What’s the worst interview question you’ve ever been asked?

A couple of years ago I was briefly swayed by an enticing internal recruitment job with a local business that seemed to offer true emancipation when it came to their employees. It was an employee-owned business that championed respect and integrity for colleagues as key to success, recruiting on “values and beliefs” above skills and ability.

I’d never considered a job on “the other side” but the offer was so captivating I knew I had to take a look. The recruiter who greeted me was very nice and professional and took me to a large open-plan office where I was to be interviewed by her and their Head of HR, amongst what would appear the bulk of employees looking on. (note to self – no one likes a massive audience of future colleagues at interview)

The Head of HR barely acknowledged me as I sat down and launched into her first question: “Your last two roles concern me….” This was delivered as a statement as opposed to a question but set the negative tone for the whole interview. Her next question was: “You’ve done recruitment but is that all you’ve done? We don’t want a one trick pony. What else can you do?” When I started to reply, she cut in: “No, what else can you do?” She took every opportunity in the 45 minutes that followed to pick apart my terminology, suggest I was entitled (“there’s no Prada or Armani here”) and imply I was only interested in what they could give me.

We all have those life moments where we think in hindsight of a brilliant comeback to stop the bully in their tracks or visualise ourselves telling the other person exactly what we think of them. I'm the queen of comebacks an hour after the event! But as I was raised to be polite even when faced with gross rudeness, I left the interview, shaken and fighting back tears.

So why was that interview so bad? Well, aside from the sourness of the greeting and the inappropriateness of the setting, the questions were not designed to bring out the best in anyone. Anything that carries a statement of disapproval or is too vague and open-ended or narrow, will not draw out your interviewee’s strengths.

Here are my 5 top worst interview questions and the reasons why:

  1. What’s your biggest weakness?

    WHY? This question will either get a generic, damage limitation answer or a dishonest one. But also it's just plain negative. Why ask about someone’s weaknesses when you can ask about their strengths?
  2. Tell me about yourself.

    WHY? This is too vague – what’s being asked here? A better question would be “Tell me what motivated you in your last role?” or “What are the core skills you bring to this role?”
  3. Where do you want to be in 5 years’ time?

    WHY? Ok – so this could just be me but personally I’ve not had a carefully mapped-out, five-year plan, ever. Do I lack motivation and ambition? Absolutely not. As a recruiter I’ve seen companies dismiss candidates based on this answer alone – interviewees are considered “too ambitious” because they gave a textbook answer of wanting to be a Financial Director, or they’re “not ambitious enough”.
  4. Who do you admire?

    WHY? If you disagree with their answer would you hire them? This is a loaded question as far as I am concerned as it bears no relevance on the candidate’s ability to do the job.
  5. Sell me this pen/clock/tie/inanimate object. Sing your favourite song. WHY? Just Why?

    So what’s been your worst interview experience and why?  Do you have any interview questions that rate on worst ever? We want to hear them!

By Gemma Stirrup, Director, Ben Johnson Recruitment