The Most Revealing Interview Questions And How to Ask Them

There are some questions you simply can’t ask a candidate in an interview, even though you’d like to know the answers. Questions such as "Are you pregnant?" or "What’s your religion?" are not only rude, but illegal. Because of potential discrimination issues, contract issues, and privacy issues, there are several types of questions employers may not and should not ask during per-employment interviews.

However, a savvy interviewer can ask questions that reveal a lot more about a candidate than what they’re willing to dish out. These questions will allow you to obtain the most complete information possible, so that you can make the best hiring decisions. Listed below are a list of these taboo (read: prohibited) questions, what you need to know, and what to ask instead.

One helpful tip: try to conduct the interviews in a professional but informal manner. The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed the applicant. Relaxed applicants tend to talk more and you are able to obtain the information you need.

Prohibited Questions What You’re Hoping They’ll Reveal Instead, Ask
What is your maiden name? What other names were used for reference checking. "Have you used other names?"
Are you married? Do you have children? How old are they? What does your spouse do? Are you pregnant? Do you plan to have children? If he/she will be able to work the required hours. "Are you available to work the hours needed? This is a demanding job and we want to know you are reliable."
How old are you? When did you graduate from high school? Birth date? If he/she has the number of years of experience you require. "How many years experience do you have?"
Where were you born? What nationality is your name? Where are you from? If he/she can legally work in the U.S. "If hired, can you show proof of authorization to work in the U.S.?"
What language do you speak? How did you learn? What kind of accent is that? If he/she speaks a foreign language that is required for the job. "This position is in our international office and we are seeking someone who speaks Japanese."
Male, Female, Mr., Ms., or Mrs.? Race? Color?   No acceptable alternatives.
With whom do you live? Who to contact in the event of an emergency. You may need this after hire, not before hire.
Are you in good health? What medical conditions do you have? What’s wrong with your leg? If he/she can perform the job, if he/she is going to be absent or late. "The job requires ___, can you do that?" "The hours are ____, can you work those hours?"
Do you go to church? What holidays do you observe? If he/she can work the days and times you need. "These are the days and hours of work. Can you work them?"
Do you own your own car? Will he/she be reliable and on time? "Can you work these days and hours?" "Can you work overtime if needed?"

Revealing Interview Questions

For Openers, Say... What the Answer May Reveal
"Why don’t you begin by telling me about your work experience over the past 10 or so years, beginning with your current employer. Walk me through each position, how you landed the job, why you left and what you did while you were there. I will probably interrupt you and ask questions as we go along." If the applicant can follow instructions, if the applicant has an organized mind, if the applicant can stay on track in a conversation.
Questions About Knowledge What the Answer May Reveal
"Tell me about your computer experience.""What programs have you used?" "Would you consider yourself to be proficient or are you still in the learning phase?" What is the level of competence.
"What are your technical strengths?" "Technically, how would you like to improve?" Technical strengths and weaknesses
"How do you stay current in your area of expertise?" "What steps have you taken recently to improve your technical abilities?" Whether the applicant has the most current knowledge. Whether the applicant is dedicated to his or her profession.
Questions About Experience What the Answer May Reveal
"What duties did you actually perform at XYZ Company?" Duties actually performed as opposed to just a job title
"Have you ever had to deal with a ____? How did you handle it?" How the applicant thinks. How the applicant deals with particular situations that will occur in your organization.
"It says here you were responsible for ___, what does that mean?" Clarify terms used in the application or resume.
Questions About Personal Characteristics What the Answer May Reveal
"If I had your former boss here, what would he or she say about you?""What would your co-workers say about you?" Working relationship with boss/co-workers. Confidence. Comfort in talking strengths/weaknesses.
"On a scale from one to ten, how detail oriented are you?" "Can you give me an example?" Detail orientation. What detail orientation means.
"What is your management style?" "How would you go about communicating your thoughts and ideas to subordinates and upper level management?" "How do you deal with objections to your ideas?" Interpersonal skills. Level of defensiveness. Level of aggression.
Other Questions What the Answer May Reveal
"Why are you leaving (thinking about leaving) your current employer?" Any problems in the prior job. Ambition. Assertion.
What would you liked to have changed about your former place of employment." Problems on the job. If the applicant has difficulty with conflict. Truthfulness
"Paint a picture for me of the ideal job - what would you be doing each day, what kind of office, etc.?" Work habits, preferences, whether the applicant would fit in.
"What did I forget to ask you?" "Anything else you would like to add?" Additional information not solicited earlier.
"What have you learned about yourself in the past couple of years?" Maturity, honesty, growth, personal insight.

Learn More About What They Say

When You Hear  What to Say
"I was involved in ..." "What does that mean?" "Did you actually prepare the ___ or were you a part of the whole process? Could you explain?"
"I was responsible for..." "Did you actually ____ or did you oversee others who did the work?" "What was your role?"
"I have experience with..." "What does that mean?" "How often did you perform that work?" "Did you do the data entry or did you run the system?"
Vague answers "Tell me more about..." "Help me to understand exactly what you did." "Describe a typical day - what you did - how much time did you spend at each of these activities?"

And just in case...

When an Applicant... You Should
Begins discussing something related to a protected classification (children, religion, national origin, etc.) Steer the conversation back to job-related matters.
Tells you he or she is disabled. Ask what accommodations are needed to help the individual either apply for the job or perform the job, if hired.
Refuses to answer a question. Tell them that you will be better able to evaluate his or her qualifications if you have complete information but that you understand if he or she does not want to answer all of the questions.
Continually gets off track in answering questions. Try to steer him or her back to the original conversation but consider it a clue to future performance.
Based upon an article by:

Van A. Thaxton, MS, is a human resources consultant in San Diego. She has over 16 years experience as a human resources consultant, helping clients prepare employee handbooks, performance appraisal programs, affirmative action plans, salary surveys, and independent contractor agreements. Ms. Thaxton is cofounder of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) Emerging Business Task Force. She is a co-author of Practitioners Publishing Company’s Guide to Personnel Management and has conducted numerous seminars and published many articles regarding successful employment practices.


CFS is not rendering legal advice. If you have questions of a legal nature, you should consult with a lawyer.