There are several questions that have been standard on most lists of interview questions for decades. However, many of these do not elicit the quality of responses that interviewers need to determine applicants’ actual qualifications for a job.

Do any of these commonly asked interview questions look familiar?

  1. What are your strengths? / What was your biggest accomplishment in your last job? / What are you the most proud of in your work history? / Why should we hire you for this job?
  2. What is your biggest weakness?
  3. Why did you leave your last job?
  4. Where would you like to be in your career five years from now?
  5. Describe a time when you had to juggle multiple projects, where you demonstrated leadership abilities, and what was the outcome?
  6. Do you have any questions for us?

These questions are often difficult for most applicants to answer, particularly for applicants of diverse cultural backgrounds, as described in the following example.

An American Indian female hiring manager shared this perspective: “As we interviewed the American Indian woman, the eye contact was poor, she was very shy, and she didn’t brag about herself or bring her attributes out or her assets out to the interviewers. The same thing happened with the Asian male. I wanted to answer for them because I knew they… as I looked on their applications, I knew they had all these skills and abilities. They would not talk about themselves and there was a great disparity between the white males and the minority candidates. It was like night and day.”

Let’s examine one of these commonly asked interview questions in more detail by exploring the following: (Note: You can find this kind of analysis for each of the six questions above In Lila Kelly Associates’ online training and eBook by the same title as this article.)

  • Interviewers’ expected/preferred responses
  • Reasons the question might be difficult for applicants to answer
  • Alternative questions to try instead (this type of questioning should elicit a more accurate and complete response)
  • Common cultural misunderstandings related to the question.

Why did you leave your last job?

Interviewers’ expected/preferred response:

  • The applicant was not able to grow professionally in the position.
  • There was no career advancement in the organization.
  • The company was not stable.
  • Commute distance too long.
  • Minimal compensation package.

Might be difficult to answer because:

  • Surveys conducted on employees who left jobs have shown that approximately 80 percent had left because of their relationship with their bosses, either by quitting or being let go.
  • To avoid speaking negatively about their last boss, this question might force applicants to provide false or incomplete information. Then what good is it any way?

Alternative questions to try instead:

  • What attracts you about this job for which you are applying?
  • What are you looking for in your next job that was not present in your last (or current) job?
  • If you could change something about your last (or current) job, what would it be?
  • If you could, what would you have changed about your last boss’s management style?

A common cultural misunderstanding related to this type question:

Phyllis, an American Indian Advocate who is American Indian, stated: “I always hate it when somebody asks me, ‘Why did you leave your last job?’ If I had a bad experience, I really don’t want to talk about it. What if I said to you, ‘I left because the director was racist.’ Duh. Or I didn’t have the right kind of clothes for that job, and they didn’t pay me enough. I think it’s hard to be honest about those kinds of things, and what difference does it make? So I end up giving some other answer, which is not the real reason for leaving, like, ‘I left because I wanted to get into my field that I went to college for.’”   

This applicant’s perspective shows that questions such as these could cause applicants to feel like they need to provide incomplete or false information. Does it make sense for any organization to possibly encourage an applicant to lie?

Perhaps these questions would not need an alternative way of asking them for certain applicants, as some will come prepared to respond to these commonly asked interview questions. However, asking these questions in a more inclusive manner, such as the alternative questions presented here, will more likely result in quality responses from all applicants.

The assumption that qualified applicants should and will be prepared for the interview may not be true. The reality is that going to a career center or reading books may not be nearly enough for some people to learn all of the nuances of interviewing. Factors that impact applicant preparation are present in all cultures and are not exclusive to diverse cultures. Being uncomfortable discussing one’s strengths and not asking questions is a factor for many people of the dominant U.S. culture as well.

An applicant is responsible for being prepared for an interview, just as an interviewer is responsible for being prepared. However, sometimes the reality is that either one or both of them are not. Juan, an Assistant Marketing Manager who is Latino, added this thought related to the importance of interviewers being prepared for the interview and asking inclusive interview questions.

“I think there are a lot of good candidates out there and a lot of good employers who just miss each other…   like two ships passing in the night.”

To help your organization navigate a challenging hiring process, Lila Kelly Associates offers programs to help attract and hire diverse applicants in an increasingly competitive job market. A good place to start is to attend a Diversity Interviewing Blended Training Workshop. Topics include: Moving Bias to a Conscious Level, Eliminating Bias on the Interview Team, Developing Cultural Competencies and Skills, Developing Inclusive Interview Questions, and Greeting with Welcoming Style and Body Language. Participants will have the opportunity to complete five 20- to 30-minute Diversity Interviewing online trainings on the workshop topics, which are packed full of information and include videos of diverse applicants, activities and quizzes. Then they attend a day-long highly-interactive live workshop which brings participants to a deeper level of learning through discussion, activities and interaction with others from different organizations. This workshop is offered in St. Paul, MN. More details and registration can be found here for the Sept 14th workshop. You can also bring this training in-house by pairing it with the Diversity Interviewing Series Trainer Manual, so your entire hiring team can be trained on cultural competencies for inclusive interviewing and hiring.


Copyright © 2016 Lila Kelly Associates, LLC. Integrating Diversity into Recruiting, Interviewing, Hiring and Retention – Since 1992. Not to be reprinted without written permission from Lila Kelly. This article includes excerpts from Lila Kelly’s books and online trainings. To stay up to date on all the latest from Lila Kelly Associates and, subscribe to our monthly newsletter.