A few years ago, Ross Macpherson spoke before a crowd of university students. While offering tips for nailing interviews, the job search and interview guru asked for examples of tough questions that his listeners had experienced.
One kid stood up and gave him a whopper.
Halfway through a recent co-op placement interview at a small construction firm, the student said his interviewer suddenly flipped a family photo on his desk to face him.
"Do you think my wife is hot?" the man demanded, pointing to the picture.
"Now, I don't care who you are, you can't answer yes or no to that without looking bad," says Mr. Macpherson, president of Whitby, Ont.-based Career Quest. "So this poor kid said he just sat there sweating buckets and smiling. What else are you going to do?"
Of course, most interviewers are rarely this crass. However, because few smaller employers have the resources or time to train hiring managers or hire professional human resource teams, interviewing often takes second place to running the business.
The result? Bad questions that either reveal nothing relevant about the potential hire, are downright ridiculous, or are plain illegal.
Here are some common and not-so-common interview questions to avoid, and ones to embrace the next time an interviewee walks through the door.
"If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?"
There are any number of variations of this tired old theme. Trees, colours, hats, you name it. While some hiring managers insist the questions reveal how well the candidate thinks on his or her feet, most HR pros give these questions a big thumbs down, particularly for more senior positions.
"You're talking about finance or accounting and suddenly you're asking what tree they would be and why? How relevant is that to the job?" asks Dianne Hunnam-Jones, district president of Accountemps in Toronto.
"Where do you see yourself in five years?"
This question may have had some merit when employees stuck around for 25-year-anniversary company watches and retirement parties, but has little relevance today, Mr. Macpherson says.
"Today, I haven't a clue where I'll be in five years and I don't think anybody else does either. People aren't only changing jobs in five years, but changing careers too."
"What are your weaknesses?"
This is the ultimate stock question guaranteed to receive a stock answer. For years, job seekers have been trained to respond to this overused query in a way that makes them appear golden, says Bill Weber, vice-president of human resources at Drake International in Toronto.
"A lot of companies ask, 'What are your weaknesses?" Inevitably people say something like, 'I work too hard.' As an interviewer you're sitting there thinking, 'What a load of crap.'"
Instead, he says interviewers would do better to ask, "If you were to live your life over again, what would you change?" It's a similar question, but focuses more on what the interviewee has learned from mistakes, rather than the mistakes themselves.
"What are your plans for a family?"
For legal reasons, interviewers must never ask about age, race, affiliations or health, among other issues, but it's amazing how often they do, Ms. Hunnam-Jones says. Asking about plans to have children can be even more disastrous.
"You don't know. Maybe I've been struggling to have children for 10 years and now you're asking me what my plans are for a family. This question is touchy. It's too personal for an interview," she says.
"What was the last book you read?"
Mr. Weber used to ask this question because he thought it would give him a good sense of who the person sitting across him truly was. No longer.
"After hearing so many people tell me they've been reading the Bible or children's books to their kids, you ask yourself why you're asking the question," he says.
"Why did you leave your last job? Why do you want to leave the one you have now?"
On the surface, these questions seem unlikely to generate an honest response, but when interviewers drill down a few levels, the answers say a lot about the candidate, says Ms. Hunnam-Jones. Rather than nodding when an interviewee says, "My values did not align with the company's," ask "Why not? What were those values? Give some examples."
Finally, ask, "What was the straw that broke the camel's back?" Uncovering what really drove an employee to leave will tell the manager what it would take to keep him or her happy at a new job.
"What were you hoping I would ask you? What were you hoping I wouldn't ask you?"
These questions are among Mr. Weber's favourites simply because the answers are often so revealing or unexpected. "You'd be surprised by how truthful people are once you've gotten them relaxed and talking," he says.
"Why should I pick you?"
When you think about it, the whole job interview can be boiled down to this one question, Mr. Macpherson says. In most cases, a company is interviewing top candidates with similar backgrounds and skills.
So what makes one person different from the next one? This question gets to the heart of the matter - without resorting to tree, hat, colour or animal comparisons.
Today, he coaches clients how to answer the question, although he admits few are ever asked it.
"You should still know what distinguishes you from everyone else," he says.