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Illegal Questions in the Interview Process

Fri, 11/09/2012 - 4:26pm | by Guest Contributor

It seems like you hardly need to interview people anymore, what with everyone's dirty little secrets on full display thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Why do people fail to realize that a public profile may be seen by anyone, including prospective employers? And yet, if companies based their hiring criteria on nothing more than some embarrassing spring break photos or a penchant for listening to death metal and spouting subversive political views to friends, they'd never find new employees. So for most businesses, the interview process still determines which applicants make the cut. But you should be aware that there are some legal issues at play when you start questioning potential hires. Here are just a few questions you'll want to avoid during the interview process.

  1. Blatantly discriminatory queries. You may not be keen to hire someone who is disabled, pregnant, elderly, religious, or even of certain racial descent. But if you can't tell just from looking at them, you certainly can't ask. The law protects everyone equally from discrimination in the hiring practice, and if you raise this red flag during an interview, don't be surprised if you get slapped with a lawsuit for unfair hiring practices based on the fact that you didn't consider certain people after putting forth such queries.

  2. Familial issues. It's never a good idea to question people about their family situation, even if you think you're doing so in an unobtrusive way. While you might prefer not to hire a prospective employee that has children (due to the restrictions this can place on their time and attention), a failure to hire someone after confirming that they have kids to care for could be seen as a discriminatory practice, which is why you simply cannot address the subject during the interview. If the applicant should raise the topic or admit to having kids without you asking, you're in the clear. But you definitely need to skirt the subject at all costs otherwise.

  3. Previous firings. Okay, so you are definitely allowed to ask about previous employment since this is directly related to the job you are offering (in terms of experience, knowledge, skills, and so on). What you should probably refrain from asking about is firing. Although you may ask how a person left their last job (quitting, layoff, firing, etc.) they certainly don't have to tell you. And if you go so far as to seek that information from their previous place of employment you have just wandered into illegal territory.

  4. Citizenship. Believe it or not, it is actually illegal to question an applicant's legal status. The reason for this is likely that some people would not want to hire a candidate who is in the country on a work Visa, for example, no doubt fearing that the individual has only a limited time to devote to the job before returning to his/her home country. As long as the applicant has a social security or tax ID number, you cannot question citizenship status.

  5. Anything not related to the job. There is a long list of personal issues that you may not broach during the interview process. It's not like you're casually questioning friends to compare caravan cover options; you're attempting to hire a professional for a specific job and you need to limit yourself to inquiries pertaining to an applicant's ability to perform in that capacity. So you may ask about anything that helps you to assess suitability based on skill, experience, and behavior. But when you start asking personal questions you can easily stray into dangerous (and potentially illegal) waters.

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