20 Interviewer Questions NOT to Ask to Stay out of Hot Water

Anita,

As a small business owner, I rarely need to interview and hire. Recently, I had a woman come in for an interview and after she introduced herself, I asked about the origin of her unusual name. One of my team members later told me to be careful; that question could have been illegal. Really, Anita?! I was just making polite conversation. I’m no HR expert, so what should I watch out for in the hiring process to keep me out of legal hot water?

Dear, Inquiring Mind,

What’s considered appropriate cocktail party small talk could be a legal faux pas in the world of Human Resources. You’ve heard, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”? Well, there is in job interview situations!

Some questions may seem perfectly innocuous, but inquire with caution. By federal law, it is illegal for companies with more than 15-20 employees to base employment decisions on the following protected characteristics:Questions_iStock_000061208998

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy)
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Age (40 and over)
  • Genetic information

Read up on the federal laws prohibiting job discrimination – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act – and research any individual state laws.

Sometimes, a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) may allow you to ask certain questions. Say you are a women’s clothing manufacturer. You may ask model applicants if they are female, as it is a job necessity to properly parade your product.

Below are 20 Questions that are illegal or inappropriate. With a little tweaking, you can get the information you desire on applications and in interviews without any legal repercussions.

 DON’T ASKREPHRASE
1Where are you from? Are you a U.S. citizen?Are you eligible to work in the United States?
2Is English your first language?In what languages are you proficient?
3You have such pretty skin. What race are you?We have an affirmative action program; would you like to voluntarily reveal your race?
4How old are you?
(Unless you are interviewing a teenager to ascertain if they can work in a limited, non-hazardous job)
Are you the minimum age required to perform this job? (For those who obviously are over 18, “Tell me about your experience.”)
5When did you graduate?Do you have a degree?
6Are you married?
(After hiring, you may collect contact/beneficiary information about spouse or domestic partner)
7What is your maiden name?Would you have any work experience or references under another name?
8Are you pregnant?
(Note: This is a question that can turn into an embarrassing situation in your personal life, as well!)
9How many kids do you have?Are you able to travel for this job?
(After hiring, you may ask for depending information for tax/insurance purposes.)
10What are your childcare arrangements?Are you able to work overtime on short notice?
11If you plan to have a family, would you return after maternity leave? / How long do you plan to work before retiring?What are your long-term career goals?
10How far would your commute to our office be?Will you be able to start work each day promptly at 8:00 a.m.?
12What type of discharge did you receive from the military?What education or experience did you gain during your stint in the military that relates to the job duties required?
13Which religious days do you observe?Will you be able to work weekends for this position?
14Do you belong to any clubs or organizations?Do you belong to any professional or trade groups relevent to our industry?
15What exactly is your disability?Can you perform the essential job tasks with reasonable accommodation?
16Have you ever been arrested?Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
17Do you have any outstanding debt?Since you will be in charge of collections for our company, can you tell me how well you balance your personal finances?
18Do you drink?
(Surprised? Alcoholism is protected under the ADA)
19Have you ever been addicted to drugs?What illegal drugs have you used in the last six months?
(Past, but not current, drug addiction is protected under ADA Note: you cannot ask about prescription drugs.)
20How much do you weigh?Are you able to lift boxes weighing up to 50 pounds?

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: If it’s not job-related, don’t ask!

Readers: Have you ever been asked an inappropriate or downright illegal question during a job interview? How did you respond?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita.

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Lack of Training

Dear Anita,

I’m in HR and just have to vent. I get so many résumés for open positions from people who don’t qualify even remotely. Can you please tell job seekers without the required experience not to waste my time?

Infographic-1-Lack-of-Experience-LGDear, Not Impressed,

A recent American Staffing Association (ASA) survey found that unemployed adults looking for work say that lack of experience is the main obstacle that prevents them from finding a job. (Really, we needed a survey to figure that out?) But the workforce survey goes further: 82% of unemployed job seekers think training would increase their chances of receiving job offers. And nearly nine out of 10 aspirants would be willing to try a new field if training were offered.

So, employers, do you have a training program for those hard-to-fill positions? Or perhaps you have high turnover in a particular role. This may be an indication that the instruction provided for that job title is not up to snuff. It’s not enough for the HR department to fill chairs with warm bodies; you want those bodies to flourish in the role, both for their own personal growth and for the company’s betterment.

If your business has perpetually open positions with no qualified applicants, consider cultivating “home-grown” employees. Convince your local community college to provide classes that your company would find helpful for future applicants.

Now, let me scold job seekers a bit. If you come across as a lackluster candidate to hiring managers, it’s in your power to improve your image. Don’t wait for future employers to train you. Proactively seek out professional development opportunities, whether it’s online or at your local chamber of commerce, free or paid out of your own pocket. You’ll be able to beef up your résumé’s “Advanced Training” or “Continuing Education” section, and show that you have a drive to succeed.

Readers: Let’s dream a little. If you could change careers with full training provided, what field would you enter?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita.

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Back to Class

Attitude: It’s Contagious!

Dear Anita,

I have a negative employee that I wish would get the flu and stay home from work! Her cynical attitude and pessimism is really bringing the team down. She does get her work done, but not without complaining. Any ideas on how to manage this “Gloomy Gussie?”

Donkey with umbrellaDear Eyeore Encourager,

An employee with a negative attitude can quickly become an emotional drain on the more positive team members. Misery loves company, so you are wise to nip negative behavior in the bud.

Chances are, your Gloomy Gussie’s attitude is a habit. She may not even realize she is coming across as a wet blanket. Here are some ways to encourage more positivity at work:

    • Smile at her (even if you don’t feel like it). Smiling is contagious. Try to beat the statistics: 30% of people smile five to 20 times a day at the office, and 28% smile over 20 times per day at work.
    • Encourage your entire team to find solutions instead of making complaints. In meetings, when Eyeore pooh-poohs an idea, turn the tables and ask how it could work.
    • Give clear feedback – and potential consequences – in one-on-one meetings. Be sure to let Sad Sally know that while her work output is satisfactory, a positive attitude is just as important.
    • Listen. It’s hard not to tune out Negative Nellie when she starts whining. But if you can get to the root of the dissatisfaction, you may just find the cure.
    • Praise progress. Be sure to catch her whenever she makes an effort, no matter how small, to be positive to encourage more of the desired behavior.
    • Keep your own attitude in check. When interacting with Pessimistic Patty, don’t roll your eyes (even inwardly but especially to other subordinates).
    • If things don’t improve, you may have to let this bad apple go. Just be sure to document specific examples of negativity affecting performance as “attitude problem” is too subjective, suggests this Houston Chronicle article, “How to Fire People with Bad Attitudes.”

“A healthy attitude is contagious, but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier.” Tom Stoppard, playwright

Readers: Are you the carrier of an Eyeore or Tigger attitude at work?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita.

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Best of 2015

Dear Readers,

We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience. ― George Washington

Let’s take a look back to see what lessons we have been able to put to use in the past year. Here are the most popular articles of 2015, in order of views:Two business people

#1: Asking for Vacation Time Do you ASK your supervisor or TELL her when you are taking vacation? What’s the best strategy?

#2: Crimes & Misdemeanors It’s no surprise that this post about finding a job with a criminal record made the top of the list, since nearly one-third of Americans have been arrested by age 23.

#Hiding_the_Gray_0000122551363: Hiding the Gray on Your Résumé (and Beyond) Tips for graying triathletes (and the rest of us mere mortals) on how to compete with younger job seekers.

#4: Functional Format for Résumés Not just for the greybeards the functional résumé can work for people with gaps in employment, caregivers returning to the workforce, or recent grads with little experience.

#5: How Long to Find a Job? I am often asked by discouraged job seekers of all ages some variation of the question, “How long does it really take to get a new job?” After reviewing the statistics, see what you can do shorten your search.

On_the_Fence_iStock_000009524325_Small#6: Stay or Quit? Follow this advice if you are asking yourself on the job, “Should I stay or should I go?”

#7: Bypassing Human Resources When to try an end-run around HR, and how to cooperate with the human resources department as a job seeker.

#8: Texting on the Job In this day and age, is texting on the job OK? Check out the data on cell phone distractions in the workplace and see if the facts change your mind.

Woman_Cell_Phone_iStock_000000292386_Small#9: How to Get Past the Phone Interview Learn how to put your best virtual foot forward during the initial telephone screening.

#10: Overcoming Negative References Steps to take when you think a former boss is giving you a bad reference.

Readers: What Anita Clew article was most helpful to you this past year and why?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita. Your question might make next year’s Top 10 list!

Subscribe to receive weekly emails with career tips and advice for job seekers, employed people, and managers and supervisors.

Happy Holidays

Happy_Holidays

The True Cost of Employees

Dear Anita,

My wife and I have a mom-and-pop shop with a dozen employees. One of my workers acts like I’m being a cheapskate with his salary, hinting he deserves a big year-end bonus. I try to pay a competitive wage, but I have to make a profit, too. How can I communicate the economics of a small business?

Dear, Pops,

Total_Compensation_Statement

Payscale’s Total Compensation Statement shows the employer’s contribution in addition to the wages.

Employees often think that their salary is the only cost to the employer for their services. They often do not realize that taxes, workers’ compensation insurance and even the cost of “Mom” completing the paperwork can cost your business another 30 percent in payroll costs.

I assume that you have done salary comparisons for the job title in your geographic region to ensure that you are, indeed, paying a living wage that rivals your local competitors. If you are, a little education may illuminate the realities of employer-paid contributions to all of your employees.

“Total Compensation Statements” can include line items such as:

  • Base pay
  • Bonuses
  • Vacation/PTO/sick days and other paid leave
  • Payroll taxes (Social Security match, Medicare, state unemployment insurance tax)
  • Employer-paid portions of insurance plan premiums (health, dental, vision, life, disability
  • Employer contributions to employee’s retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or pension
  • Stock options or profit sharing
  • Annual usage value of a company car
  • Value of any other fringe benefits offered, such as:
    • Fitness club membership
    • Cell phone service
    • On-site child care
    • Free or discounted public transportation or parking
    • Tuition assistance/professional development
    • Company discounts

Non-quantifiable perks may include flex time or on-site facilities available for employee use. For new hires, include one-time benefits, such as relocation expenses or signing bonuses. There are handy Total Compensation Calculators online.

While a Total Compensation Statement can illustrate the true cost employers pay for an employee, it has the potential to backfire as a teaching tool. Workers may feel you are fudging the numbers if you “double-count” vacation or PTO and they don’t really receive additional pay. Also, if an employee does not use a perk, such as child care, then the value is moot for them. A pitfall with salaried employees may occur if they feel any overtime is not valued since it won’t be reflected in the compensation.

Employees who may be shocked to learn that their $40K annual salary is actually costing their bosses around $52,000 may be a little more grateful, or at least have a greater understanding of the realities their employers face.

Readers: Have Total Compensation Reports opened your eyes to the true costs your employer faces?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita.

Subscribe to receive weekly emails with career tips and advice for job seekers, employed people, and managers and supervisors.

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Thanksgiving Joys

Readers,

Whether you choose to spend the day with family and not darken the door of a single store (see the list of chains closed on Thanksgiving Day) or rush through the traditional turkey dinner to line up outside of the stores opening on T-day for early Black Friday specials, I encourage you to pause to count your many blessings.

Happy ThanksgivingWith a grateful heart for your continued readership,
Anita Clew

Readers: Will you, or won’t you, shop on Thanksgiving Day?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita.

Subscribe to receive weekly emails with career tips and advice for job seekers, employed people, and managers and supervisors.

 

Family Leave Options

Anita,

My dad who lives in Florida just had a massive stroke. I need to help my parents arrange for long-term healthcare and sell their house to pay for it. Is there a way I can assist them temporarily without quitting my job in California and moving across the country?

Dear, Worried Daughter,

I’m sorry your family is going through this difficult time.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted to assist in situations such as yours. The FMLA allows eligible employees at companies with 50 employees or more to take unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons without losing their jobs or health coverage. Covered employees who have worked at least one year and have accumulated 1,250 hours within that year are entitled to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:

  • a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job;
  • to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition;
  • the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;
  • the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;
  • any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty” (military caregiver leave allows servicemembers themselves 26 workweeks of leave)

California also has a similar California Family Rights Act. The CFRA would run concurrently with the FMLA, but there are some differences (for instance, pregnancy is not covered as a serious health condition by CFRA, but is under FMLA). View the California Department of Human Resources’ chart for a comparison.

Your employer may require you to use any paid time off (PTO) before taking FMLA leave. And just like the requirement to get out of gym class back in school, you’ll need the customary doctor’s note to be excused from work under FMLA.

Note also that if you make a contribution toward your group health insurance premiums that is normally deducted from your paycheck, you will have to pay for this out of pocket while on leave. In fact, if you don’t have an emergency fund, 12 weeks of unpaid leave may not be feasible. Unemployment is generally not an option, as you voluntarily went on unpaid leave and you must be available to work to qualify. (Tip: Some utilities such as cable providers may allow a “seasonal hold” while you are away from home, which can be less costly than turning off and then having to pay to reconnect when you return from your leave. Mortgage lenders and landlords may or may not be as willing to defer payments.) If your parents are financially able, they may be able to compensate you for your caregiving time with a personal care agreement. For elderly parents with few assets other than their home, Medicaid’s Cash and Counseling program (available in about 30 states) may help them pay for home health care services – including cleaning, meal preparation, or transportation – from whomever they choose.

Four states have approved paid family leave programs – California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington (whose program has been deferred due to budget shortfalls). If you are eligible, you may receive a percentage of your base wages for a period of time. Here’s a handy chart showing eligibility and coverage by state.

Readers: When and how has the Family Medical Leave Act benefitted you?

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Earthquake Preparedness

Anita,

I recently moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles to take a great management job. As part of my initiation, my new team took me to see that movie “San Andreas.”  I have to admit, it made me nervous! Do you have any earthquake safety tips that will soothe my fears?

Dear, Shaking in Your Boots,

Seismic_Building
Every region has its natural disasters. If you’re from the Midwest, tornadoes were probably your biggest threat. The southeast has hurricanes (the “best” of all natural disasters, in my opinion, because you get plenty of advance notice.) Wherever you live, learn how to prepare for a natural disaster, and then try to stop worrying. As the saying goes, “Most of the stuff people worry about never happens.”

Building_EarthquakeMillions of people worldwide will participate in the Great Shakeout Earthquake Drill on October 15 at 10:15 AM. You can register your company to, as the website says, “have peace of mind that you, your family, your co-workers and millions of others will be better prepared to survive and recover quickly from our next big earthquake.” Go directly to the Resources page to peruse the appropriate manuals, posters and flyers for an earthquake drill.

The most important thing to remember is Drop, Cover, and Hold On if you are indoors during an earthquake.

  • DROP to your hands and knees.
  • COVER your head and neck under a sturdy table or desk.
  • HOLD ON to your shelter (or to your head and neck) until the shaking stops.

In a high-rise building, stay away from windows, and don’t use the elevator. To avoid collapsing windows or building facades, remain inside if you are inside. If you are outdoors, find a safe area clear of buildings, power lines, trees, and signs.

To prepare for any disaster, keep an emergency supply kit on hand. Visit Ready.gov for a list of recommended items.

Readers: Will you be participating in The Great Shakeout?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita.

Subscribe to receive weekly emails with career tips and advice for job seekers, employed people, and managers and supervisors.

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Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Readers,

In light of the recent Umpqua Community College shootings in Oregon, I wish to express my heartfelt sympathy for the victims and their families.

Sadly, active shooter incidents are becoming more frequent. Having a preparedness plan for workplace violence could help save lives.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notes that there is typically no pattern in the selection of victims in an active shooter incident. There are three basics to remember if a coworker or stranger opens fire in your building:

  1. Run: If there is an accessible escape path, attempt to evacuate the premises. Call 911 when you are safe.
  2. Hide: If evacuation is not possible, find a place to hide where the active shooter is less likely to find you. Lock and blockade the door, hide behind or under large items like file cabinets or desks, and remain quiet (mute your cell phone). If possible, call 911 to alert police to the shooter’s location.
  3. Fight: As a last resort, and only when your life is in imminent danger, attempt to disrupt and/or incapacitate the active shooter.

It’s just as important to react appropriately to law enforcement when they arrive, so they know you are not the threat.

This 3.5-minute video, while dated, is a succinct visual reference for an active shooter situation:

For further resources, consult the extensive DHS Active Shooter preparedness list. The U.S. Department of Labor plan covers the broader scope of workplace violence, including early warning signs of violence from an employee.

Readers: Does your company include Active Shooter Response in its Emergency Action Plan?

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Disclaimer

Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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