The path to hiring a good employee is lined with potholes—some obvious and other somewhat. Regardless, you must be careful to avoid certain areas of questioning—since some things are illegal to ask. And those illegal question are often the ones that may seem mundane, or something you’d ask anyone in the course of a natural conversation.
The reason federal laws prohibit asking these questions during job interviews is because the answers can be perceived as leading to discrimination. Let’s say you’re interviewing a woman and you just happen to ask her if she’s married. If she doesn’t get the job, but a younger, single woman does, the married candidate might sue your business, claiming you discriminated against her because she’s married.
Don’t worry—You can get the answers to the key questions you want—as long as you phrase them the right (and legal) way. Here’s what not to ask, and how to get the information you’re seeking anyway.
- Don’t ask: Whether a person is married, has children, is pregnant, or is planning to get married or have children. Typically, the desire behind this question is to find out if the person can work overtime, work odd hours or travel. To get that answer, ask whether the person has a problem working overtime, working nights, working weekends or traveling.
- Don’t ask: A potential hire how old they are. The Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) forbids asking a job candidate his or her age. The only exception is if the job requires employees to be a certain age. For instance, if you’re hiring a bartender, you can ask if they’re of legal age to serve alcohol.
- Don’t ask: If someone is a U.S. citizen. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) prohibits asking this question. However, you can ask if the person is authorized to work in the U.S., and once you hire someone, they’ll have to fill out an employment eligibility verification (I-9) document to verify their legal status.
- Don’t ask: If a person has physical or mental disabilities, addiction problems or health issues. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits asking about mental or physical disabilities. Instead, let the person know the duties of the job, and ask whether they can perform them. If drug testing is required, let them know that, too.
- Don’t ask: About a person’s religious beliefs—this is prohibited by the First Amendment. If you’re concerned that someone’s religion might dictate certain days off or other needs that would interfere with working, ask, “Can you work the days and hours this job requires?”
- Don’t ask: About a person’s race, ethnicity or national origin. Such questions are prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What if you want to know this information for affirmative action reasons, such as to show a federal agency you perform government contracting for that your work force is diverse? No worries: Simply include a space on the job application form where the person has the option to volunteer that information.
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