Seventeen things you can’t ask on interviews

By Daniel Abramson, HRSource

Guidelines by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as well as federal and state laws, prohibit asking job applicants certain questions, whether on the application form or during the job interview.

It is also illegal for an employer to discriminate against a job applicant due to race, color, religion, age, national origin, disability or sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy).  

With that in mind, here are some prime examples of interview questions that are illegal to ask, along with alternative inquiries that are permissible. (Please note: If you have questions or require clarification, probably best to check with your attorney or legal department.)

Marital Status

Unlawful: It is illegal to ask whether the applicant is married, divorced, separated, engaged or widowed, or for any details about their relatives. “What is your marital status?” “What is the name of your relative/spouse/children?” and “How old are your children?” are all no-no’s.
Lawful: You may ask, “What are the names of relatives already employed by the company or a competitor?” Anything else other than that specific question is off limits.

Residence

Unlawful: You may not ask for the names and relationships of individuals with whom the applicant resides, nor can you ask if applicant owns or rents a home. “Who do you live with?” and “Do you live with your parents?” are both off the table.
Lawful: It’s OK to inquire about an address to the extent that the information is needed to facilitate contacting the applicant or to determine any commuting challenges. “Will you have problems getting to work at 9 a.m.?” is perfectly legal, as is asking about relocating for the job (“What are the challenges of your relocating for this position?”) By the way, a post office box is considered a valid address.

Pregnancy

Unlawful: All questions relating to pregnancy or medical history concerning pregnancy are verboten, including “Do you plan on having more children?”
Lawful: It’s OK to ask how long the applicant plans to stay in the job, and to inquire about anticipated absences that applu to males and females alike.

Physical Health

Unlawful: Avoid general questions that would tend to elicit information about handicaps or health conditions that are reasonably unrelated to the applicant’s fitness to perform the job. These would include “Do you have any handicaps?” “Have you ever had any serious illnesses?” “Do you have any physical disabilities?” or “What is the prognosis of your handicap?”
Lawful: Questions that are specific to fulfilling the requirements of the job as listed in the job description are perfectly alright to pose. “Can you lift 40 pounds?” “Do you need any special accommodations to perform the job you’ve applied for?” and “How many days did you miss work (or school) in the past year?” are all pertinent and legal.

Family

Unlawful: This subject goes back to marital status. Questions concerning a spouse or spouse’s employment, salary, childcare arrangements or dependents are illegal, such as “How will your husband feel about the amount of time you will be traveling if you get this job?” or “What kind of childcare arrangements have you made?”
Lawful: Whether an applicant can meet specified work schedules or has activities or commitments that may prevent him or her from meeting attendance requirements is a legitimate concern. “Can you work overtime?” or “Is there any reason why you can’t be on the job at 7:30 a.m.?” are both acceptable questions.

Name

Unlawful: Any inquiries about names that would divulge marital status, lineage, ancestry, national origin or descent are illegal. For example, “Was your name legally changed and if so, what was your name before?” is not allowed.
Lawful: You may, however, ask whether an applicant has worked for your company or a competitor under a different name, and if so, to disclose it.

Photographs

Unlawful: You may not ask an applicant to submit a photo at any time prior to hiring.
Lawful: A photo may be requested after hiring for identification purposes.

Age

Unlawful: You can’t ask questions that seek to determine whether applicants are 40 years old or older, which smacks of age discrimination.
Lawful: You may, however, ask “Are you at least 18 years of age?” or “If hired, can you furnish proof of age?”

Education

Unlawful: Don’t ask a candidate about the national, racial or religious affiliation of a school he or she attended.
Lawful: You may, however, ask questions related to the academic, vocational or professional education of an applicant, as well as the names of the schools they attended, degrees or diplomas they earned, and dates of graduation and courses of study.

Citizenship

Unlawful: It is illegal to ask whether an applicant is a U.S. citizen or to require a birth certificate, naturalization papers or a baptismal certificate. Accordingly, never ask “Are you a citizen of the United States?” “Are your parents and/or spouse citizens of the United States?” or “Are you, your parents, or your spouse naturalized or native-born U.S. citizens?”
Lawful: You may, however, ask whether an applicant is prevented from being lawfully employed in this country due to visa or immigration requirements, and/or whether the applicant can provide proof of citizenship via a passport, visa or alien registration number after hiring. For example, it’s alright to ask, “What is your visa status?” “Are you able to provide proof of employment eligibility upon hire?” or “If you are not a U.S. citizen, do you have the legal right to remain in the United States permanently?”

National Origin/Ancestry

Unlawful: Any inquiries related to this topic are prohibited. “What is your nationality?” “What language is spoken in your home?” or “What is your mother tongue?” are all illegal to ask.
Lawful: You may ask “Which languages do you speak, read or write fluently?” but only when the inquiry is based on a job requirement.

Race or Color

Unlawful: Any question that directly or indirectly relates to race or color is illegal, period.
Lawful: None!

Religion

Unlawful: It is illegal to ask any question that relates directly or indirectly to a religion.
Lawful: In fact, the only question you may ask on this topic is “Can you work on Saturdays or Sundays?” — and then only if this is a requirement of the job.

Organizations

Unlawful: You cannot ask which organizations, clubs, societies or lodges the candidate belongs to.
Lawful: Rather, your inquiry must relate only to the applicant’s professional qualifications, such as “Do you belong to any professional organizations?”

Military

Unlawful: You may not ask about the type or condition of an applicant’s military discharge, their experience in other than U.S. Armed Forces or request discharge papers.
Lawful: Inquiries concerning education, training or work experience in the U.S. Armed Forces are allowed. (Note: In many areas veterans are a protected class.)

Height and Weight

Unlawful: Any inquiries that aren’t based on actual job requirements are off the table.
Lawful: Inquiries about the ability to perform a particular job are permissible. A specific weight or height range will not be considered a job requirement unless the employer can show that no employee outside those parameters could do the work.

Arrests and Convictions

Unlawful: All inquiries relating to arrests are off limits. For example, it is illegal to ask, “Have you ever been arrested?”
Lawful: However, it is legal to inquire about convictions. For example, it’s OK to ask whether the candidate has ever been convicted of a crime, and to inquire about the disposition of the case. Also allowable is “Have you ever been convicted under criminal law within the past five years, excluding minor traffic violations?”

Daniel Abramson is managing lead of HRSource, a comprehensive collection of customized employment tools and turnkey solutions exclusive to BrandSource members. Contact Daniel at (540) 535-8484 or dabramson84@gmail.com.

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