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Employment interviews are stressful for everyone; you want to select the most talented candidate, and the person you’re interviewing hopes to make a good impression. In your enthusiasm to find the right new team member, however, you may not evaluate your interview questions properly, especially if you’ve quickly developed an easy rapport with the interviewee.
We’ll outline interview questions that are illegal, unwise, rude or otherwise unacceptable.
The EEOA prohibits employers from asking questions that might lead to discrimination or the appearance of discrimination, even if you think they’re common hiring manager interview questions. To ensure you’re EEO compliant, it’s crucial to understand what you can and can’t ask. Consider the following question categories that can prove problematic.
You may not think that asking someone where they’re from is problematic. You may have noticed a unique accent or observed that a candidate worked in other countries and asked something like the following:
Unfortunately, this isn’t harmless small talk fueled by curiosity. In fact, it’s illegal and may open you to discrimination charges.
“Hold back the urge to ask where they are from,” advised Shobi Zietlow, president of Referral Staffing Solutions. “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of national origin. If you ask, you could be accused of discriminating against them.”
You can ask if a candidate is eligible to work in the United States and if they can provide documentation of that. Companies now require all employees to fill out an I-9 form as part of the onboarding checklist to confirm that new hires are legally eligible for work in the U.S.
These may seem like innocuous questions:
In fact, these questions are not permissible, even when asked innocently, because employers are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender or marital status.
Instead, you can ask this:
This question can provide important information, such as whether the candidate has published works or received accolades under another name.
Other seemingly innocent questions include the following:
Unfortunately, these questions may be construed as age bias. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects people 40 and older from age-based discrimination.
You may have a minimum age requirement for a position and must ensure a candidate is eligible. For example, if anyone you hire must be over 18, you can ask this:
For example, if you’re hiring a bartender or server who will serve alcohol, 37 states and Washington, D.C., require them to be at least 18 years old. Three other states require an employee to be over 21 to serve alcohol, and one state has an age requirement of 17.
Family planning questions are also problematic. Avoid questions like these:
These questions have historically been used to maintain a gender imbalance in the workforce; some employers won’t hire women because they assume they’ll take parental leave at some point or need time off to care for a sick child. Either way, this discriminatory practice and these questions are illegal.
“You cannot ask a candidate if they are planning a family, if they are pregnant or about their child care arrangements,” cautioned Jackie Burkhardt, a human resources manager at Spartek Inc. “This is an illegal interview question because it reveals personal information that is not allowed to be used by employers to make hiring decisions.”
Burkhardt noted that questions relevant to the job description and requirements are acceptable.
Health and medical information is confidential. For example, you can’t ask the following questions:
“It’s illegal for employers to ask an applicant if they are in good health or if they have had any past illnesses or operations,” Burkhardt said. “You are not allowed to ask about their height, weight or any details regarding any physical or mental limitations.”
However, some positions may have lifting or other physical ability requirements, and the employer must ascertain that the candidate can perform the job’s required functions. In these cases, you should describe the job’s physical requirements even if they were listed in the ad or job descriptions.
You can legally ask the following reasonable question:
Additionally, you can’t ask if a candidate drinks socially or has ever used illegal drugs. If a person is recovering from alcoholism or substance abuse, their treatment is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If they avoid alcohol for religious reasons, you could face a charge of religious discrimination.
According to the Pew Research Center, women are paid 92 cents for every dollar men make. Black and Hispanic women earn even less than that. Federal law already prohibits gender-based pay discrimination, but it’s difficult to prove. For this reason, some states have taken measures to stop this discrimination at the job interview level.
Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Washington all have salary history bans.
Even if your state does not ban salary history considerations, it’s safer to avoid questions like this:
Instead, determine the salary for any given position beforehand. During the interview, make that salary range known and confirm that the candidate is still interested in the position given its compensation parameters. This practice ensures cycles of underpayment don’t continue.
You should also avoid the following questions when interviewing job candidates, to prevent legal complications and maintain a respectful tone:
Hiring for cultural fit is ideal. You want your new team member to possess the right skills and knowledge and have a personality that meshes with those of other employees. At the same time, you want to avoid a potential minefield of inappropriate and illegal questions during the interview process.
Consider the following guidelines to protect your company and applicants when you’re conducting job interviews:
When you’re preparing to interview candidates, do your due diligence to avoid illegal questions and protect your organization and applicants. When in doubt, keep your questions directly related to the job and its associated tasks and responsibilities. Eschew personal questions, and keep the conversation respectful and comfortable for both parties.
Sammi Caramela contributed to this article.