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Be Careful What You Ask For: Interview Questions to Avoid

Published:  October 21, 2014

Be Careful What You Ask For:  Interview Questions to Avoid

An interview is one of the best ways to get to know a job candidate and ascertain how they may fit into your workplace.  While a friendly conversation and direct questions will help you be able to determine if this candidate meets your workplace needs, there are some questions that could quickly lead you into the danger zone.

1)    Where were your parents born?  Are you a United States citizen?

Questions like this are problematic because they lead to information about an applicant’s national origin.  If subsequently this applicant is not hired they may potentially claim it is because they were discriminated against based on their national origin.

What to ask instead – Are you legally authorized to work in the United States?

2)    Have you had any recent or past illnesses or operations?

This question could lead to a claim for disability discrimination.  What you are likely trying to find out is if the person can perform the job for which they are applying.  While this may seem a more polite way to get to the information, it is much more dangerous.  Instead, be direct.

What to ask instead – Are you able to perform the specific duties of this position?

3)    Do you belong to any clubs or social organizations?

This may be a question that you ask as small talk or to calm the applicant down, or you may be asking this question to ascertain if the applicant is a member of any groups that are relevant to the industry.  The issue here comes when this question leads to information about the candidate’s political or religious affiliations which may lead to future discrimination claims.

What to ask instead – Are you a member of any professional or trade groups that are relevant to this industry?

4)    How much longer before you plan to retire?

Understandably, no one wants to hire someone only to have them leave shortly after they are trained.  However, this question implicates an age bias that may lead to a discrimination claim. 

What to ask instead – What are your long-term career goals?

5)    Do you have children?

This is another question that may come out as small talk or may be intended to determine if a candidate will be available whenever you need him or her.  But this question also may lead to claims of discrimination.

What to ask instead – Are you able to work overtime on occasion? Are you available to travel?

6)    What is your maiden name?

This question, or any question alluding to marital status, may lead to a claim of discrimination that is best to avoid.

What to ask instead – Have you ever gone by a different name?  Will your references know you by a different name or a nickname?

While the interview is a great time to address questions that you have after reviewing a job application or resume and to get a general feel for a candidate, it should not be treated as a normal social interaction.  There are questions that if asked incorrectly could have negative outcomes.  For this reason it is always best to think about what you want to ask beforehand.  Write out the questions and be direct.  It is okay to ask for the information you want to know instead of tip-toeing around the issue.  If you have any questions about how to illicit the information you want without risking a legal claim or if you want to ensure your questions are not risky call an employment attorney to discuss the matter.  If you are not the one conducting the interviews, make sure those who do are well trained in what to and what not to ask.

If you have any questions regarding the interviewing or assessing job candidates, please contact any of the attorneys at Royal LLP at (413) 586-2288.

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