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What Can I Ask During an Employment Interview?

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As a potential employer, the questions you ask a candidate during the interview process are important for making an assessment as to whether or not that person is a good “fit” for the vacancy. While there are some topics that are not directly related to the job description and are appropriate nonetheless, there are many more that should be avoided. As an employer, it is your responsibility to understand these parameters in an effort to establish a diverse workforce, but also to ensure compliance with state and federal discrimination laws. Here are a few tips for conducting a successful interview.

Certain Topics Should be Avoided…No Matter What

While you may feel at ease conversing with a candidate during an interview, there are certain topics that are simply inappropriate to ask about. Questions about an applicant’s age, birthplace, appearance, marital status, child care arrangements, religion, financial status, etc., almost never have a specific bearing on an individual’s ability to perform a job. Despite being good-natured conversation topics, these types of questions should be strictly avoided. Even indirect questions are improper. For example, “How many years before you plan to retire?” is no different than asking a candidate’s age. “What religious holidays do you observe?” is no better than directly asking a candidate to identify his or her religion. Both have the same legal repercussions.

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Inappropriate Questions to Avoid:

  • Do you hold citizenship in a country other than the United States?
  • Are you the primary wage earner for your family?
  • Where does your spouse work?
  • Do you have children?
  • Are you a member of any social clubs, fraternities, sororities, lodges teams or religious organizations?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Where were you born? Where were your parents born?
  • What holidays do you observe?

Appropriate Questions to Ask:

  • Are you eligible to work in the United States?
  • Can you submit proof of age if you are hired?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime? (Interviewers should make sure to tell the applicant that a criminal conviction does not bar employment, but can be considered in relation to job requirements.)

Shifting Gears When An Interview Gets Off Track

In order to gain information without asking specific questions, often employers use the “tell me about yourself” approach. Unfortunately, an applicant may unknowingly raise “off-limit” subjects such as their religious beliefs, or a recent pregnancy and would like to know about the childcare offered by the company. Under these circumstances, it is in the interviewer’s best interest to interrupt and explain that the company does not base its hiring practices on that particular subject area.

If you or a candidate get off track into a personal subject matter, it is recommended you shift gears back to the position requirements to keep the interview business focused. Sensitive personal information that came up should stay with the interviewer and not be mentioned to others on the hiring panel or recorded. On that note, when dealing with a pregnancy-related question, you can state that your company has a maternity leave policy and offers child care referral services; you cannot, however, ask about her due date.

Although some questions may be asked with innocent intentions, they pose significant problems due to discrimination laws. Consider preparing a list of appropriate questions for the interview in order to protect yourself and your company. Be sure to also share this list with all managers or staff who may do interviews in addition to the human resources department. 

Karen Warthen

Karen Warthen

Karen joined The HR Team in 2001 and has 20 years of diverse human resources experience in the for-profit and non-profit sectors. As the Senior Director of Consulting, Karen is responsible for managing client relations, resource planning, service delivery, project work, quality control, and staff development. In addition, she provides senior-level consulting services to our clients.
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