Interview Questions: good, bad, and ugly

The art of writing interview questions is not on their face, complicated, but you would be surprised how often non-profit organizations (and social impact businesses alike) leave themselves open to litigation and to quizzical looks of “did you really just ask me that” to “you do realize you can’t ask something that, right?” when it comes to questions hiring committees are asking of job applicants in the interview setting.

So, let’s start with the ugly; or the please, for all that you care about your organization, do not ever ask these questions.

Questions You May Not Ask in An Interview

Many of these questions have been held to contravene various workplace discrimination provisions, but on their face questions seeking the following information (no matter how you ask them) should be consider to be off limits and should not be asked of any applicant before they are hired. State and federal laws make discrimination based on certain protected categories, such as national origin, citizenship, age, marital status, disabilities, arrest and conviction record, military discharge status, race, gender, or pregnancy status, illegal. Note that caveat, once they are hired, some of these questions may be necessary for completing benefit forms and for personnel records. However, this information is obtained only after employment has commenced and it cannot have any influence over employment decisions.

These no-go interview questions are also

  • Sex
  • Date of Birth
  • Age
  • Maiden Name
  • Previous Married Name
  • Affiliations with a Union
  • Religion
  • Marital Status
  • Name of Spouse
  • Spouse’s Occupation and length of time on the job
  • Spouse’s place of employment
  • Ancestry; You cannot ask about citizenship status, but you can ask “are you eligible to work in the US ?”
  • National Origin/Race; eg: you cannot ask “where did you grow up;”
  • Arrest Record; You can ask “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”but see also the section below on criminal records.
  • Number of Children (including ages), or questions  about whether or when someone is planning on having children.
  • Childcare arrangements;  You can ask “Do you have any commitments that could prevent you from meeting the work schedule we discussed?
  • Child Support payments (or garnishment);
  • Reasons that would prevent an applicant from continuing or maintaining employment; (like, “how long are you planning on living here?”)
  • Do you have a car? How long is your commute?

An applicant may, and often does volunteer this kind of information, but be careful you are not pressuring them to do so. You also should be careful to make sure that you are aware that to base your employment decision on any of the information above can be considered discriminatory. One final caveat: If you, as an employer, can ask these questions in a way that directly and specifically relates to specific occupational qualifications, then the questions may be legitimate. Talk to an attorney about areas where you believe there to a legitimate link between the specific work and the questions above before you ask them in an interview.

The Bad: Interview Questions

These are more questions that have caveats.

Conviction and Criminal Records

Things have changed markedly when it comes to asking about Convictions, however you may not refuse employment because of a conviction unless it is a real job qualification. How do you tell: Green v. Missouri Pacific Railroad (1975) is the case that is most influential; the three “Green factors” to consider are the nature and gravity of the offense; the time that has passed since the offense and/or completion of the sentence; and the nature of the job held or sought (523 F.2d 1290; 381 F. Supp. 992 (E.D. Mo. 1974)).
The type of conviction can be influential too. For example, a driving offense may not be relevant if there is not driving involved in the position. 2012 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance on the use of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions is worth examining.

“Ban the Box”
There are a total of 25 states representing nearly every region of the country that have adopted  policies to Ban the Box asking if an applicant has a criminal record on a job application, instead requiring this to be considered later in the application process after qualifications have been reviewed —California (2013, 2010), Colorado (2012), Connecticut (2010), Delaware (2014), Georgia (2015), Hawaii (1998), Illinois (2014, 2013), Kentucky (2017), Louisiana (2016), Maryland (2013), Massachusetts (2010), Minnesota (2013, 2009), Missouri (2016), Nebraska (2014), New Jersey (2014), New Mexico (2010), New York (2015), Ohio (2015), Oklahoma (2016), Oregon (2015), Rhode Island (2013), Tennessee (2016), Vermont (2015, 2016), Virginia (2015), and Wisconsin (2016). Nine states—Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont—have removed the conviction history question on job applications for private employers, which advocates like National Employment Law Project embrace as the next step in these policies. 

Many ban-the-box policies exempt employers that have 10 employees or less, but some, such as Minnesota’s, do not.

Good Interview Questions

What were your main responsibilities in your last position?

I’d like to discuss you YY experience. Tell me about your experience in the YY area?

In your last position, what tasks or responsibilities did you spend most of your time on?

How do you approach tasks where you are unfamiliar with how to complete them?

We saw that you were responsible for WW in your last position. Did you have exposure to GG (your way of completing that responsibility, could be specialist program or some methodology)?

What makes you interested in this position?

What makes you think you would be a good fit for our organization?

What kind of people do you like to work with? What kind of people do you find more challenging to work with?

What are some of the things in a job that are important to you? why?

In what areas do you feel that this position would offer a growth opportunity?

How do you deal with conflict as part of your professional work?

What experiences have equipped you for being a valued part of our team?

Tell me (more) about…

Perhaps you could clarify….

Would you tell me about…

Would you explain in more detail (or provide examples)…

I’d be interested in hearing more about (or knowing about)…


In summary, make sure you are certain your interview questions relate to the specific position you are interviewing for, and that you ask the same questions to every candidate – this will help show that you are not discriminating against a candidate. Finally, when testing an applicant’s through “surprise questions”, a tearful or stunned response is a good sign your question’s not legal. 

Do you have some favorite interview questions you’re willing to share — put them in the comments!

Check out other Non Profit and Social Impact Business Resources


Speaker. Reader. Thinker. Writer. Traveler. Advocate

Anna Blanch Rabe, founder of Anna Blanch Rabe & Associates, has been working with Social Enterprises, socially-responsible businesses, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations since 2006 to develop and effectively execute strategic, digital, and narrative initiatives to gain exposure, develop community- capacity, attract talent, and reach new customers. Anna is an Australian-born speaker, writer and advocate. Connect with Anna on Instagram, facebook page, & Twitter.
Have you checked out EMPOWER, our monthly e-Newsletter? Sign up here to have this valuable resource delivered directly to your inbox: