The topics that should be off limits in most employment interviews include religion, national origin, race, marital status, parental status, age, disability, gender, political affiliation, criminal records, and other personal information such as financial or credit history.
Do not inquire about marital or parental status, including pregnancy, number or age of children, or information about child care arrangements. You may ask if the candidate can meet certain work schedules, but this question must be asked of both males and females.
You should not ask about a person’s birthplace or citizenship. You may ask, “If hired, can you provide documentation of your eligibility to work in the U.S.?” However, it is not necessary to ask this at the interview stage, since all new employees must complete the federal I-9 form, which requires that documentation. If you decide to ask this question in the interview, you should ask it of all interviewees. Do not ask it only to those whose appearance or language leads you to suspect foreign citizenship. Do not ask questions that would elicit the national origin of the person or the person’s relatives or ancestors. You may ask about language fluency if it is job-related, but not whether it is the person’s first language.
You may ask if the candidate goes by other names. When checking a candidate’s work history, knowing former names and nicknames can be important. Do not ask about names in such a way that it would appear to be inquiring about ancestry, national origin, or marital status.
Never ask an applicant’s age unless you are interviewing for a position in which incumbents are legally required to be of a certain age. The only other time a question regarding age would be appropriate would be to ask minors if they have proof of age in the form of a work permit.
Religion, Schools, and Organizations
Do not ask any questions related to religion. Advise all candidates of the work schedule of the job in case it conflicts with religious practices. Regarding education, do not ask about the religious, racial, or national affiliation of schools attended. It is acceptable to ask about membership in professional organizations but not about organizations that reveal race, national origin, or religious affiliation.
Do not inquire about arrests; however, you may explore convictions if they are job-related. For example, you could inquire about an embezzling conviction if you are hiring a bookkeeper since such a conviction would reasonably relate to one’s fitness to perform the duties of the position.
Ask about education and experience during military service, but do not inquire about the type of discharge. Such an inquiry could be viewed as an attempt to gain information about a disability, arrests, or unrelated convictions.
Interviewers should be trained to clearly describe the requirements of the job, and to focus on the applicant’s ability to meet them. All candidates may be asked if they are able to perform all of the essential job assignments safely.
Ask the candidate whether he or she can perform the functions of the job. Employers may inquire as to the applicant’s ability to perform both essential and marginal job functions. However, don’t specifically ask whether reasonable accommodation is needed, or what type of accommodation would be required. This is a fine distinction, but an important one. (Disability Compliance Bulletin, 1995, p. 7).
Example of an acceptable question: “This job requires a person to lift and move 20-30 pound boxes, stand and/or walk for up to two hours at a time, and read written instructions. Can you perform all of these functions with or without reasonable accommodation?”
An interviewer may state the job’s attendance requirements and ask the candidate if he or she can meet the requirement. It is also legitimate to inquire about an applicant’s attendance record at previous jobs, because employees are sometimes absent for reasons other than illness. However, it is not permissible to ask how many absences at a previous job were due to illness. It is also not permissible to ask about prior job-related injuries or workers’ compensation claims.
An interviewer may legitimately ask a candidate about current use of illegal drugs, but not prior use. Also, do not ask about an applicant’s current use of prescription or other legal medications unless it is to validate a positive test for illegal drug use.Demonstrating Performance
If a candidate is going to be asked to demonstrate how job related functions would be performed, exercise extreme caution. If a candidate requests an accommodation in order to demonstrate performance of a job function, the employer needs to either provide the accommodation or ask the candidate to describe how the function would be performed. In any case where a demonstration will be performed, an employer can best ensure his or her selection process is fair and legal by simply making the request to all candidates and being prepared to respond to a request for accommodation.
Interview Dos and Don’ts
Once the list of job-related interview questions is created, use it consistently for all applicants for the same position.
- Try to first put the applicant at ease with introductory and welcoming remarks.
- Ask open-ended questions which focus on behavioral descriptions rather than simply "yes or no" questions (i.e. have them describe a work situation in which they handled stress well rather than just asking if they can "handle stress well").
- Listen; don't do all the talking.
- Stay away from questions that have more to do with personal lifestyles than job experience - phrase the question so that the answer will describe on-the-job qualities instead of personal qualities - if the question is not related to performance on the job, it should not be asked.
Final Interview Reminders
- The interviewer should stay focused on the job and its requirements, not any preconceived assumptions about what the applicant can or cannot do. Remember, any oral statements that the interviewer makes during the interviewing process can lead to potential liability for the employer.
- Remember that someone who interviews very well may have had lots of practice in many other job interviews as a result of frequent job changes. An uncomfortable interviewee may have experienced long-term employment situations and, as a result, fewer interviews.
- Sell the job and the agency while keeping your pitch realistic. Unrealistic expectations will generally lead to employee dissatisfaction and higher turnover.
- Make sure you elicit questions or provide information which will help clear up any unanswered questions or doubts that are lingering in the applicant's mind.
- End the interview on a friendly note and, if possible, apprise the candidate of the next step and the time frame for a decision.
- Complete the candidate evaluation form while the interview is still fresh in your mind.
- Make a fair and unbiased recommendation or decision based on the job-related qualifications of the applicants.