The Pros and Cons of Asking Background-Related Questions in an Interview

Pros and Cons of Asking Background Related Questions

One of the age-old questions that small business owners must answer when deciding on questions to ask their applicants is whether or not those questions should broach personal background information. We aren’t talking about questions pertaining to work or educational history. Rather, we are referring to questions that ask applicants to explain the black marks in their past—from drunk driving charges to criminal convictions, all the way to dismissals from previous jobs. Is it ethical for an interviewer to ask these questions? Is it fair to blindside the applicant with such personal questions? Or is asking about these types of background information the best way to give an applicant the chance to tell their side of their story?

If you are struggling with these questions and trying to decide how to approach an upcoming interview, keep reading. We’ve compiled a number of different “pros” and “cons” that you can use to determine whether or not asking background-related questions is the right choice.

Pro: You can give your applicant a chance to explain his or her side of the story.

Easily the biggest argument for asking sensitive background-related questions in a job interview is that doing so can actually be beneficial to the applicant facing the questions. Often, employers will stop seriously considering an applicant who has a criminal record or an applicant who stepped down from their previous job after being accused of sexual harassment by a co-worker. By bringing these issues up in the interview, employers give their applicants a chance to explain what happened. Maybe the criminal conviction occurred when the applicant was young and they have since rebuilt their life, or perhaps the sexual harassment accusation encouraged the person to enter counseling and take other steps to be more respectful. In any case, applicants have a right to explain or argue against any background check findings, and an interview might just be the best place to have those conversations.

Con: It might be illegal.

In a growing number of cities, counties, and states, “ban the box” laws or ordinances have made it illegal for employers to ask questions about criminal history on the job application or in the interview. Most of these laws have also barred employers from running background checks on applicants until after the first interview—and in some cases, until after a conditional offer of employment has been extended. If your business is operating in an area where the box is banned for private employers, then you are not legally permitted to know anything about an applicant’s criminal background—let alone ask questions about it—during an interview. Your applicants can, of course, offer this information freely if they wish, but you still have to avoid being the one to broach the subject.

Pro: It gives you a chance to discuss resume inaccuracies.

Background information doesn’t just have to do with criminal history. On the contrary, if you’re like most employers, you also do reference checks and employment or education verification checks. A simple call to an applicant’s former employer, for instance, might reveal that the applicant lied about their job title, or said they worked for the company for a year when they were really only there for six months. These types of resume fibbing are actually quite common these days: applicants trying to stand out from the crowd will try to think up a job title that sounds more impressive or professional, while others will try to fill gaps in their employment by tweaking their hiring and departure days with previous employers.

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While such dishonesty is enough for you as the employer to disqualify an applicant from consideration, you could also opt to bring up the resume inaccuracies in an interview. Perhaps you were quite impressed by the applicant and their demeanor in an initial interview, but later learned that they lied on their resume. If you still want to consider the applicant in question for a job, you might schedule a follow-up interview to talk about the resume inaccuracies. If there were just a few inconsistencies with employment dates, for instance, it might be worth it to give your applicant the benefit of the doubt. There is a possibility that the inaccuracies were not intentional, and that the applicant simply forgot that they left a job in May instead of July.

Bottom line, if you still think the applicant in question would be a good fit for the job, but are concerned about their dishonesty, it’s not a bad idea or a show of weakness to give that person a chance to explain. At very least, you can remind the applicant that resume fibs will almost never help them land a job, but can certainly hurt their chances.

Con: You could be blindsiding your applicant.

Many applicants spend a lot of time and energy preparing for interviews, whether that means learning about the company for which they are interviewing, or rehearsing answers to common interview questions. In any case, very few people are trained or prepared to answer questions about black marks on their record in the first interview. As a result, asking these questions can truly blindside an applicant, thereby knocking him or her off her game.

While it’s not entirely bad to break the performance-like façade that many applicants adopt in job interviews, it’s also not entirely fair to mix questions about a person’s 15-year-old drug or DUI charge into an interview that is mostly comprised of typical “Why are you a good fit for this company?” types of questions. Asking these types of questions is particularly unfair if the background information you bring up is either very old or not at all related to the job opportunity at hand. Even applicants with good answers to these questions can be taken out of the interview mindset by being reminded of a dark part of their past, which can make it more difficult for them to get back on-point for the remainder of the conversation.


Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth it to use the interview as a chance to ask prospective employees about the black marks on their backgrounds. While these types of questions can give you a better sense of whether or not you can trust an applicant, they can also test the boundaries of both ethics and law. Regardless of your decision, be sure to tread carefully here, and to only ask background questions that are relevant to the job at hand.

Ed Fox

Ed Fox

Ed Fox works closely with partnership stakeholders and product leaders on business strategic planning, as Director of Technology. Ed leads the product and technology teams, directing operations while working with clients to ensure a successful development process and, when appropriate, integration with existing platforms. Ed’s specialty is aligning technology vision and strategy with product and business direction, and converting strategic plans into platforms that can grow in the market.