Conducting a successful interview goes beyond learning about a candidate’s skills and experience. The conversation should provide insight into how the prospective employee melds with the culture and goals of your company. Can they think on their feet? How will they collaborate with your current team? What are they passionate about?

But in your quest to learn more about each candidate, you have to avoid any unnecessary, unhelpful, or discriminatory questions. Seemingly innocent conversations can toe or even cross the line of legality. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protects workers against workplace and pre-employment prejudice based on:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Religious beliefs
  • Physical appearance (weight and height, for example)
  • Financial history
  • Family and marital status
  • Medical history
  • Disability status

To stay safe — and to ensure a comfortable interview process for your candidates — you need to avoid questions that brush up against those topics. Below, we’ll explore five general topics to avoid during job interviews and provide example questions for each. 

1. Race and Religion

Companies need to avoid mentioning or inquiring about a candidate’s race or religious beliefs during the interview process, in job postings, or in any application materials. The EEOC clarifies that while federal and state laws do not technically outlaw these questions, they can be used as evidence in a lawsuit should a candidate sense discrimination in the hiring process and decide to take legal actions. 

Direct and indirect questions that could infer race and religious background include:

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Do you need certain religious holidays off from work?
  3. Are you a member of social or religious organizations?
  4. Where is your name from?
  5. Can I contact your religious leader for a reference?

Note on Citizenship Questions

Though employers must verify an employee’s authorization to work in the US after hiring, they may not inquire or demand additional citizenship information during the interview process.

2. Age, Gender and Physical Attributes

A person’s physical attributes — from their age and gender to their height, weight, and appearance — rarely affect whether they will succeed in a position. The main exception would be a job that requires employees to lift heavy items — for those roles, it would be appropriate to inform the candidate that the job demands they be able to consistently lift a specific weight and confirm that they’re capable of doing so. 

Indirect questions regarding age, gender and body type appear in many common interview scripts inadvertently. For example, asking for a candidate’s high school graduation dates can be viewed as a roundabout way of determining that person’s age range. 

You should also avoid leading questions that imply a candidate may not work well with coworkers or clientele based on their age or gender. For example, a bar that caters to a younger crowd cannot discriminate against older bartenders or servers based on the assumption that they will not understand the customers.

More questions to avoid regarding gender, age or physical attributes include:

  1. When did you graduate from college?
  2. Can you work with today’s technology?
  3. Do you work well with a whole team of men/women?
  4. Are you thinking of retiring soon?
  5. Do you live an active lifestyle?

3. Financial status 

While it’s not illegal to ask candidates about their financial status if it’s relevant to the role they’re interviewing for, it can be legally construed as discriminatory if a candidate feels the question is being asked due to their race, religion, sex, or disability status. This includes questions regarding credit score, home and/or car ownership, financial hardship and liabilities. To the degree you ask about such financial measures, they have to apply equally to all candidates, and not just certain groups.

You also need to follow the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which regulates how and when a business can collect financial information on a potential client or employees.

In all cases, avoid the following questions that could imply prejudice based on culturally-based financial assumptions:

  1. What neighborhood do you live in?
  2. Can you afford your commute should you be offered the position?
  3. Have you ever (do you currently) own your home?
  4. Where did you grow up?
  5. Do you have a  personal budget?

4. Family and Marital Status

Businesses can’t make hiring decisions based on whether a person has or plans to have children. That means you can’t ask about pregnancy or family-planning under any circumstances, regardless of the candidate’s gender.

You also can’t discriminate against candidates due to their sexual orientation, marital status, or gender identity. Since none of those traits affect someone’s ability to do a job, it’s best to avoid asking about them in an interview.

Questions to avoid include:

  1. Do you plan to have children?
  2. Are you (or your partner) currently pregnant?
  3. How many children do you have?
  4. What is your spouse’s name?
  5. Do you have dependable childcare arrangements?

5. Disability and Medical History

Federal law prohibits businesses from asking pre-employment questions about candidates’ disabilities or medical history. Employers may only ask for specific medication examinations after presenting a conditional offer — and the requirement must apply to all employees who receive offers for that role.

You may, however, ask limited, reasonable questions regarding accommodations for a candidate’s voluntarily disclosed disability. For example, a candidate may ask for reasonable accommodations when completing written or skill-based tests to apply for the job. 

You should also avoid asking any leading questions regarding a candidate’s history of disease, physical ability to complete a task, or psychological health. Though you can ask whether an employee is able to lift a certain weight if it’s relevant to the job, you cannot make assumptions about their health while doing so. You can also ask if an employee thrives in a fast-paced environment, but avoid asking if they experience anxiety during stressful events.

Avoid asking the following disability and health-related questions that could imply discrimination:

  1. Do you take frequent sick days?
  2. Have you ever been treated for addiction?
  3. Have you ever taken antidepressants?
  4. Do you see a therapist?
  5. I see that you have a leg injury. Do you know if it will heal properly?

Bona Fide Occupational Qualification

An employer can only request information on somebody’s gender, religion, age, or country of origin for a role when they meet a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) for the position. That means the employer must be able to prove that the role can only be completed by a person who meets a specific criteria for one of those characteristics. This does not, under any circumstances, apply to race. It can cover other characteristics though. For instance, a religious organization would need to ensure a potential clergy leadership hire belongs to their religion. Many occupations that involve operating heavy machinery have mandatory retirement ages as well. What’s crucial is that the reasoning behind asking the question cannot relate to “customer satisfaction.” For instance, an employer can’t hire someone of a specific gender because they believe customers would prefer interacting with somebody of that gender.

Choosing Successful Interview Questions

Excluding these topics leaves ample space for helpful, open-ended questions directly related to an applicant’s ability to succeed. Always steer your conversation toward the position itself — a candidate should walk away with a better understanding of your company and their daily life in the position. If the candidate brings up any of these aforementioned topics on their own, acknowledge the information respectfully and be ready to move on to the next subject on your list. Interviews are a chance to host potential team members in your environment, both you and your guests should feel at ease throughout the conversation.

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