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Updated: March 27th, 2020
While you may have sat across the table as an interviewee many times in your life, this may be the first time as a small business owner that you’re sitting in the seat of the interviewer. Interviewing is a tricky subject and many small business owners do not have time to become a hiring expert. Here are some tips on the do’s and don’ts of interviewing.
It’s important to ask the right questions and avoid the wrong ones (especially if they’re illegal!). Interview questions can fall into several categories:
Personality – Questions used to determine the candidate’s character and values. Personality questions can include: “Tell me about yourself,” “What do you consider your greatest strength,” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Hypothetical – Questions used to determine how the candidate thinks on his/her feet. This can be useful if you tailor the hypothetical questions to real-life scenarios that come up often in your business.
Cognitive – Questions used to evaluate a candidate’s thought process and problem-solving skills. Questions can include brain teasers such as the notorious, “How many golf balls can fit into a school bus?”
Behavioral – Questions used to predict future performance based on past performance. Behavioral questions are often regarded as the most effective type of interview questions due to the requirement that the candidate give specific examples of how they meet each job requirement. Behavioral questions can include, “Give me an example of a time when you went above and beyond what was asked of you,” “Describe a situation where you disagreed with your supervisor and what did you do,” and “Explain to me a time when you fixed a problem and the steps you took to do so.”
There’s no hard and fast rule on how to structure an interview, but a good flow could be the following: Open with one or two personality questions, focus the core of the interview on behavioral questions, give a cognitive question, and then close with a hypothetical question to ensure fit. Your goal is to determine if the candidate can do the job effectively, has a good work ethic, and would fit the culture of your small business.
For example, this is how an interview for a sales associate position with “Sales Company” might look like:
“Tell me about yourself.”
“Why ‘Sales Company’ specifically?”
“Tell me about a time when you exceeded your sales goals? What do you think helped you achieve that?”
“Give me an example of a time when you had a customer that was angry with you. How did you diffuse the situation?”
“Can you tell me about a time you had a disagreement with your coworkers? What steps, if any, did you take to resolve that issue?”
“Explain to your grandmother how our product works.”
“Pretend I am a new customer and sell me our product.”
“Do you have any questions for me?”
Now that we’ve gone through some of the Do’s of small business interviewing, let’s move on to the Don’ts. Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, religion, age, and disabilities. As such, asking questions on these protected classes can be evidence of discrimination and land you in some legal trouble.
Here are some questions you cannot ask (and suggestions for what you can ask if appropriate):
You cannot make comments regarding a candidate’s sex/gender/gender identification (i.e., “As a woman, do you have issues supervising men?”).
You cannot ask a candidate about their race, color, ethnic background, or any other ethnic-specific attributes (i.e., “What is your ethnic background?”).
You cannot ask a candidate what his/her national origin is (i.e., “Where were you born?”).
(You can ask if he/she is authorized to work in the U.S.)
You cannot ask what a candidate’s native language is (i.e., “Was Chinese your first language?”).
(You can ask what languages a candidate speaks, reads, and write, and the level of proficiency.)
You cannot ask a candidate regarding their relationship status or family plans (i.e., “Are you married?” “Are you pregnant?” “Do you plan to have kids soon?”)
You cannot ask about a candidate’s religious practices (i.e., “Do you go to Church?”).
You cannot ask about a candidate’s political affiliations (i.e., “Do you support Obama?”).
You cannot ask a candidate regarding their age (i.e., “How old are you?”).
(You can ask if a candidate is over 18 years of age.)
You cannot ask a candidate about his/her disabilities (i.e., “Do you have any disabilities?”).
(You can ask if they are able to perform the specific duties of the position.)
You cannot ask a candidate if he/she smokes or drinks (i.e., “How often do you drink?”).
Samantha Novick is a senior editor at Funding Circle, specializing in small business financing. She has a bachelor's degree from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. Prior to Funding Circle, Samantha was a community manager at Marcus by Goldman Sachs. Her work has been featured in a number of top small business resource sites and publications.