And…. What You Should Ask….
Most (actually, I would hope, all) HR pros know which questions cannot be asked of applicants in an interview. However, hiring managers are not usually HR pros and may fall into traps when interviewing. Many times, this is unintentional; they don’t mean to broach off-limits topics.
So, if you’re a non-HR hiring manager, here are some questions you need to avoid and what you should focus on during an interview:
Keep in mind it’s best to focus the discussion on job requirements and/or company policies. Avoid stereotyping. Interview the individual, not a member of a group.
The requirements of fair employment laws prohibit you from asking certain questions during an interview. Or, asking questions that would lead to the answers to these questions!
Age. You can’t ask any questions that might indicate a candidate’s age—for example, questions about when an applicant graduated from high school or college or other questions whose answers might suggest that a person was over age 40. If the job requires it, you can ask if the applicant is 18 or over.
Marital Status. You can’t ask if an applicant is married (in most states)— or questions that will elicit that answer. For example, whether the applicant’s wife will mind him working long hours or whether a candidate’s husband is likely to be transferred. Questions about dating, love life, or living arrangements are off limits under many state laws.
Children? Technically speaking, it's not illegal or unlawful to ask personal questions such as, "Do you have children?" or "What ages are your children?" The problem with questions about kids isn't that it's illegal to discriminate against people who have them. It's illegal to discriminate against people because of their gender and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers gender stereotypes to fall into that. You can’t ask questions about child care, pregnancy, or plans for having a family; mainly because these types of questions are mostly asked of women and with the assumption that women who work are more likely to allow their jobs to be affected by childcare issues. However, if you’re concerned that an applicant who might have young children may need to take too much time off, you can explain your expectations about schedules and reporting to work, and ask if the applicant has any problem with that.
Health/Disability. You can’t ask candidates questions such as: "How many sick days did you take last year?" "Are you generally healthy?" or "Do you have any chronic ailments?" Nor can you ask whether an applicant has ever received workers’ compensation. And you cannot ask if the applicant has any physical or mental disabilities. You can inform an applicant of the physical requirements of a job and ask if the applicant can perform those tasks with or without accommodation.
Race/National Origin. You can’t ask any questions about an applicant’s nationality, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, or parentage. You can’t ask if someone was born in the United States nor can you ask what language they speak at home or what kind of accent they have. You can’t ask an applicant if he or she is a U.S. citizen or discuss the citizenship or birthplace of the applicant’s parents, spouse, or other relatives. You can ask if the applicant is eligible to work in the U.S.
Religion. Under no circumstances can you ask questions concerning an applicant’s religion. You can’t even ask if an applicant’s religion prevents him or her from working weekends or holidays or whether the person would need to take time off for observance of any religious days. You can however inform the applicant about the work schedule for the position, your policy concerning being on time, showing up for scheduled shifts, etc.
It’s instructive to get answers directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Here’s a piece taken directly from the EEOC’s website. It was a portion of an opinion letter:
"1. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a woman during a job interview if and when she plans to become pregnant in the future? Is it illegal under federal law for an employer to ask a man during a job interview if and when he and his partner plan to have children in the future?
2. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a job candidate during a job interview if they are married or single?
3. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a job candidate during a job interview if they have children?
As you are aware, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces, among other laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Title VII), which bars discrimination in employment on the bases of race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. Title VII was amended in 1978 to include the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits an employer from refusing to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition.
There is no language in Title VII which expressly prohibits employers from making any of the above inquiries. Title VII does, however, prohibit covered employers from basing hiring decisions on pregnancy or sex. Thus, an employer may not refuse to hire a woman because she is or expects to become pregnant. In addition, although Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on marital or parental status, it does prohibit employers from treating men and women differently with regard to such status. Accordingly, employers may not refuse to hire married women or women with children if it hires married men or men with children.
Although asking applicants about pregnancy or their marital or parental status does not violate Title VII, a fact finder is likely to presume that the answers to such questions formed the basis for a selection decision. As a result, if the selection decision is challenged, the fact that the employer made such inquiries will be evidence that the employer unlawfully used sex or pregnancy as a factor in the selection decision."
One must keep in mind that state laws may differ in regard to marital status, sexual orientation and other characteristics. It’s best to check your state’s fair employment practices statutes.
Effective and legal interviewing means focusing on the job and its requirements. Keep the following in mind:
Any questions about protected groups, including race, religion, age, ethnic group, national origin or ancestry, political beliefs or affiliations, or disability, may be discriminatory. Also, be careful not to ask any questions that could be construed as implying such discrimination. For example, questioning an applicant about the origin of an unusual surname could be misconstrued.
Don’t ask personal questions. Be especially wary of this during the first few moments of the interview when you and the applicant are establishing rapport. It easy to fall into chit chat at the beginning or end of an interview, and this is often where our guard is down and "innocent" questions may pop up that would elicit information you cannot use to make an employment decision.
Don’t allow superficial impressions to influence your decision. Age is not necessarily related to maturity in attitude or ability. Likewise, a firm handshake does not guarantee strong character. Having hiring standards that are not job related will make your interview invalid. Furthermore, if these standards automatically screen out applicants whose speech, dress, hair length, social status, or personal lifestyle differ from yours or those of your co-workers, you could be in jeopardy of a discrimination suit.
Beware of tendencies toward stereotyped thinking. Misconceptions concerning the physical, emotional, or mental capabilities of women, older workers, minorities, or disabled persons are still common. Judge applicants on the basis of individual ability, not on the basis of any characteristics generally attributed to any particular group.
Keep the conversation on job-related topics. Appropriate areas of conversation during the interview include the job itself, its duties, and responsibilities. You can also talk about your organization, its missions, programs, and achievements. It is especially appropriate to talk about career possibilities and opportunities for growth, development, and advancement that the job offers. Other topics, such as where the job is located, required travel, equipment, and available facilities, are also pertinent.
Finally, the individual’s qualifications, abilities, experience, education, and interests are all suitable topics. Ask only for the information you intend to use in making a hiring decision. Know how you will use the information to make that decision. Keeping these points in mind will keep you focused on finding the right person for the job and keep you out of a potential discrimination suit.