Are You Asking Illegal Questions During an Interview?

Most employers are smart enough to not knowingly do something illegal. But did you know that making small talk with candidates may lead to unintentional work-around questions that could put your business at risk?

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say you interview candidate A. You ask a few questions, like “How many years of experience do you have?” “Are you married?” “Tell me about your family – do you have kids or plan to?” “Where did you learn to speak Spanish?” “What’s your management style?” You finish the interview thinking she’s pretty amazing and would make a great addition to the team. But then candidate B comes in. You ask her about the tools she uses to do the job, how many years of experience she has, where she got those great shoes, and does she have a nickname.

Candidate B has a little less experience than candidate A, but she has extensive experience with the tools your company uses and has a documented record of success with them. Candidate A has none of the above. This means Candidate B could be up and running in week one. You offer the job to her.

Then a lawsuit shows up: candidate A claims you discriminated against her because she indicated she plans to have kids someday (remember asking her about her family?). Candidate B’s kids are already in college. There’s no way you’re getting out of this one.

Although you were just trying to get to know the candidates better, your small talk included several “Illegal” interview questions that could point to a bias: that you didn’t want a candidate who might go on maternity leave or need to miss a day with a sick kid.

Questions employers can’t ask during an interview

Beyond the topics made off-limits by the EEOC, there are other taboo subjects that should not be asked about in a job interview such as unemployment status, financial situation, medical history/health, and more. Some states and municipalities also ban employers from asking salary history — regardless of whether the company operates in the state or are simply talking to a candidate who resides there. Violating any of these can put you at risk of a lawsuit.

There’s more: you can’t rig your applicant tracking system to ask or screen based on questions like these (even if not stated directly), nor can you write job descriptions that weed out candidates before they ever apply. Facebook learned this the hard way in 2013 when it settled a case with the State of California stemming from employments ads with a stated preference for college grads from the classes of 2007 or 2008 — definitely not something you want to do after your CEO publicly states that “young people are just smarter.” That means employment ads that seek “digital natives” won’t fly, nor will setting up your applicant tracking system to weed out anyone with more than seven years of experience, which could eliminate workers over the age of 40 (they’re protected). By the way, the Facebook incident isn’t an anomaly: additional similar lawsuits are currently pending in California and New York, a number of which target tech companies.

Do managers know the rules of interviewing?

Even if you know the rules, every person in the hiring process at your company may not. Large companies with strong training programs have even fallen short when it comes to teaching managers what’s right and wrong with screening job candidates. The 2013 lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch in which an applicant wasn’t hired because of her headscarf serves as a great lesson: compliance concerns start the moment you write a job description and continue through the end of your relationship with the job candidate.

Beyond reviewing the EEOC rules, I advise all companies, regardless of size, to invest in training for anyone who could become involved at any stage of the hiring process, and to ensure you have someone available to stay up to date on compliance fails at other organizations, too. Interview-related employer mistakes can get incredibly costly. The Abercrombie lawsuit cost the company $25,000 to settle, but much more in legal fees and bad PR. In May, 2018, a restaurant chain in Florida agreed to pay a $2.85 million settlement for telling job candidates that they didn’t hire “old white guys.” (Yes, I’m serious.) New class-action suits are also pending that focus directly on targeted ad placement.

Any way you look at it, hiring can be a costly proposition for employers. It pays to stay up to date on all rules.

Preventing illegal interview questions — and a big legal nightmare

One of the easiest ways to avoid costly errors when you don’t have a large HR team with experts that oversee compliance is to work with a professional HR outsourcing firm that will do this for you. But before you sign on for outsourced HR services, check to ensure the company you’re talking to includes compliance monitoring and manager training as part of their services. If they say “yes,” press further: what exactly do they do? For example, at Stratus.hr, we monitor our clients’ growth and notify them whenever they’ve reached a new compliance threshold and what the regulation in question will mean to the company. We can also review job descriptions and set them up with an applicant tracking system so the application process doesn’t venture into “illegal” territory. (I have personally coached some of our clients’ management teams on what is and isn’t allowed.)

One last thing: you may want to watch some of our Facebook Live videos where we discuss HR topics that concern employers and employees (or prospective ones). I did one recently that coached employees on what THEY shouldn’t do during an interview. They’re short, fast, free to watch, and definitely worth a look.

Illegal Job Interview Questions

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In 2017, CNBC conducted a poll on illegal questions in interviews with the Associated Press. More than 1,000 answered as follows:

  • 10% of interviewees were asked if they were pregnant or planning to be
  • 35% were asked their age
  • 35% were asked if they were married

What all of these have in common is that they’re illegal interview questions — the kind that, if asked, could land a company of any size in hot water.

The EEOC bars the following questions during job interviews:

  • Whether applicant is pregnant
  • Marital status of applicant or whether applicant plans to marry
  • Religious affiliation
  • Number and age of children or future childbearing plans
  • Child care arrangements
  • Employment status of spouse
  • Name of spouse
  • Color
  • Country of origin
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Disability
  • Genetic information
  • Sexual orientation

Want to learn more about how Stratus.hr can help protect your business? Request a free quote today!









Stacey Gibson

Author Stacey Gibson

Stacey is a certified Professional in HR (PHR) and the reason her clients would never consider leaving Stratus.hr. When not at work, you can hear her at one of her children’s sporting events -- she’s the one whistling louder than the refs.

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