When you interview job candidates, you spend a lot of time planning what you’re going to ask. But what you say could potentially get you in trouble if you ask a question that’s prohibited by anti-discrimination laws. An employee who isn’t hired for whatever reason might sue your business, claiming you didn’t hire them because of discrimination. How can you protect your business?
Start by knowing what you can and can’t ask a candidate during a job interview. Here’s what to steer clear of and how you can still get the facts you need.
Wrong: “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
Right: “Are you authorized to work in the United States?” (You will need a new employee to complete an employment eligibility verification I-9 document—but not until they’re actually hired.)
Wrong: “How old are you?”
Do ask: If you legitimately need to know a person’s age—for instance, if the job requires serving alcohol—you can ask about their legal ability to do the job: “Are you of legal age to serve alcohol?”
Wrong: “Are there any religious holidays or hours that you can’t work?”
Right: “Are you able to work all the days and hours this job requires?”
Wrong: “Are you married?” “Do you have children?” “Are you pregnant?” “Are you planning to have children soon?”
Right: If you’re concerned that the candidate will want to leave work early or be reluctant to travel on business, ask in a way that relates to the job duties: “This job requires lots of travel; will that be a problem?” “This job requires working on weekends; is that a problem?” or “We frequently work overtime here; will that be a problem?”
Wrong: “How is your health?” “Do you have any mental or physical disabilities?”
Right: “Can you perform the duties this job requires?” “Are you willing to take a drug and/or alcohol test?” It’s illegal to reject a job candidate because of mental or physical disabilities, health problems or addictions.
Wrong: “What country are you from?” “What ethnicity are you?”
Right: There’s no right way to ask about race or ethnicity (The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits it) so don’t even ask.
Wrong: “Have you been hospitalized in the last year?” “How many sick days did you take last year?”
Right: “Can you meet the attendance requirements of this job?”
All these subjects to avoid may make conducting a job interview sound like a field of land mines. However, the general principle is really pretty simple: The interview questions should focus on whether a person is qualified for the job. Very few jobs require someone to be a particular religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender or marital status. Just keep your questions focused on whether the person meets the requirements of the job, and you’ll be in good shape.
Need more guidance? You’ll find more information and advice for small business owners on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
This post is not intended to substitute for legal advice. Please consult your own legal counsel for specific guidance.