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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Why All the Cut & Paste?

Ms. Anita,

I would like to know why all the applications when you have a résumé?

Dear, Cutting Corners,

Untitled-1Bothersome, isn’t it? Cutting and pasting information from your already attached résumé makes applying for position postings online seem like a full-time job in and of itself. And for the unemployed, it is your primary goal. So, although it may seem a hassle, do what your future employer asks of you, and fill out the online application to their specifications.

Some job application systems are formatted to use the data you enter to match you with open positions, as it is much faster than a human resources professional personally reviewing each and every application for key words and phrases. These HR pros want the information in the format they require rather than having to search for it wherever you happened to include it (if at all) in your résumé. So skip the extra application step at your peril. You may not even be considered for the job, or you’ll look like someone who cannot follow directions or is simply lazy. (Now, now. I don’t want to hear you calling these hiring managers lazy; they often get hundreds of résumés for online job postings. The onus is on you to make selecting your application easier.)

While we’re on the subject of filling in online job applications, please pay attention to capitalization. I hate to see apps with names or other proper nouns typed in all lower case. That’s just as bad – no, worse – than SHOUTING in all caps. After all, you are smarter than a 5th Grader, aren’t you?

Readers: Go ahead; have a little rant below about all the extra work of filling out online job applications. Then… do it anyway.

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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The Dreaded Salary Requirement Conundrum

Anita,

Why don’t employers put the pay rate or salary in their job postings? It would sure save everyone on both sides a lot of time. I never know what to put when the ad says to include your salary requirements. I don’t want to ask for way too much and blow my chance to even get an interview. But if they pay more than I am used to, I don’t want to cheat myself either. What do you suggest?

Dear, Waging War,

Many employers choose not to list salary ranges. Candidates will almost always negotiate for the high end of the range and if they don’t get the max, they may end up with lingering resentment. Another consideration for large employers hiring nationwide is the wide discrepancy in costs of living. A yearly salary of $50K in San Francisco won’t provide much buying power, but the same salary in a Detroit suburb may provide a middle class lifestyle.

If salary requirements are requested in a job posting, be sure to comply or risk looking like an applicant who can’t follow instructions or does not pay attention to detail. But, just like you shouldn’t bring up salary at the beginning of the interview process, wait until after you sell yourself in the cover letter. Then, include a salary range instead of just one number. Remember, this is a negotiation, not a demand. If you really won’t accept less than say $40,000, state your salary range is between $41,000-$46,000. (I prefer non-rounded numbers; it sounds like you really figured out what you’re worth and what you need to cover your expenses. And you did research comparable positions on Salary.com, Payscale.com, or Glassdoor, right?)

You may be able to avoid giving a number with a phrase such as, “My salary requirements are negotiable based on the position and the total compensation offered, including benefits.” Remember when negotiating that perks such as holidays/vacation time/PTO, flex-time, company-paid professional development opportunities or even bringing your dog to work can make a job offer more attractive than salary alone.

The salary discussion is always fraught with tension, but look at it this way: If you really need a certain wage, why waste time interviewing for a position that won’t even pay the bills?

Readers: Do you have a strategy for the salary requirement question on a job application or during an interview?

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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Crimes and Misdemeanors

Dear, Anita,

I worked for a company for a total of 13 years, in 2010 I caught a charge that was a misdemeanor but still continue to work for the same company for 2 more years, then got fired for what they say was misconduct. Now I’m having problems trying to find a job, I’ve been applying for jobs ever since August of last year, hoping that something will fall through for me soon. Any advice for me?

Dear, Miss Demeanor,

I get quite a few inquiries from job seekers with criminal records, both felonies and misdemeanors. (My post Disclosure of a DUI is one of my top 5 posts of all time.) It’s not surprising since nearly one-third of Americans have been arrested by age 23, a National Institute of Justice article observes. Criminal records range from one-time arrests where charges are dropped to serious repeat offenders, but most arrests are for relatively minor nonviolent offenses.

Since you have a misdemeanor on your record and you’ve been fired, that could count as two strikes against you in the eyes of a potential employer. Check out my blog Explaining Away “You’re Fired.” Since you worked at the company for 13 years, you must include it on your résumé and applications. The misdemeanor, however, may be a different story, depending on where you live. In recent years, some cities and states have prohibited public and sometimes private employers from asking for criminal histories. See the areas with “Ban the Box” policies at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). Positions in fields such as law enforcement, education, or care giving may require full criminal record disclosure, even misdemeanors. Be sure to read applications carefully; some only ask about felonies and not misdemeanors. Others may state a specific time period, such as “in the last seven years.” You don’t want to hide it, as it will come out if and when an employer performs a background check.

Police officer conducting sobriety testThe U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers guidelines for employers on consideration of job applicants’ criminal histories. While these are not policy or law (so not really enforceable in many states), the top three factors employers should consider are: 1) the nature and gravity of offense, 2) time lapse since the offense, and 3) the nature of the job. While an employer with an open accounting position should be hesitant to hire someone who, say, embezzled from a charity, a middle-aged candidate with one sole DUI from college days might fill the position without any issues. Try to apply to jobs that have nothing to do with your infraction (so no driving jobs if you have a DUI on record).

If your misdemeanor is really holding you back, consider having it expunged from your record (sealed from all but law enforcement). The procedure varies from state to state, so you may wish to consult an employment attorney.

Job Seekers: How have you gotten a job with a misdemeanor on your record?
Hiring Managers: Do you have any advice on how job seekers can best present any criminal records?

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.

RELATED POSTS:
Finding Jobs for Ex-Felons
Disclosure of a DUI
Explaining Away “You’re Fired”
Time Theft: Is it Really a Crime?

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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