Conducting interviews for new employees can be a challenging task, particularly if interviewers are unfamiliar with relevant laws that restrict what can and cannot be asked. Many people on both sides of the interview may not realize that certain questions are off limits. Regardless of whether an applicant objects to a question, employers need to make sure that their hiring personnel are aware of potential restrictions.
Various discrimination laws prohibit interviewers from asking questions related to a candidate’s age, race, ethnicity, color, gender, sex, country of national origin, religion, disability, marital or family status, pregnancy, and other protected characteristics. Although many people are aware that discrimination based on these categories is illegal, some do not realize that asking questions related to any of these traits may be discriminatory or indicative of prohibited hiring practices. Therefore, interviewers need to avoid questions that inquire about protected characteristics.
It may be obvious that certain questions are off limits, such as “How old are you?” or “What is your marital status?” However, the legality of other questions is not so straightforward. Some may seem harmless because they don’t specifically ask about a protected characteristic; however, these questions may reveal an interviewer’s potential bias, and lead to information related to a protected topic. Even if the interviewer has no hidden agenda, it is best to avoid questions that could have the appearance of searching for personal information about an applicant.
If an interview is going well, both parties may slip into a more comfortable rapport, which could lead to personal questions that are unrelated to the performance of the relevant position. An interviewer might ask, “How many kids do you have?” or “How old are your children?” not realizing that these questions are prohibited, as they relate to the candidate’s marital or family status. Questions like these might also be asked to gauge an applicant’s availability or commitment to the position; however, there are alternative ways of getting an answer. Instead of asking about childcare or family dynamics, an interviewer could ask what hours an applicant is able to work or whether he or she is willing to travel or relocate.
Questions that relate to a candidate’s personal finances and credit history are also typically prohibited, unless they relate to the individual’s ability to perform necessary job duties. For example, an interviewer may not ask an applicant if they own a car, or how he or she would get to work if given the job. However, such questions may be permitted if the position calls for frequent travel during the workday.
At times, candidates may offer information relating to a protected characteristic without prompting from an interviewer. For instance, an applicant may mention that he or she is part of a country club or other organization. This could reveal information about the individual’s socioeconomic status, race, religion, and age. In this situation, the candidate volunteered the information without any misstep on the part of the interviewer.
The fact that information was offered does not mean that the interviewer now has free reign to probe further into the topic. Instead, the interviewer should steer the conversation away from the protected information and back to the position’s requirements. Additionally, any information related to a protected characteristic may not be used when making a hiring decision unless it specifically affects the applicant’s ability to perform necessary job duties.
Interviewers need to be mindful of questions they ask, the kind of information they’re looking for, and the answers that their questions may elicit. It is an interviewer’s responsibility to stay on task and focus questions on factors that will indicate whether an applicant will be able to perform the essential duties of the position for which he or she is interviewing.