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How to Avoid Discriminatory Questions in a Job Interview

The questions you or others in your company ask during an interview of a potential employee can result in legal problems for the company if you fail to follow certain guidelines. Antidiscrimination and consumer protection legislation passed since the 1960s and court decisions and administrative rulings restrict the type and scope of pre-employment questions that you can ask.

Here are some current pitfalls:

  • Be sensitive to age discrimination issues. Remember that any question that may indicate the candidate’s age may be interpreted as discriminatory. In other words, don’t ask a question such as “When did you graduate from high school?”

  • Beware of double-edged questions. Caution all the interviewers in your company to keep their innocent curiosity (such as “What kind of a name is that?”) from exposing your company to charges of discrimination.

  • Don’t confuse before and after. Questions considered illegal before hiring may be acceptable after the individual is on the payroll. For example, you can’t ask a person’s age before hiring, but after hiring, the information may be needed for health insurance or pension forms.

Check with your attorney for any local restrictions or new rulings and keep in mind that all questions must directly relate to a bona fide job requirement.

Even questions that seem okay to ask under the following guidelines may be discriminatory if they’re asked in circumstances that suggest a discriminatory intent — for example, if you ask only female employees who reveal that they have children if they have any reason they couldn’t work overtime or on the weekend.

Keep your questions focused on the job requirements and away from the candidate’s personal life.

National origin

Questions okay to ask: None.

Risky ground: Questions related to the candidate’s national origin, ancestry, or native language or that of family members. That also applies to the applicant and the applicant’s parents’ places of birth.

Discriminatory: “What sort of an accent is that?” “Where were you born?” “Where were your parents born?”

Citizenship status

Questions okay to ask: “If hired, will you be able to prove that you have the right to remain and work in the United States?”

Risky ground: Questions that may oblige a candidate to indicate national origin.

Discriminatory: “Are you a U.S. citizen?”

Address

Questions okay to ask: “Where do you live?” “How long have you lived here?”

Risky ground: Questions about housing aimed at revealing financial status. (May be considered discriminatory against minorities.)

Discriminatory: “Are you renting, or do you own your home?”

Age

Questions okay to ask: None.

Risky ground: Questions regarding age when age is not a bona fide job requirement.

Discriminatory: “How old are you?” “In what year were you born?” “When did you graduate from high school?”

Family status

Questions okay to ask: “Can you relocate?” (If relevant to the job.)

Risky ground: All questions regarding marital or family status.

Discriminatory: “Are you pregnant?” “When are you due?” (Even if the candidate is obviously pregnant.)

Religion

Questions okay to ask: “Can you work overtime on days other than Monday through Friday?”

Risky ground: Any question whose answers may indicate religious beliefs or affiliation.

Discriminatory: “What religious holidays do you observe?”

Health and physical condition

Questions okay to ask: “Can you perform the expected job functions with or without reasonable accommodation?”

Risky ground: Questions that aren’t directly related to a bona fide job requirement and, in addition, aren’t being asked of all candidates.

Discriminatory: “Do you have a hearing impairment?” “Have you ever filed a workers’ compensation claim?”

Name

Questions okay to ask: “Have you ever used another name or nickname?”

Risky ground: Questions about whether the applicant has ever changed her name or about the candidate’s maiden name.

Discriminatory: “What kind of name is that?”

Language

Questions okay to ask: “What language do you speak, read, and/or write?” (Permissible if relevant to the job.)

Risky ground: Questions that reveal the applicant’s national origin or ancestry.

Discriminatory: “What language do you speak at home?” “Is English your first language?”

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