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    Candidate interviews are a vital part of the hiring process. Applications and resumés will provide a list of skills and experience, but an interview is a chance to determine a candidate's overall fit with the organization. Interview processes can differ from company to company, but all organizations need to be aware of the potential legal pitfalls in this process. This page will explore common types of interviews, questions to ask, and pitfalls to avoid.

    Types of Interviews

    Telephone prescreen interview

    A telephone prescreen interview can be useful for assessing whether an applicant's qualifications, experience, skills and salary needs are compatible with the position and the organization. Telephone interviews are often used to narrow the field of applicants who will be invited for in-person interviews. During the prescreen stage, the interviewer should ask the applicant enough carefully prepared questions to determine whether he or she is, in fact, a viable candidate for the position.

    Telephone prescreen interviews can help the employer:

    • Assess the applicant's general communication skills.
    • Clarify unclear items on the applicant's resume.
    • Ask about frequent job changes or gaps in employment.
    • Have a candid conversation with the applicant about salary requirements.

    Direct one-on-one interview

    The traditional face-to-face interview with the candidate can be structured or unstructured, and it can be approached in one of several ways, depending on the types of information the interviewer seeks. The three most common approaches to one-on-one employment interviews are behavioral, competency-based and situational.

    Behavioral and competency-based approaches. Behavioral and competency-based interviewing both aim to discover how the interviewee performed in specific situations. The logic is based on the principle that past performance predicts future behavior; how the applicant behaved in the past indicates how he or she will behave in the future.

    In the behavioral approach—a traditional technique for assessing a candidate's suitability for a position—the purpose is to review the candidate's experience, personal attributes and job-related skills. The competency-based approach focuses specifically on skills needed for the position; job-related skills constitute the criteria against which applicants are measured.

    In a behavioral or a competency-based interview, the interviewer's questions are designed to determine if the applicant possesses certain attributes or skills. Instead of asking how the applicant would handle a hypothetical situation, the interviewer asks the applicant how he or she did, in fact, handle a particular situation in the past. Behavioral and competency-based interview questions tend to be pointed, probing and specific.

    Following are some examples of behavioral questions:

    • Describe a situation in which you were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone to see things your way.
    • Describe a time when you were faced with a stressful situation that demonstrated your coping skills.
    • Give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem.
    • Give me an example of a time when you set a goal and were able to achieve it.
    • Tell me about a time when you had to use your presentation skills to influence someone's opinion.
    • Give me a specific example of a time when you had to conform to a policy with which you did not agree.

    If answers seem to be thin on detail, the interviewer can ask follow-up questions:

    • What exactly did you do?
    • What was your specific role in this?
    • What challenges did you come across?
    • Why precisely did you do that?
    • Why exactly did you make that decision?

    Competency-based interviewing can give the interviewer a sense of an applicant's job performance and attitude toward work. Following are some examples of competency-based questions:

    • Tell me about a time when you had to encourage others to contribute ideas or opinions. How did you get everyone to contribute? What was the end result?
    • Tell me about a situation in which your spoken communication skills made a difference in the outcome. How did you feel? What did you learn?
    • Tell me about a situation when you had to persuade others to accept your point of view when they thought you were wrong. How did you prepare? What was your approach? How did they react? What was the outcome?

    Situational approach

    The situational approach is an interview technique that gives the candidate a hypothetical scenario or event and focuses on his or her past experiences, behaviors, knowledge, skills and abilities by asking the candidate to provide specific examples of how the candidate would respond given the situation described. This type of interview reveals how an applicant thinks and how he or she would react in a particular situation. The following are examples of situational interview questions:

    • You have been hired as the HR director in a 300-employee company and are struggling to perform the necessary HR administrative work by yourself. Your manager, the CFO, tells you that you need to be more strategic. How would you handle this situation?
    • You learn that a former co-worker at your last company is applying for an accounting position with your company. You have heard that this person was terminated after admitting to embezzling funds from the company but that no criminal charge was made. You are not in HR. What, if anything, would you do?
    • You are applying for a customer service position in a cable television company. If a technician visits a home to make a repair and afterward you receive a call from the customer telling you that the technician left muddy footprints on her new carpeting, how would you respond?

    Group Interviews

    There are two types of group interviews—a candidate group and a panel group. In a candidate group interview, a candidate is in a room with other job applicants who may be applying for the same position. Each candidate listens to information about the company and the position and may be asked to answer questions or participate in group exercises. Candidate group interviews are less common than panel group interviews.

    In a panel group interview a candidate is interviewed individually by a panel of two or more people. This type of group interview is usually a question-and-answer session, but a candidate may also be asked to participate in an exercise or test. Panel interviews can be either structured or unstructured. When organized properly, a panel interview can create a broader picture of the candidate than a one-on-one interview would produce. Even weaker interviewers can learn by observing. Panel interviews can also help less-experienced employees get involved in the hiring process.

    The panel should include no more than four or five people; a larger panel could be intimidating and unwieldy. One interviewer should serve as the leader, and other participants should serve in support roles. While all the interviewers need to be involved throughout the interview, the difference in the two roles needs to be very clear.​ 

    Crafting the Questions

    While there are legal restraints to be aware of during an interview, the focus should be on learning as much as possible about a candidate that is specifically job related. A well-written job description is the safest place to begin when thinking about interview questions.

    Interview questions can either be open-ended, such as:

    • Tell me about your past work experience.
    • What are you looking to gain from your next position?
    • Why do you want to work for our company?

    Or closed-ended:

    • How many years of experience do you have as a team leader?
    • When did you leave your last job?
    • What was your GPA?

    Open-ended questions give the interviewer a better overall sense of the candidate and help evaluate personality and communication skills. On the other hand, closed-ended questions give the interviewer direct and specific information about the candidate.

    Legal Issues 

    As with any aspect of recruitment, it is important to remain in compliance with the law and avoid any trouble areas relating to interview questions and processes. See the Compliant Recruiting Process page for more on state and federal employment regulations.

    Employers must refrain from inquiring about any topic protected by anti-discrimination laws. Below are questions to avoid, and how to better frame them.

    1. No: Are you a U.S. citizen? Yes: Are you lawfully employable in the United States either by virtue of citizenship or by having authorization from the INS and the Labor Department?

    2. No: How old are you? Yes: Are you over the age of eighteen?

    3. No: Do you have any children? What are your child care arrangements? Questions about family status are not job-related and should not be asked.

    4. No: What clubs or organizations do you belong to? Yes: What professional or trade groups do you belong to that you consider relevant to your ability to perform this job?

    5. No: Have you ever filed a workers' compensation claim? You may not ask this question or any related question during the pre-offer stage.

    6. No: What disabilities do you have? Yes: Are you able to perform the essential functions of the job to which you are applying? (Be sure you tell the applicant what the essential functions are.)

    7. No: When did you graduate from high school? Yes: What schools have you attended?

    8. No: What is your maiden name? Yes: Have you ever been known by another name? (Only ask this question if you need to contact a former employer, because a legal liability may exist if an applicant claims that you were trying to determine her ethnic background and consequently didn't hire her because of it.)

    9. No: Do you smoke? Yes: Our smoking policy is X—can you adhere to it? (Be aware of any state laws that relate to smoking. Some states prohibit an employer from excluding applicants for off-the-job smoking.)

    10. No: Do you have AIDS or are you HIV-positive? There is no acceptable way to inquire about this, or any other medical condition.

    Additional Resources