possible) that I am not politically correct but honest as hell.

The Ref
The Ref

A candidate once answered a serious question (I can't remember the initial question) with a reference to a co-workers zodiac sign, similar to "but they were a Leo so I ...". Off the cuff I asked what star sign they were and how that had a bearing on their personality. The answer threw me, paraphrasing: " I'm a Virgo, which means I am extroverted, passionate, great at sex, ..." everything after this in the sentence was ignored by my mind thinking "did she really say that? no, I must have misunderstood. wtf?" She didn't get the job for other reasons, but it goes down as one of the strangest interview moments I have been involved in. Andrew. Note: I don't care about star signs or their supposed traits so the actual signs given are fictitious - I cant remember the actual sign. Everything else is true. Edit to clarify the Note and fix a typo.

Justin James
Justin James

One winner I found was, "describe the differences between 'passing by reference' and 'passing by value' and the impact they may have on performance." It's a really "duh" question (I thought!) until 75% of the "mid level developer" candidates I posed it to flubbed. Sure, there are a lot of self-taught people in the industry (it's a Comp Sci 101 item, which a lot of self-taught programmers didn't take), but anyone who can't answer it has no business in anything but an entry-level position. J.Ja

mwagner
mwagner

I wasn't the best student in school, so i hate the grade point average question. I know the IT stuff, so why the hell should I care about calculus.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I like #3 myself -- I responded in a rather cheeky manner "I'm not saying, it'll be your job to figure that out, if you can." Didn't get THAT job. :) Jody, nice article -- you always make me laugh!

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Never even been asked about school or certs either.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

It does vary by state and in the US the company usually has the upper hand BUT.. I MOST cases, they must receive a signed release from the employee. Asking in an interview is just not acceptable, if the employee refuses to answer he/she is automatically deemed guilty by default for refusing to answer. If the new employer contacts the old employer, it is illegal for the old employer to give out detailed information as to why you were fired. If he does give out this information, he can be sued by the employee Therefore, in order to obtain ANY criminal background information, the employer must have a signed release. They CAN refuse to hire anyone who refuses to sign a release for a criminal background check though. Been to court on it, got the t-shirt, it's old and faded now though.

$dunk$
$dunk$

I'll grant you that the "your greatest weakness" question may not be a good question. But if the person interviewing knows what they are looking for then the BS'er will do pretty bad trying to BS their way through the question. The purpose of the question is to #1 - See if the person is arrogant or not. #2 - See if they have some level of self awareness. #3 - See how honest the person is. #4 - See if they have some initiative to actually make some attempts at improving themselves in those areas they are weak. If the interviewee gives some contrived answer where they say their greatest weakness is in some ways actually a strength, then it is an indication that the person is not going to be open and honest on the job. If they give a weakness but they've done nothing to improve themselves in that area then it is an indication of the person's lack of motivation. If they say they don't have any weaknesses, then they are an arrogant son of a b&*(ch and I wouldn't want to work with them. If they don't give a reasonable answer that shows some insight into themselves then it shows a lack of self awareness. These will be the same people that are ticked off because they aren't getting the same raises as other people, even though they are obviously less talented to everyone but themselves.

Olivier-
Olivier-

'Dumb blonde', like 'dumb brunette' or dumb-redhead' are not un-PC at all. Was is not PC is to just say 'blonde' to mean 'dumb blonde'.

rickshaf
rickshaf

I'm really an astronomer/teacher/writer/consultant who has worked in IT a few times over the years. I once applied for a position as a teacher at a charter school here in AZ. The interviewer was the owner of an insurance agency who was the person starting the school. He asked a lot of "stock" questions that seemed to be right out of the "What You Should Ask Your Next Job-Seeker" book. One was, "Who's the most impressive person you've ever met?" "Martin Luther King, Jr., I replied. "I met him on the front steps of a church in Selma, Alabama, on the night before the voting rights march to Montgomery in the Spring of 1966." The interviewer got a really nasty look on his face and said, "Well, we don't hold with Dr. King's kind of rabble-rousing around here." I replied that I was glad he'd asked the question, because he revealed the reason that I couldn't work for him. That ended the interview, to my great relief. I went home and took a long shower....

54strat
54strat

so she was "passionate, great at sex," ??!?

kevaburg
kevaburg

...........was she an attractive woman? Is it really so unusual fo a woman to flaunt her sexuality so obviously? Seems to me you were unprepared for the approaches of this particular candidate....

tuomo
tuomo

The question had probably background because there are cases where "passing by value" has same characteristic as "by reference" or it actually in some cases has better performance. Depends on situation. These questions are (mostly) funny - I just flanked an interview in question how would you implement "atoi" if it didn't exist. Of course my question was "on what platform or one which works on any" and the verdict was "it seems that you don't know C". After 20+ years writing C, defining C++ compiler spec, on 8,16,24,32,36,64 bit big and small endian, LP, ILP systems? On same class, a simple routine but could use recursion, not a good idea always, some systems have very limited stack, so the questions have to be more specific. In this case the right answer was "you always use recursion"? Well - both times the interviewers were supposed be very experienced?

kevaburg
kevaburg

........I need to know a candidate has the ability to not only solve simple problems but also the complex ones. Granted, people dealing with Calculus are normally degree standard, but the ability to resolve problems at a high level to me equates to someone that can help resolve my complex IP or OSPF issues. I think this is a question relevant to the post the candidate has applied for.

techrep
techrep

Depending on how badly the interview is going: once I realized that an interview (if not also the interviewer or their organization) was a lost cause, I answered #3 with "rough sex, hard drugs ... black magic ... (longer pause) but not necessarily in *that* order" which rather curtailed what had become a tiring and embarrassing ordeal.

sonoffar
sonoffar

What an interesting series of 'reasons' for asking an asinine question of a perfect stranger. If you are unable to determine if an interviewee is arrogant by observation you are in the wrong chair. By the way, is arrogance a fault or just not currently politically correct? Some level of self awareness? Is the interviewee living or dead? If actually living you may be assured they have "some level of self awareness". The question is, does it reach your personal or corporate standards? Personal honesty is a tough one but won't be determined by the 'Greatest Weakness' question. Only time and circumstance will provide a true answer to that. There is no way on earth that this question, "What's your greatest weakness", will provide an answer to an initiative question. Or a self improvement question. Or provide you with the silver bullet of hiring. If you need people who fulfill all your expectations, have all the tech background you demand, will be loyal to the point of servitude, and all for penny's on the dollar, you might need to put a bit more effort into your interviewing regimen.

unclear80
unclear80

Why ask and interviewee to confess about their favorite color or their weaknesses? Why not ask how they have handled different work situations, what they were thinking at the time and what the result was? I think you can determine the level of introspection and arrogance by the answers, and you will get a better feel for what it would be like to work with him or her. And that's the real goal, right?

DigitalFrog
DigitalFrog

By including the adjective "dumb", you are inferring that there are blondes who are not dumb, thus requiring that you make the distinction.

Justin James
Justin James

If someone *can't* tell me that a) pass by ref uses a pointer or some other similar mechanism, b) pass by value copies the entire structure and c) pass by ref should always take up less system resources (except in a system that magically works internally without pointers, so the pointer should be something wacky!) and be faster 99% of the time, I am really unlikely to hire them. :) Extra bonus points for the candidate who points out that pass by ref is nearly always deadly in a scenario involving data concurrency/integrity, or that pass by value may trigger unwanted side effects (depending upon how the platform and item implement the concept of copying a variable, particularly deep/shallow copy stuff). :) Etc. J.Ja

RFink
RFink

But it still has its limits. :) I could solve calculus problems 30 years ago. I'm not so sure I could solve them today.

$dunk$
$dunk$

[i]What if I have no weaknesses[/i] If you really believe this then your main weakness is your lack of knowledge. The more knowledge I gain, the more I realize I don't know. Like I said, if you gave that answer, I know all I need to know about you. Next Please... [i]By the way, is arrogance a fault or just not currently politically correct?[/i] Arrogance is definitely a fault if you have to work with the person. Who wants to work with someone who thinks they are Mr. Know-it-all and thinks other people are idiots when they are almost without except just Mr. Loudmouth. [i]Personal honesty is a tough one but won't be determined by the 'Greatest Weakness' [/i] Combine the person's answer with others and it very well may be an indicator. [i]Some level of self awareness? Is the interviewee living or dead? If actually living you may be assured they have "some level of self awareness". [/i] Being that you have no weaknesses has obviously impeded your ability to comprehend. Self awareness in the context that I used it was the ability to assess yourself, particularly compared to others. I have come across dozens of developers who feel they are top-notch when no one else wants them anywhere near their projects. These people lack self-awareness. Since you feel you have no weaknesses, then you are obviously lacking in this area also. [i]There is no way on earth that this question, "What's your greatest weakness", will provide an answer to an initiative question. Or a self improvement question.[/i] I disagree completely. There are many ways that people can improve themselves or at least give the impression. Interviewer: What's your greatest weakness? Interviewee: I have a bad memory. Interviewer: Has this ever caused you to forget to complete work assignments? Interviewee: Occasionally. If you leave it at that then it indicates something is lacking with the interviewee. However, if the person went on to say something like, so I took some organizational classes, read some books, I now keep a notebook with a list of tasks. This ensures that I am always aware of my next assignment. etc.. To me, that indicates that the person cares enough to offset their weakness. It might not tell you anything, but it says something too me. I don't necessarily agree that the "What is your greatest weakness?" question per-se is a good question. However, I think a variation on the theme is. One where it is more geared towards the position. However, the same logic and reasoning that I stated still applies when considering the answer.

dsousa
dsousa

I agree with asking about job situations. I have been asked about times that I have been proactive and I have been asked to describe a time when things didn't go well and how I handled it. Those types of questions will tell more about how a candidate will react in the future to problems. If they admit to a problem but had to learn "xyz" to fix it, then you know you have someone who is going to continue to learn and improve.

kevaburg
kevaburg

..........beause the difference in interview techinque becomes obvious. I for example, am used to working at a high level within a team, but another skill set is required for those looking at field jobs for example. To me, intergration or individuality are qualities that should be clearly defined, especially in the interview.

Justin James
Justin James

... the issues that this question asks about are critical to understand fully. I've seen people work on projects that really did not understand certain fundamental issues like this, and disaster ensued. In this case, you get someone doing something like passing a 100 MB data set around by value, causing 100 MB worth of data to be duplicated many, many times, quickly eating up all of the RAM on the computer. Now, this is just a bit slow on a desktop application, but on a server application (like a Web app), this will kill your server or your app quite quickly! So while it may seem a bit "let's show how much I know" to ask questions like this, they really are crucial for separating the developers who need mentoring from those you can let fly on their own. J.Ja

gwoods
gwoods

You are one of the people that would definitely use some of those ridiculous questions. Bonus points? Power trip more like.