Important Interview Questions You Can’t Ask—and ‘Sneaky Alternatives’ You Can

You want to get friendly with applicants, say today’s experts, but some questions are a little too friendly. In fact, they’re illegal. Here are some legal alternatives.

Before you hire, it’s natural to want to know all you can about the candidates you’re considering. And you have a legal right to know about them, as long as what you ask is job-related, not personal. Even if a candidate’s availability and fitness for the job hinge on personal issues, you still can’t ask about them. Is there a set of questions that gets the information you need but doesn’t trespass on applicants’ personal lives?

Actually, there are several such lists. We found one recently at the website Here are a few questions they recommend, supplemented with some from our own BLR program, Audio Click ’n Train: Interviewing Skills for Supervisors.

What you can’t ask: Are you a U.S. citizen?
What you really want to know is, can the applicant legally work in the United States, so the question to ask is, “Are you authorized to work in the United States?”

What you can’t ask: What is your native language?
This sounds like a quick way to judge fluency in a language, but it can appear discriminatory, so ask (assuming fluency is important to the job), “What languages do you read, speak, or write fluently?”

BLR’s Audio Click ’n Train: Interviewing Skills for Supervisors uses both PowerPoint® slides and a professionally recorded soundtrack to help your supervisors stay out of the forbidden question zone. Read more

What you can’t ask: Which religion do you practice?
You might ask this to discern if the candidate will be available to work nights and weekends, but asking about religion is clearly discriminatory, says HR The same problem exists in asking, “What holidays do you observe?” Instead, ask the more relevant question, “Can you work according to our established work schedule, which is …?”

What would it cost to keep your supervisors from asking illegal interview questions that could lead to a major lawsuit? How about less than $150? Accomplish it with BLR’s Audio Click ’n Train: Interviewing Skills for Supervisors. Click to learn more.

What you can’t ask: What is your age?

That’s another question that just slips off the lips but one that can set up an age discrimination issue down the road. However, you may ask, “Are you legally old enough to work in this job?”

What you can’t ask: Do you have any disabilities that would interfere with doing this job?

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking about disabilities (and also asking questions that would tend to elicit information about a disability, including inquiries about history of sick leave, hospitalization, and so on). Questions should be limited to asking whether the applicant can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.

What you can’t ask: Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?

Questions about arrests should be avoided, because an arrest does not evidence any wrongdoing. You may ask about convictions; however, it is generally wise to note that a conviction is not necessarily a bar to employment, unless you have a business necessity justification for turning down applicants. For example, a retail employer could reject applicants who had theft convictions on their records.

In the next Advisor, we’ll share a few more forbidden questions and talk about an extraordinary interview training program for supervisors to keep their inquiries on the straight and narrow.

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