Getting to know your candidates: What you should and shouldn’t ask in an interview

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Yesterday, we covered a few common hiring mistakes landscaping companies tend to make, as well as how you can conduct an effective interview.

Today, let’s take a look at questions you should avoid asking candidates during the interview and application process, as well as how interviewees can prepare.

What not to askTlc Part Two

There are plenty of questions you’ll want to ask when your potential hire attends his/her interview, but there are also certain questions you should avoid asking.

According to Erin Barr, human resources director at Munie Greencare Professionals, there have been some changes in laws pertaining to what you can and cannot ask job applicants either during the actual interview or in the application process.

These laws could vary depending on which state you’re in, so Barr recommends conducting thorough research to ensure you know your state laws and are up to date on them.

A few of the most obvious questions to avoid center on religion, sexual orientation and whether or not the applicant has a family or children.

One recent trend Barr says many companies aren’t aware of is that it is no longer appropriate to ask interviewees whether or not they have transportation to and from work, as this could be considered discriminatory.

“Typically, people offer up a lot of information about themselves when they’re talking about their values,” says Barr. “They may even mention their families but again, you don’t want to do anything that can be perceived as discriminatory. Beyond that, I do think it’s important that if you aren’t getting value from somebody’s response when you ask the question, there’s really no point to ask it.”

When conducting interviews, Barr says she asks industry-specific questions, such as the applicant’s abilities and interests in working outside and in the elements, since landscaping is a hands-on, outdoor profession.

Barr reiterates the point that it’s not worth your time to ask the applicant yes or no questions because this doesn’t require them to tell you more about themselves.

She also likes to ask what kind of equipment the person has experience working with.

“So often, you get people that say, ‘I can run any piece of equipment that you’ve got,’” says Barr. “We see that time and time again. A really great way to test that is if you have a piece of equipment on site that you’re comfortable with letting an applicant get in and start it up. That will show you if they can even turn it on. That’s a really great way to weed out some of those people.”

Barr says many interviewees come across as over-confident when talking about their abilities and skills, so she always recommends getting all new employees to go through training programs to ensure they understand how to do every detail of the job.

Even if you think you’ve hired an experienced employee, Barr says it never hurts to take a quick run-through over practices and procedures just to make sure that person is as prepared as possible.

One interview question Barr wishes would be permanently retired is “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“None of us knows what we’re going to do in five years, and it puts the candidate in an awkward position of feeling as though they have to say, well I’m going to be growing with your company in five years,” says Barr. “I mean, what else are they going to say? So, that question, I think, is not relevant, and even though I think many of us know that, there are still a lot of people that don’t.” 

Prepping as the interviewee

Those preparing for an interview may wonder how upfront you should really be when answering questions, as you don’t want to say something that could potentially lose you the job, but you also want to avoid lying about what you can bring to the team.

“I always recommend if you are not sure how to answer a question, you’re going to need to err on the side of honesty,” says Barr. “You do not want to oversell yourself in a way that you’re going to take a position that you can’t sustain and that you’re not qualified for.”

If you’re asked about operating a certain piece of equipment that you’ve never worked with before, Barr recommends admitting you’ve never worked with that piece but telling them about any experience you might have with a similar piece of machinery.

This, she says, is a much better approach than saying no altogether or outright lying about your skills.

Barr says she also hears the phrase, “I pick up on things fast,” a lot in her line of work, and she challenges applicants to qualify that phrase with actual experience examples to back up that claim.

Barr says she also thinks it’s a good idea to bring in a few notes with you if you feel you’ll be too nervous to remember everything you want to showcase. However, she does warn not to rely solely on the notes, as you want to be confident and make eye contact with your interviewers.

“As the person interviewing, it’s always important to give a little credit that candidates are going to be nervous,” says Barr. “Someone is going to be so keyed up trying to present their best self, that they may not.”

To help with this, Barr says she tries to put interviewees at ease at the start by talking casually and getting to know them. She also adds that if you find a topic that really allows the candidate to open up and share, don’t be afraid to further explore that topic and get them warmed up for the remainder of the interview.

“It’s okay for the interview to change course and not be so rigid,” says Barr.

What not to say

Just like there are certain questions interviewers don’t need to ask candidates in an interview, there are also some answers that candidates need to avoid.

One of the biggest interview faux pas Barr says to avoid is disparaging your former employer, even if it has been the worst place you’ve ever worked. Barr says comments like these are unnecessary and have absolutely no benefit to the interview.

Even if you’ve left your last position on bad terms, Barr says to be honest about the experience but to find a way to be forthright without putting down the company.

Barr says it’s also not considered a mark against you if you ask that your current employer not be notified that you are seeking other employment. However, if you specifically request that a former employer not be notified, Barr says you should be ready to give a legitimate reason why that employer should not be contacted.

Barr also says it’s no longer necessary to go “over the top” telling a prospective employer how you would love nothing more than to be hired and retire from that company, especially if you are still fairly young.

“That’s great if you do, but you don’t have to say that if you don’t mean it,” says Barr. “It’s unnecessary.”

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