6 Questions You CAN’T Ask When Interviewing

Shhhh - Questions not to ask in a job interviewInterviews are a great way to get to know applicants on an in-depth level — much more than resumes or test scores can offer. After all, someone can be excellent on paper, but not necessarily in person. It takes a face-to face interview to perceive someone’s attitude.

But although interviews are meant to give you a closer peek at applicants, there are several questions you shouldn’t ask, either for legal or ethical purposes. Otherwise, your company may end up with a discrimination lawsuit, as well as damage control problems on social media.

To avoid such headaches, take note of the following no-go lines of inquiries:

  • Race/ethnicity — Questions like the following are off-limits because national origin is strictly a federally protected class.
    • “Where did you originally come from?”
    • “What’s your nationality?”
    •  “What’s your ethnic background?”

However, the law stipulates that companies must hire only people who are eligible to work in the U.S., so you should determine an applicant’s eligibility without asking questions that invade privacy. But it’s not a matter of how, but when. You can verify an applicant after you’ve hired them by asking them to fill out an IRS Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification) on their first day of work.

Here are some additional thoughts about what you should and should not ask.

  • Religion — If you’re concerned about whether or not an applicant can work during the required hours, you can straight up ask if they’re able to commit. It’s much better and clearer than asking them about the holidays they observe, what church they belong to, or when they will expect to have time off for their religious practices.
  • Sexual orientation/gender identity — These are considered non-issues in job hunting, so there’s no reason to ask an applicant about their gender or sexual preference. But there are less obvious questions you still need to stray away from, like “Do you plan on having kids?” or “Are you single?” Plans for getting married and having children could be used to discriminate against female employees.
  • Disability — People with disabilities (PWDs) are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means PWDs who are qualified to perform a job should not be discriminated against on the basis of their disability. Just ask the applicant if they can perform all the tasks associated with a job.
  • Age — The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects applicants aged 40 and above from workplace discrimination on the basis of their age. Thus, don’t ask an applicant how old they are, or when they finished high school. However, in some cases, asking for age is legal because the law requires employees for certain jobs to be of a certain age, e.g. bartending and casino dealing.

Current salary — In Massachusetts, asking for an applicant’s current salary is prohibited until the job offer stage. In other states, it’s not, but it’s still considered taboo to ask about it in the early stages of the hiring process. You can ask about an applicant’s current salary once you already have a job offer that includes a compensation package.

It can be tricky to navigate the do’s and don’ts of HR interviews, but the key here is to stick to professional questions and stay away from personal ones. The more you focus on the job at hand, the less likely you’ll end up asking illegal/inappropriate questions.

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