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Interviewing – asking the right questions

Sep 13, 2011
Interviewing potential employees can be a tricky business, here is your guide to asking the right questions.

Your guide to asking the right questions in interviews that will tell you what you want to know, without causing offence or risking a tribunal … by Jill Townsend of Ibex HR Ltd.

Interviews often have the power to reduce a normally confident person to a quivering nervous wreck – and that’s just the interviewer!  Interviewing potential employees can be a tricky business.  A few practical guidelines should take away some of that apprehension and prove a useful addition to your employer’s tool kit.

First though, a brief history lesson to put things in context.  The Equality Act 2010 set out to rationalise employment legislation for employers.  Anti-discrimination laws that had been added to year after year had become too unwieldy even for the experts.  Diversity rather than non-discrimination became the buzz word for the workplace.  All nine current ‘protected characteristics’ were brought together to be dealt with under one piece of employment legislation.  These protected characteristics are simply all those characteristics previously covered by numerous anti-discrimination law strands. They are:

  • age;
  • disability;
  • gender reassignment;
  • marriage and civil partnership;
  • pregnancy and maternity;
  • race;
  • religion or belief;
  • sex;
  • sexual orientation.

That’s all very logical and reasonable, but it has effectively produced one giant minefield through which employers are expected to delicately pick their way with all the skill and subtlety of a highly trained bomb disposal expert.  How can you make sure you don’t detonate any of those mines waiting to be trodden upon?  What can you do to avoid putting in a guest appearance at a drawn-out, potentially costly and stressful Employment Tribunal?

Before any interviewing takes place you need to plan.  When you’re considering applicants for job roles you need (a) a concise, clear and current job description and (b) a person specification.  What are the duties and responsibilities encompassed by the role?  What sort of skills, qualities and qualifications does the position require?  And remember, “young”, “male/female”, “single”, “retired” to list but a few have no place in your person specification – nor your job advertisement.  However, “enthusiasm” is not age related, neither is “experience” nor “a positive attitude”.  Be prepared to take off your blinkers and look for such qualities in everyone, not just where you expected to find them in the past.

Think about what you wish to find out from your interviewee to assess his/her ability to fill the vacancy.  Some of the questions might include:

 ‘Are you available to work overtime occasionally?’ Or, ‘You’ll be required to travel and stay away sometimes as part of this job – would that present any problems?’

NOT ‘Do you have childcare arrangements in place for your children?’  [Could be interpreted as sexist and discriminating against females]

 What are your long-term career goals?’

NOT  ‘If you fall pregnant will you want to come back to work?’ [Discriminating against pregnancy and maternity]

What are some of the things you have to offer our company?

NOT  (in the case of a female interviewee)  ‘We’ve always had a man carrying out this role – how do you think you’ll manage?’ [Sexist]

  ‘Tell me about your previous experience managing teams’

NOT  ‘How do you feel about supervising a team of men?’ [Sexist]

  ‘Are you able to lift heavy boxes weighing up to 110 kilograms?’

NOT  ‘Have you got any back problems?’ [Could be seen as disability discrimination]

How many days of work did you miss last year?’

NOT  ‘How many sick days did you take last year?’ [Could be seen as disability discrimination]

Are you able to carry out the specific duties required in this position?’

NOT  ‘Do you suffer from any conditions or illnesses that might affect you in this job?’ [Could be seen as disability discrimination]

Would we need to make any adjustments for you to carry out this job role?’

NOT  ‘Are you disabled?’  [Could be seen as disability discrimination]

Are you able to start work at 8am?’

NOT  ‘Where do you live and what transport have you got?’ [Could be seen as unnecessary

intrusion of privacy and irrelevant to the job role]

 Is there anything coming up that would require you to take time away from work?’

NOT  ‘Are you a member of the TA?’ [Could be seen as discriminatory if you reject an applicant

because of possible long-term absence]

 Tell me about the qualifications you have that would be helpful in this job role’

NOT  ‘How many GCSEs and ‘A’ levels have you got?’  [Could be seen as divisive and ageist]

Now you have some idea of what you can ask and what you can’t, the next thing to do is to prepare a set of questions.  These should be entirely relevant to the job role and should be used at each interview.  After each question has been posed to the applicant, record the answer.  At the end of the interview score the responses and then total them; you now have written proof that you have treated interviewees in a fair, equitable and reasonable manner,  have followed a structured process and no candidate has been treated more favourably than another.

DO use open questions starting with ‘How ...’, ‘When ...’, ‘What ...’, ‘If ...’, ‘Tell me about ...’ rather than closed ones that merely trigger a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ response and elicit very little useful information.  DON’T set a task like a presentation if it’s not a relevant skill for the role being considered.

Finally, try not to lose sight of the whole purpose of the interview procedure.  It’s there to help you identify the best person for the job.  It offers you a fair means of comparing the abilities of your candidates with respect to the position.  And it makes decision-making a whole lot easier.

Remember the basics:



  • Plan;
  • Stay relevant;
  • Be consistent;
  • Listen;
  • Score each candidate,


  • Ask discriminatory questions;
  • Go on ‘gut feeling’;
  • Talk too much;
  • Make assumptions;
  • Fail to make notes.







Jill Townsend 

Jill Townsend has a wealth of HR generalist experience following many years spent working in industry as well as in the public and private sectors.  Jill has first-hand knowledge of the pitfalls facing those managing businesses.  Having helped create a sound structure from which her clients can operate, Jill works with them to anticipate, prepare and meet those challenges they encounter with confidence and assurance.  Jill also designs and delivers workshops and training sessions on a variety of HR topics and management skills.  For more information visit: or e-mail

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