Interview Questions That Are Risky to Ask

Avoid spending time in a minimum-security prison!  Just kidding, but you know that questions like,  “Are you pregnant” are illegal.

Having personally conducted over 6,500 hiring interviews of candidates for executive positions, and having written 5 books on interviewing (the latest:  Topgrading: 3rd edition), I frequently am asked what interview questions NOT to ask.  That happens to be a good question to ask…! The “wrong” questions could get you a law suit, drive away A Player candidates, or simply NOT reveal anything important.

Here’s my advice:
Do not ask questions that are illegal (at national, state, and local levels). You already know not to ask questions that reveal age, religion, race, etc. The Topgrading Interview has been vetted by a leading employment law firm, Seyfarth Shaw.  In Topgrading books, they continue to say they cannot find any law suits connected to Topgrading or specifically, the Topgrading Interview.   Topgrading Interview questions are all relevant to the job.

Ask questions about hobbies, interests, etc. outside of formal interviews.  Sure, have meals, team get together, play golf, or whatever to test candidate social skills. But be careful with “get to know you” questions that might trigger responses that reveal forbidden areas (volunteering at the church, protest marches, etc.)
Use structured interviews, in which all candidates are asked the same basic questions (EEOC insists on this). Follow up questions are fine, but stick to the topic.  There are four interview guides used in Topgrading (phone screen, competency, in-depth chronological – the Topgrading Interview, and reference check: all are structured).
Don’t expect competency (behavioral) interviews to reveal much. They are super easy for interviewees to make things up: “Pat, please describe a time you were well organized.” We’re okay with including competency interviews as long as they are followed by the much more revealing Topgrading Interview. A Ph.D. dissertation vetting Topgrading case studies found that 2/3 of Topgrading companies abandoned competency interviews because they did not add value.
Skip the trick questions.  Zappos is (in)famous for asking candidates, “How weird are you on a scale of 1 to 10?”  People have told me the “right” answer is between 5 and 7 because the company wants employees who are kind of weird but not too weird. People can learn through contacting people in a company what is asked and expected for responses.  So candidates can trick the employer when the employer uses trick questions. Topgrading questions are not secret – candidates are asked about every job:  successes, failures, key decisions, key relationships, and what bosses would list as the interviewee’s strengths and weaker points. While you’re trying to trick candidates, candidates will trick you right back!
Ask very few hypothetical questions.  “How would you handle it if your manager asked you to do something illegal?”  The candidate can make up anything.  More revealing is if the standard questions produce a real-life example. For example, if you suspect that the candidate is too willing to please bosses and worked in a company that did illegal stuff, a follow-up question could be, “At Acme, were you ever asked to do something illegal, and if so, please explain.”
When in doubt, change the subject.  In an interview suppose the candidate volunteer’s information that reveals a “forbidden” area: “I joined a different church at that time and …” You might interrupt and say, “No need to discuss religion – let’s get back to the job – what did you like most about that job?”
Use interview approaches associated with proven improvement in hiring success.  By “proven,” case studies should be of named companies and include quotes from the CEO and/or head of Human Resources.  “Anonymous” case studies are, of course suspect.
Use two interviewers. General Electric improved from 25% to 50% high performers hired using the Topgrading Interview. CEO Jack Welch asked me how they could improve on that number and I responded, “Jack, in all of the interviewing workshops at GE we use 2 interviewers, and I’m sure a tandem Topgrading Interview approach will produce better results.” That was a short discussion; Jack implemented it, GE shot up to 90% high performers hired, and GE became the most valuable company in the world (in market cap).

Conclusion: Interviewing need not be difficult or risky. Follow the above advice and you will conduct the most revealing interviews of your career…and stay out of trouble!

CEOs Want Human Resources to be Tougher Minded

I’ve had the honor of working with famous CEOs that expected and got A Player heads of Human Resources.   Some HR heads rose to CEO (John Hoffmeister, Shell) and others were retained when a new CEO was named (Bill Conaty, under Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt).  But, too often HR has the suffered the Rodney Dangerfield issue –“I don’t get no respect.”

Please don’t shoot the messenger (me!).  I asked three dozen CEOs what they think of their top HR professionals.  I heard a lot of versions of, “They’re good people and competent in HR narrowly defined,  but they aren’t tough enough on talent and not focused enough on  the most important strategic decisions.”

One CEO pointed to a current issue of a prominent HR magazine that has articles on union organizing, e-verify, helping women get to the top, competency models, how to get ahead (emphasis on accepting change, not being afraid to be critical, communicating better), getting certified in payroll, personalizing training, having Millennials teach tech to older managers, running an efficient HR department (how: automate), and using technology for sourcing candidates.  The CEO said, “These are all worthy topics but said, “HR, you don’t get it!  Performing in these areas is just the routine of HR, and it’s hard to connect these things to profits.”

The main advice to HR from my unscientific sample of CEOs is:

  • Get an MBA, not a Masters in Human Resources.  Think like a business person, not an HR specialist.  Study with future CEOs, not just future heads of HR.
  • Hold peers accountable for maintaining an A Player standard.  Be tough minded.  In talent reviews don’t wait for the CEO to say, “Good ‘ol Charlie has missed budget 3 years in a row and must go.” Do that yourself.
  • Measure quality of hire, and do it honestly.   I met with the heads of HR of just the largest 100 companies in the world, and they said they mis-hire people 75% of the time. The head of HR for a large pharma said in a professional meeting, “We achieve 97.5% good hires.” The moderator asked how “success” is defined and the answer was,”We send an email to the hiring manager 30 days after someone is hired, asking, “Does the person you hired a month ago have skills to do the job?” Huh?  That’s like asking if the new hire has a pulse.
  • I’ve been in meetings in which CEOs rolled their eyes when HR bragged about reducing time to fill jobs and cost to hire, and said,  “Great – we mis-hire 75% of the time but we’re quick and inexpensive doing it.”  

    Use hiring methods with documented success of 75% high performers hired.  Measuring quality of hire HONESTLY is one mark of an A Player head of HR.

  • Be realistic.  Look at yourself honestly.  A CEO sent me an article in a recent CFO Magazine,  it showed that HR inflates their influence in M&A:

Finance and HR have different opinions regarding the extent to which HR actively participates in M&A transactions.  In the eyes of finance managers, HR overestimates their level of participation in choosing target companies, due diligence, and integration.  I get HR magazines and cannot recall any article suggesting how HR can be effective in these aspects of M&A.  But for many companies, M&A is discussed all the time by the rest of the C suite.

This is just one example of a contribution HR could make if HR had the education and experience to offer valued insight on strategic initiatives that “move the needle” for the company.

 CONCLUSION:  The vast majority of HR heads I’ve known have been perceived by CEOs to be soft – paying attention culture, emotional intelligence, etc. – which is fine — but NOT really understanding the business operations and finances, and not contributing as much as other functions to the strategic issues that determine the success of a company. Hence, CEO advice is to get a business education, learn operations and finance, and develop a reputation for REQUIRING the hiring of high performers and in performance reviews NOT letting managers get away with excusing chronic low performance.


How Much Mis-Hires Hurt Profits


There are some relatively simple ways to estimate how much your mis-hires hurt your profits.  I had two such discussions with CEOs last week, and they went like this:

Brad:  How many sales reps did you hire last year?  (“1,000”)

Brad:  What percent have turned out to be mis-hires, falling short of the minimum quota (“75%”)

Brad:  What do you estimate, conservatively, is the cost of mis-hiring a sales rep?  (“$100,000”)

Brad:  What do you estimate is the average number of hours wasted by the sales manager and others, preventing and fixing problems caused by the mis-hires? (“100 hours”)

Brad:  Ok, so there are 750 mis-hires annually X $100k cost of mis-hire = $75 million cost.  And 750 mis-hires annually X 100 wasted hours = 75,000 wasted hours. 

Topgrading has dozens of case studies that highlight companies who exhibited this very issue prior to adopting our hiring methods. From General Electric to tiny, is from 26% to 85% high performers hired.  So, continuing my CEO talks last week …

Brad:  Suppose your improvement is “only” from your 25% to 50% hiring success.  Using your estimates your company would save, annually:  250 X $100k = $25 million and 250 X 100 hours = 25,000 hours. 

Conclusion:  Intuitively you know that your high performers “carry” the company, and mediocre or low performers suck the creative, positive energy out of the company.  “Back of the envelope” estimates of the costs of mis-hires are not scientific, but can be illuminating.


Whether you are a Topgrader or not, these proven methods can save you a lot a time but maintain the standard of hiring all high performers, for ALL jobs.   We keep learning from clients the time-saving methods that they have discovered, so this is a series of blogs and might go on and on indefinitely!

Before explaining time saving methods, please take a couple of minutes to learn the basics of Topgrading.  Why? I want you to hire better, NOT just save time by mis-hiring people!  If you aren’t familiar with Topgrading I want to get your attention: Topgrading for sure is the best, most effective, most proven method to hire.  Learn by reading the couple of paragraphs below (one minute), go to and download the free eGuide, which will take 15 minutes to read.  Or be very impressed with the documented dozens of case studies at   The first page is a Master Chart with all the results by company and that will take you one minute to skim through; or click on any company and read the details.

The average improvement hiring HIGH performers across all the companies is from 26% to 85% — that’s HIGH performers — and all the CEOs say Topgrading made the company more profitable.  No other hiring approach we are aware of has even one case study with a fraction of those results, and not one has a CEO saying it improved profits of the company.   Sorry for the sales pitch but if you haven’t heard of Topgrading, I wanted to let you know these tips will help you hire better AND save time.

Key Topgrading Steps:

  1. Job Scorecard. Topgraders convert a vague job description (which is confusing and leads to mis-hires) into a Job Scorecard with clear, measurable accountabilities (and that assures better hires).
  2. Recruitment. Everyone knows this, and Topgraders use job boards, but they say their best hires come from referrals a Player made – they recommend A Players they’ve worked with.
  3. Candidate Screening. In Topgrading candidates complete your application form infused with Topgrading IP including a “truth serum” that really works.  The candidate presses Send and you get the Topgrading Snapshot, the best candidate screening tool ever created.  Even before talking with candidate’s Topgraders know a) low performers have dropped out, b) liars with fictitious resumes have dropped out, c) full salary history, and d) how all bosses would rate their performance.  Amazing but true!
  4. Phone Screen. After screening candidates with the Topgrading Snapshot, talk to candidates for the first time in a phone screen interview, to determine if it’s worth the time to bring the candidate in for a day of interviews.  Phone interviews cover what the candidate is looking for and delves into the most recent two jobs.
  5. Visit to the company. Topgraders typically use competency Interviews and the Tandem (2 interviewers) Topgrading Interview during that day.
  6. Candidate-arranged reference calls. There is no phone tag because finalist candidates do arrange the calls, and these calls with managers and others YOU want to talk with provide solid verification of everything the candidate said.

 Here are the most important hiring truths:  More than half the people hired every day turn out to be disappointments because of rampant dishonesty (C Players lie and get away with it), shallow interviews, and weak verification (reference checks are almost worthless and everyone knows it so C players can get away with fudging the truth).  Topgrading assures total honesty, the most revealing Topgrading Interview, and solid verification (in reference checks millions of A Players have arranged with former managers).

 But, the biggest criticism of Topgrading is the time it takes.  It’s very time consuming to bring a candidate in for a full day to conduct maybe four 1-hour competency interviews plus a long, chronological Topgrading Interview; is a long Topgrading Interview of a manager worth the time?”  Yes; of course, it is because that Topgrading Interview enables you to hire 75%, 80%, or even 90% high performers.  Non-Topgraders mis-hire at least half the people they hire, and each managerial mis-hires cost them $500k+ plus 200 wasted hours. 

Although Topgrading SAVES TIME, because mis-hires are avoided, clients have discovered many ways to save even more time.


Huh?  Won’t two interviewers ask more questions than one?  Yes, but that’s the point –  with different perspectives the interviewers will ask good questions the other didn’t think of. Solo interviewers tend to ask a question, hear responses, and then there is a long pause as the interviewer takes notes, so the second interviewer will move the interview along by asking questions.

Here is the BIG time saver with the tandem approach: it avoids more mis-hires!  I’ll explain.  When consulting with General Electric, CEO Jack Welch embraced the Topgrading Interview (solo), and GE went from 25% A Players hired to 50%.  Not bad, right? Topgrading professionals were achieving almost perfect results:  just about everyone we recommended for hire turned out to be A Players.   Jack asked, “Brad, how can our managers do better?”  I said, “In all the Topgrading workshops we use two interviewers and the tag team is better and quicker than solo interviews.”  Done!  He rolled out the tandem method, GE improved from 50% to over 90% hiring success and GE became the most valuable company in the world, and the most respected.  Jack says Topgrading contributed to that success.