Interview questions: do's and don'ts

Authored by hrsimple
June 12th, 2018

Interviews are a key part of the hiring process, but asking the wrong questions can land you in hot water with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Interviews give employers the opportunity to get a feel for an applicant, and they give the applicant a chance to showcase traits that aren’t easily expressed on a résumé. While many employers know the areas they need to cover in the interview (experience, salary, company culture for example), they might not know there are several topics that should be avoided. Seemingly innocent questions, or even natural conversation, may lead an applicant to reveal information about themselves that could open employers up for discrimination claims. Here are a few examples of questions employers should avoid during interviews

  • Who should we notify in case of an emergency? Once an applicant is hired, it is common practice to ask for emergency contact information, but in the hiring stage it could disclose a number of inappropriate responses, such as marital status, or even sexual orientation. Best to leave this till after a hiring decision has been made.

  • How old are you? While applicants will disclose their age and birthday if hired, asking this question during an interview might elicit a age discrimination claim.

    • Related off-limit questions: What year did you graduate? When is your birthday?

  • Have you ever been arrested? This seems innocent enough – you want to make sure they aren’t hiring someone with a criminal background, but legally employers can only ask if the applicant has been convicted of a crime.

  • What clubs and organizations do you belong to? Again, this question seems easy, and relevant to an applicant’s qualifications but might lead to topics like religion or national origin, for example an applicant might respond “I serve as a youth minister at my church.” Instead, employers can ask “Have you ever held a leadership position that might be relevant to the position?”

  • Do you prefer to be called Miss or Mrs.? While asking this question may seem like the polite thing to do, it would reveal an applicant’s marital status, which is irrelevant to their being qualified for a job, and is off limits during the hiring process.

  • Related off-limit questions: What does your spouse do for a living? How long have you been married? What is your maiden name?
  • Where were you born? Questions about birthplace often times naturally work their way into conversation, but could lead to national origin or even religious discrimination claims. Employers should only ask if the applicant has the legal right to work in the United States.

  • Related off-limit questions: What is your lineage? Are you of __________ descent?  Where were your parents born?

Avoiding these questions ­­­– and any that directly refer to age, sex, race, national origin, or disability – is a good way to steer clear of discrimination charges. Some employers find it helpful even to jot down topics to avoid when making a list of interview questions. Now that you know what questions not to ask, you can get to work on finding the perfect applicant, and not have to worry about the EEOC knocking on your door.