by William J. Lynott

… and stay out of trouble while you’re doing it

On the surface, it appears to be a routine office chore. You have a position to fill, so you must interview the applicants and select the most promising person. In truth, interviewing job candidates today is far from routine.

One of the toughest issues to resolve with new hires is measuring the applicant’s relevant skills. How can you tell if a prospective receptionist, clinical assistant, or office manager has the level of experience and technical skills you demand?

You’ve probably developed your own methods for measuring hard skills in new applicants. Still, it’s important to remember that there are other qualifications that may be at least as important.

“There has never been a time when pre-employment interviewing skills have been more important,” says Therese A. Hoehne, director of human resources at Aurora University, Aurora, Ill. She cautions, “You must keep in mind that there are many complex laws that govern the interviewing and hiring process. Today’s legal constraints have made a tough job more complex and more risky than ever.”

Fortunately, there are simple techniques that can help you negotiate that difficult path. Orthodontic Products asked several experts to give us their best advice. Here’s what they told us.

Talk Less, Listen More

“Most interviewers talk too much,” says Emory Mulling, chairman of The Mulling Companies, Atlanta, and author of The Mulling Factor: Get Back Your Life by Taking Control of Your Career. “The interviewer’s role is to get information from the candidate. Too often, interviewers spend too much time talking about the job and themselves and not enough time asking relevant questions of the candidate.”

Human resources professionals agree that talking too much during an interview is a common mistake. Remember, your job during a pre-employment interview is to obtain as much meaningful information from the potential employee as possible. You can’t listen when you’re talking.

Examine ResumÉs and Applications Carefully

While complete honesty on a job application may not be the norm today, most experts advise employers to question the obvious. Time gaps between jobs often signal the need for a closer look at an applicant’s employment history.

“Look for ‘short-timer-itis’—the person who seems to switch jobs every 12 months,” Hoehne says. “If the applicant is new to the job market and has already had two or three jobs, this may or may not be a warning sign. However, if the applicant has 10 years’ experience and 10 jobs, you will want to discuss the reasons. This could indicate a ‘job-hopper’ at best and a serious problem employee at worst.”

Take a careful look at recommendations from former employers. There are many reasons for an employer to provide favorable recommendations for a former employee; not all of them are as sincere as they might appear.

Keep the Interview on Track

Like any conversation, a pre-employment interview can stray far away from its proper path if it is not carefully controlled.

“If I had a friend conducting an interview, I would advise him to ask only those job-related questions that he needs to ask to make a lawful hiring decision,” says Labor Attorney John C. Romeo, Philadelphia. “I would advise him to pay close attention to the direction the conversation takes during the interview. An interview can easily turn into a conversation about family, religion, or national origin,” he says. “If the interviewer sees the conversation going in this direction, he should make a concerted effort to stop and switch gears—get the conversation onto a proper and legal topic.”

Prepare a Written List of Questions

You will probably have to deal with applicants of both sexes in your practice. If you do, you must not ask different questions of males and females. To do so is to risk violation of discrimination laws. “I usually create a list of questions to ask all candidates before the interview process starts,” Hoehne says. “I then put those questions on a sheet of paper with space between them to take notes.”

James Walsh, author of Rightful Termination: Defensive Strategies for Hiring and Firing in the Lawsuit-Happy 90s, also advises starting with what hiring experts call structured questions. “Ask them of every candidate, and base your comparisons on their answers.” He suggests using a simple worksheet to do this, checking off each applicant’s strengths against the job skills required for the position.

Bob Dickson, former director of labor relations & personnel at Merck & Co, West Point, Pa, also believes in using a carefully structured set of questions prepared in advance of the interview. “I recommend that you summarize what you have learned immediately after the interview. One way to do this is to list relevant answers and information next to each question on your list.”

Listen Carefully to the Answers

“Even after asking the right questions, some interviewers make the wrong choice because they didn’t listen carefully to the answers,” Mulling says. “Don’t kid yourself into thinking you can overcome potential conflicts and make someone fit in just because you like the way they look or because their technical skills or past experience is a perfect match for the job.”

Be Aware of Compatibility

“Ask questions about the candidate’s preferred management style to determine if he or she will fit with your own,” Mulling says. “For example, a candidate who likes to work independently won’t fit with a boss who’s a picky micromanager.

“Keep in mind that you’re looking for a person who will fit in comfortably with the existing culture in your practice.”

Don’t Get Tripped Up by Illegal Questions

In the early 1990s, courts outlawed the use of questions whose answers could be used to discriminate against applicants in the hiring process. Now, an interviewer who asks them may face a discrimination lawsuit. “The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 make hiring a potential nightmare,” Walsh says.

It’s in an interviewer’s best interest to know what questions may lead to litigation. Interviewers must not ask any questions concerning so-called protected classes, including race, sex, age, national origin, religion, or disabilities. In general, the law also prohibits questions about workers’ compensation or health history. See the sidebar for examples of specific questions that you should not ask an applicant.

In Rightful Termination, author Walsh cautions that this list of pitfalls is likely to grow over the years as the courts seek to gauge the meaning of vaguely worded discrimination laws.

“I suggest that interviewers think of it this way,” Romeo says. “Don’t ask a question if you cannot lawfully base a hiring decision on the answer. You cannot discriminate based on information you do not have. So, if you don’t need to know, don’t ask.”

As They Say in a Courtroom, “Don’t Lead the Witness”

Mulling cautions interviewers not to give away too many details of what they are looking for in a candidate. “If you do that,” he says, “the candidate will mold his or her answers to what the interviewer wants to hear. That can result in the candidate being hired, qualified or not.”

Don’t Focus Exclusively on Hard Skills

“Some interviewers take a resumÉ point by point and discuss only the candidate’s hard skills,” Mulling says. “Technical skills and experience are not always the best indicators of success on the job. The candidate must also be a good fit for the boss and the work environment. Two candidates can be equally qualified in technical skills, but vastly different in terms of personality and work-style preferences.

Questions You Should Never Ask an Applicant

  1. Avoid questions about pregnancy. Except in very limited circumstances (such as health reasons), employers cannot make hiring decisions based on an applicant’s pregnancy. If an interviewer was to ask a female applicant whether she was—or planned to be—pregnant, the employer is setting itself up for a discrimination claim.
  2. Interviewers must not ask any questions concerning so-called protected classes, including race, sex, age, national origin, religion, or disabilities. In general, the law also prohibits questions about workers’ compensation or health history.
  3. Watch out for questions that seem harmless but lead to information that could be used to discriminate against the applicant. For example, asking an applicant what year she graduated from high school can give rise to an age discrimination claim, since the applicant could allege that the employer used the information to figure out the applicant’s age. A better question is, simply, “Did you graduate from high school?”
  4. Avoid these specific questions:
    • Are you planning to have a family?
    • “Do you have children?
    • “Have you ever been injured on the job?
    • “What year were you born?
    • “Do you have a disability?


“Many technical skills can be taught to the right applicant,” Mulling says, “but you can’t teach a person how to be friendly or adaptable.”

Avoid Any Statement That Implies a Promise of Permanent Employment

“The employer’s vulnerability in a wrongful discharge suit begins in the early stages of the relationship,” Walsh says. “The courts sometimes find a contractual relationship in seemingly harmless statements about job security or advancement opportunities. Even an oral promise of a wage review after a specified length of time should be avoided; the courts may find a contract of employment for that length of time in any such promise.”

Measure Only Relevant Skills

A 1971 Supreme Court decision, Griggs v Duke Power, provided a major precedent regarding pre-employment testing. In that case, an applicant for a janitorial job was required to take an intelligence test and show a high school diploma.

When the company did not hire him, the applicant sued and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that a high school diploma was irrelevant to the janitorial position in question. The court also ruled that pre-employment testing must measure only skills directly related to performance on the job being sought.

While pre-employment tests are still widely used, most have been carefully designed to comply with that 1971 Supreme Court decision.

You should never take pre-employment interviewing lightly. “Interviewing is perhaps the most critical part of the employment process,” Dickson says. “It’s a responsibility that you will want to prepare for carefully. The information you obtain from the candidates will become the most important factor in your final decision.”

William J. Lynott is a veteran freelance writer who specializes in business management as well as personal and business finance. His work appears regularly in leading trade publications and newspapers as well as consumer magazines including Reader’s Digest and Family Circle. For more information, contact