In an interview, is it ever appropriate to ask what one does on his free time?
From a US perspective, an interviewer should not ask about anything about outside activities that's not directly work related, primarily to prevent potential lawsuits. A general question like "What do you do in your free time?" is simply too legally dangerous to ask. For example, suppose an interviewee is an active member of a particular religion, cultural or political organization. Asking about it could open the door to legal action if you decided not to hire them. Some people might even see the question as harassment.
There are some cases where it might be appropriate to ask as long as there was a work related reason behind the question. For example, some positions in some companies require that the person hired not engage in high risk activities like skydiving or auto racing.
Another example would be if you were hiring for a position in a company that provided services to a free time activity. In that case, you might want to ask what the potential employee thought about that activity. In one interview with an auto supply company I was asked about my interest in auto repair and customization. That would be an appropriate question to ask.
In general, it's best to avoid asking open ended questions that might take the interview into legally dangerous areas but asking about job related specifics is usually OK.
Many people choose to add a Hobbies/Interests section at the end of their resume. And usually what they mention is the most interesting thing they do on their free time and find appropriate to discuss at workplace.
I would deem it appropriate to ask more about interests mentioned in those sections. Otherwise I personally would consider such questions rude.
Yes - but it largely depends on context.
It's often considered nice to make casual conversation before or after the interview. For example, if you and the interviewer are walking to or from the interview area, or headed to lunch - the interviewer might ask about your hobbies, what you do to relax or other friendly neutral topics. Feel free to share whatever office appropriate topics you wish.
At the same time, interviewers are expected to steer clear of probing into areas that would lead to unethical decision making or implying an overtone of sexuality. This is a grey area, and one where it'll take a mix of common sense and social cues to navigate wisely. Some examples that are definitely beyond the range of propriety:
"Any plans to get married and have kids?" - sure, it's something you might do in your free time, but this leads to discrimination potential.
"A sweet young thing like you must have a lot of (leering pause) ... free time on his/her hands... " with an implication that perhaps you'd like to go on a date with interviewer.
For both sides, the general goal is to keep any free time/hobby related discussions brief. It's a great time to mention something that's pretty neutral from an emotional/religious/political perspective, and you should be able to expect that interviewer will keep the conversation fairly casual as well.
I have certainly used the "what do you like to do for fun?" topic as a bridge when myself and the candidate were in that awkward point where we were moving around together, and couldn't really talk about anything too serious. A perfect example is where I've taken a candidate to lunch and we needed to navigate a cafeteria. We're likely to have a 5 minute walk, plus some interruptions as we get through any doors, stairs, elevators, etc., and eventually I'll give the rundown of the eating options... but in between we have either awkward silence or a light conversation. I'd much rather ask the candidate what he likes to do, than assume he wants to talk about a particular TV show, sports game, or recent news story.
Would it factor into my impression - yes. I'm pretty quirky, so weird hobbies aren't a minus in my book, but if someone had a hobby that was very likely to pose serious work conflicts or showed an absolutely insane lack of judgement, I might reconsider. Similarly, this would be a bad time for the candidate to unload that he had some huge family crisises on his plate that left him absolutely no time at all for anything fun. While it may be true, it's hard not to factor that into a job availability consideration, and I'm not so sure I'd want to know.
I am working in the European region as a talent scout and have several kind of clients from different countries. We have variant restrictions and regulations regarding the hiring process than the US.
Our clients are really curious about the candidates free times activities and special subjects. Of course we can't ask questions about particular religion, cultural or political attitude but the employers are really interested in the would be manpower basic barrels.
These topics are important in order to the client can see not only the "technical" correspondence also the human level as well. Sometimes these free time related topics are more significant than the real "technical" requirements as they will work with together during lot of hours per days\weeks\months....and the technical skills are more improvable than the basic behaviour.
I have experience about that the guy has excellent skill-set but couldn't fit in the community. His leader talked with him several times and the company helped him different ways to find the golden mean but the mission was failed and the guy left the company. Nevertheless I have several positive examples where the guys have very nice attitude with good skills and the common work is absolutely successful with the client after the interviews.
Finally I suggested that if the regulations and your culture are allow you to ask free time related questions as well feel free to create a large scale questionnaire which will be a big help for you in the future because of these topics are give you a better insight about the candidates.
Although I doubt if answering this question can ever decide the employ-ability of a candidate, from my experience in the IT industry, it has never been inappropriate to ask this question.
I wouldn't be surprised if interviewers from most industries would definitely like to ask this question at least once in an interview - without getting into minute details. This gives a peek into how a candidate spends time outside work. Most of the times it has a direct correlation with the candidates organization skills, attitude, learning ability etc.