Before you start interviewing job candidates, do you know which interview questions are risky or just wrong to ask?
Ask the wrong question in your interview process, and you can land in hot water. A seemingly harmless question such as “Where are you from?” can backfire if the applicant files a discrimination complaint because of her national origin.
As discussed in a previous article, “Preparing for a Candidate Interview,” interviewers need to be careful about the questions they choose to ask. Questions that seem benign may cause trouble if an applicant claims discrimination in the hiring process.
Interview Questions to Avoid
Play it safe, and stay away from questions about the following subjects:
National Origin: Don’t ask about a person’s ancestry or national origin, such as “Is that an Italian name?”
— You can ask: “Are you legally eligible for employment in the United States?”
Citizenship: Do not ask whether an applicant is a naturalized citizen or the date they became a citizen.
Race or Color: Do not ask about an applicant’s nationality or involvement in minority organizations.
Language: Do not ask about an applicant’s accent or their native language.
— You can inquire about languages that the applicant speaks and writes fluently if the question is job-related.
Marital Status: Don’t ask whether a person is married, single, divorced, or living alone.
Gender: Don’t ask about the applicant’s sex or gender identification, such as “Do you wish to be addressed as Miss/Mrs./Ms./Mr.?”
Sexual Orientation: Do not ask any questions in your interview process regarding an applicant’s sexual orientation or preference.
Family or Family Planning: Do not ask if the applicant has children, the ages of their children, whether they plan to have children, or if they’re currently pregnant. Do not inquire about child care arrangements.
— You can ask, “Do you have responsibilities other than work that will interfere with specific job requirements such as travel?”
Age: Don’t ask the person’s age or date of birth, or require them to show a birth certificate before you make a job offer. The Age Discrimination Act of 1967 bars discrimination against people 40 and over.
Religion: Don’t ask about a person’s religion, what church they attend, or whether their beliefs will affect their ability to work on Saturday or Sunday, for example.
— You can tell the candidate about the regular working hours and requirements for the position and ask, “Will you have any difficulty meeting these requirements?”
Education: While your interview process can and should include relevant questions about education, don’t ask about the religious affiliation of a school or the graduation dates of the applicant, which could indicate possible religious or age discrimination.
— You can ask: “Do you have a high school diploma or equivalent?” or “Do you have a college degree?”
Arrest Record: Do not ask about an arrest record.
— You can ask if the candidate has ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor, if the question is job-related. For more information on this subject, read our article “Are Background Checks Really Necessary?”
Travel: Be careful when phrasing questions about travel in your interview process. Don’t say: “How will the travel requirement affect your children?”
— You can say,” This job requires 50% travel. Will that cause any problems for you?”
Disability: Don’t ask questions about the existence, nature, or severity of a person’s disability. These questions are prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
— After describing the job duties, you <can ask: “Are you able to perform all of these duties?” or “Is there anything that would hamper your ability to perform these duties?” For more information, read our article “Adding Disabled Employees to Your Payroll.”
Memberships: In your interview process, avoid questions about outside activities, clubs, and organizations unrelated to the job.
Military Discharge: Don’t ask about an applicant’s general military experience or discharge status, which may reveal information about a possible disability.
— You can ask, “What type of education, training, or work experience did you receive in the military?”
Economic Status: Don’t ask about the applicant’s credit history, car ownership, or past garnishments, which may be evidence of discrimination against women or minorities.
— You can ask whether the candidate has transportation required for the job. Note: In some instances, The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows employers to request a credit report when financial assets of the business could be at risk. For more information, read our article “Following the Fair Credit Reporting Act.”
Residence: Don’t ask where a person lives, or whether they own a home or rent.
If you are unsure whether an interview question is appropriate, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if the question pertains to a candidate’s knowledge, skills, or abilities needed to meet the requirements of the job.