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Check out our weekly blog posts and see the latest news and discussions happening in the HR world of business.

Which Interview Questions Land HR in Trouble?

When it comes to interviewing, we know there are questions we absolutely can’t ask. For example, we are not allowed to ask a person’s age or religion, citizenship status, and certainly not their political affiliation, but there are a host of other question “categories” that fall into somewhat murky water. To avoid a faux pas, which can not only be embarrassing but can land you on the receiving end of a hefty lawsuit, we outline below just a few of the less obvious interview landmines you’ll want to steer clear of. 

Housing: 
Asking someone if they live locally is fine, it’s one of those disarming questions that can help build bridges (“Your town has my favorite pizza restaurant!”) and they’d fill out their address on the application anyway! However, you are not allowed to inquire whether they rent or own and who they live with as it can give away information about their financial status or their home life (more on that in a few!) 

Age: 
For some roles, such as working in a bar, asking a candidate how old they are is relevant. However, in most scenarios, asking someone’s age is not only rude, but can be viewed as discriminatory. Even dancing around the issue, such as asking when a person graduated high school or what year they began working and how old they were can also land you in trouble, so steer clear or any questions that could give you clues to decipher a candidate’s age. 

Disability status: 
This one, again, is tricky because some roles require manual labor or other movements or skills that might prove tricky depending on the nature and scope of an individuals’ disability. However, you can avoid getting in trouble under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if you steer clear of making assumptions and instead pitch the duties and responsibilities of the role and then ask the candidate if they foresee any difficulties with these tasks. 

Health information: 
Following on from the disability question, you should similarly proceed with caution regarding a person’s health status. Questions that are generally off limits include whether they have any chronic health conditions, mental health issues, are under the treatment of a specialist, whether they are pregnant or plan to be, and even if they’ve made a worker’s comp claim. There are, of course, outliers and some jobs may be able to ask more guided questions such as asking about a person’s height and weight if it is relevant to the job (the only example here we can think of would be for a flight attendant? or perhaps a jockey?!).  You’ll want to tread very carefully, ask the same questions of all candidates, and check federal and local laws regarding these topics. 

Criminal history: 
If the role requires a security clearance, deals with large volumes of money, or is in some way tied to law enforcement, you may be able to ask whether someone has been recently arrested or convicted of a crime. Asking about arrests can prove particularly murky since they have not yet been given due process and could ultimately be found innocent. Leave the legal questions for farther down the interview line and be sure that whatever you ask is not going to violate federal or state laws tied to discriminatory hiring practices. 

Personal information: 
While you might want someone with good family values to join your team, you’re not actually allowed to ask about their home life status. During the interview, it is not appropriate to ask if a candidate is single, married, divorced, has children, is pregnant or trying to get pregnant. You can, however, ask candidates if they have any commitments that might prevent them from working the anticipated shifts, but you need to be sure that you ask both male and female candidates in order to avoid discrimination lawsuits. 

Affiliations: 
Typically, when we’re trying to break the ice, we look for things that we might have in common with a stranger. Seeing an insignia of a club or fraternity that you are a member of or are familiar with might feel like the perfect conversation starter, but experts warn that you should tread carefully as these affiliations can be cues to a person’s race, gender, or even religion. They do note, however, that talking about membership with professional organizations can be discussed, where appropriate. 

Financial status: 
In general, asking folks if they own their own home is off limits, as are questions about their credit score or whether they have a bank account, have had their wages garnished, or ever declared bankruptcy. The only question that you can ask that is mildly related to finances is whether someone owns their own car, and even then, you can only ask if it is a requirement of the job (you can ask if someone has transportation to a job if it’s relevant, but car ownership is different!) 

Work history: 
Much of your interview will likely focus on the skills that your worker picked up in their last role, which you are absolutely allowed to ask about. You can even ask how long they stayed with the company, the titles they have held across their tenure, and even their starting salary. However, a number of states prohibit you from asking what their current salary is (we like HR Dive’s regularly updated tally and breakdown). Instead, you can ask what their desired salary at YOUR company is and use that as a jumping off point to discuss your compensation and benefits offerings. 


Schedule availability: 
This one might surprise you, but asking about a candidate’s availability to work shifts can be seen as discriminatory as it may be forcing the candidate to divulge information about their family status or their religious preferences. Further, if you only ask women this question, because ostensibly they are the primary caregiver, you could land yourself in trouble for discriminatory hiring practices. Instead, you can tell ALL candidates the anticipated schedule or the times you believe you will need coverage and ask if that is something that they will be able to accommodate. 

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