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?

By Erik Eckel

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...