Job interviews are nerve-racking for applicants. But they can also be a minefield for interviewers, especially inexperienced ones who aren’t sure how to best elicit information that will help them decide whether or not to hire a particular candidate. That confusion can lead to big trouble if a hiring manager ends up asking questions that are actually illegal.
Twenty percent of hiring managers have asked illegal questions during an interview without realizing it, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. These include questions that have to do with a potential hire’s religion, age, race, health, and more.
“Though their intentions may be harmless, hiring managers could unknowingly be putting themselves at risk for legal action, as a job candidate could argue that certain questions were used to discriminate against him or her,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder, in a statement.
Even if you truly believe the questions were innocent and that the applicant’s answers didn’t affect your decision about who to hire, you and your company could still end up in a sticky legal mess if the applicant later decides to sue. That’s why it’s essential for people who are responsible for interviewing job applicants to know what questions they can and can’t ask. We’ve rounded up 10 questions you should avoid when interviewing people and also shared some similar questions you can ask instead.
1. How many children do you have?
This question might sound like innocent small talk, but it could get you into trouble. Generally, all questions about family and personal relationships are off limits. You should avoid asking whether a person plans to have kids, plans to get married, is divorced, or any other personal questions that aren’t directly related to the job.
“Many inexperienced hiring managers use questions about family as an icebreaker for interviews, not realizing that what seem to them as innocent inquiries about spouse, children, etc., are unlawful,” Ellen B. Vance, senior consultant and advisory services practice leader for Titan Group, a human-resources consulting firm, told The Ladders.
If you’re trying to find out about an interviewee’s availability or flexibility, you can ask if someone is available to work a set schedule or comfortable working overtime rather than inquiring about specific family commitments.
2. Where do you go to church?
Unless you work for a religious institution, like a church or religious school, asking about religious affiliation is a big no-no. You should also avoid questions about what holidays a person celebrates.
3. How long have you lived in the U.S.?
While you can ask if someone is legally allowed to work in the United States, you can’t ask questions about whether they are citizens, how long they’ve lived in the U.S., or what country they are originally from.
4. Do you take drugs?
This question is a great example of why you need to be careful with how you word your interview questions. While asking if an interviewee uses illegal drugs is acceptable, asking about drug use in general is not OK. A candidate may feel compelled to reveal information about legal prescription drug use, which could lead to discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
5. Where do you live?
This is another seemingly innocent question that could get you into hot water. “Asking candidates where they live could be interpreted as a way to discriminate based on their location and is therefore illegal,” according to CareerBuilder. You can, however, ask if a person is willing to relocate for the job.
6. Who did you vote for in the last election?
Both interviewers and job applicants should steer clear of politics during interviews.
“Unless it has some specific role in the job you’re applying for, I think it has no place in the conversation,” advised Tammy Gooler Loeb in an interview with The Ladders. Hiring managers should also keep political talk to a minimum to avoid any charges of discrimination or bias.
Questions about politics aren’t strictly illegal, however. “Although currently there are no federal laws that prohibit private employers from asking political affiliation questions, employers should probably refrain from asking such questions,” notes the Society for Human Resource Management.
7. When do you plan to retire?
Asking when a person plans to stop working could lead to charges of age discrimination if you’re not careful. Better to ask about long-term career goals and plans if you’re trying to get a sense of how long a person plans to stay in the workforce.
8. How often will you be absent for National Guard duty?
Interviewers may inquire about National Guard obligations because they want to know if a potential hire will have to miss work because of a deployment. But you’re treading on thin ice when you ask this question, since discriminating against members of the military, including those who serve with the National Guard, is illegal.
“Essentially, the employer cannot ask questions about the effect of the employee’s military service on his ability to work for the employer,” Kelly Kold, a labor and employment attorney, told Monster.com
9. Have you ever been arrested?
In some states, like California, employers are only permitted to ask potential hires whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, not whether they’ve been arrested. People are often arrested and later cleared of any wrongdoing, and it is unfair for employers to discriminate against those individuals. Make sure you understand what the laws are in your state before asking questions about a potential hire’s criminal past.
10. How often do you take sick days?
Asking about how often a person calls in sick to work could lead to charges that you are discriminating based on a person’s health or disability. As a general rule, you should avoid all interview questions that have to do with medical issues. You can, however, ask how frequently a person was absent from work last year for any reason, including vacations. You can also ask if they will be able to perform all the required job duties.