Things are starting to look up for the U.S. economy. January job reports show the unemployment rate has fallen to 8.3 percent, the lowest level since early 2009. As employers ramp up hiring again, it’s worth a reminder of what you can and can’t ask in the interview process.
The basic rule of interview questions if that you should avoid questions that get at age, race, nationality, religion, and other categories employers are barred from discriminating against. Since you can’t legally make employment decisions based on these characteristics, gathering this information is opening the door to allegations of wrongdoing.
At first glance, this seems easy enough. But even some questions we treat as small talk can be viewed as discriminatory and can end up serving as evidence against you in an employment practices suit. All it takes is one disgruntled applicant to turn a seemingly innocent question into something you didn’t intend for it to be.
The following 5 questions are asked all the time in interviews, but should be avoided:
Where did you grow up?
This query could be used to probe national origin, although that may not always be the intention when asking it. As nationality is a protected class under the Civil Rights Act, and employers are barred from using it to make hiring decisions.
When did you graduate from college?
This is a common question in interviews, but could be viewed as a roundabout way of asking someone how old they are. It is okay to ask if the person graduated from college or if they’re over 18, but not for specifics that would help you pinpoint their age.
How many kids do you have?
If children come up in conversation, asking for more details is often just small talk, but this is a loaded question. Marital status, family status, sexual orientation, and pregnancy should be totally off limits in the interview process. Questions that explicitly or implicitly inquire about these should be avoided altogether.
Do you need personal time for any particular holidays?
This question alludes to religious affiliations, another protected class. If you are concerned about work availability, it is okay to ask what days they are free without mention of any religious commitments that could interfere.
How long do you plan to work until you retire?
Of course, you want to hire an applicant that will stick with your company. Many employers may want to know the answer to this question when considering older applicants, but taking this into account is considered age discrimination.
As a general rule, if it’s not directly job-related, don’t ask about it. Lawsuits related to employment practices are on the rise, and employers should be cautious to shield themselves from this risk. If you don't have it already, your company should consider employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) to help mitigate your exposure.