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Berkonomics

What you can’t ask in an employee interview

Dave’s note:  This week, let’s welcome an expert in employment background checks, Chris Dyer, CEO of PeopleG2, to help us explore one dicey subject that gets lots of entrepreneurs and managers into trouble by being completely unaware of what they cannot ask a candidate in an employment interview.  Here’s Chris…

By Chris Dyer

Here’s a real warning to employers and managers.

A list of problematic interview questions would stretch to circle the globe at least once, if not twice.  So how do we know what questions can be asked?

Let’s break this down into two examples using Bob and John.  They are both entrepreneurs leading their “up and coming” technology firm.  As the final portion of the hiring process, each of them chooses to interview the candidate personally.  Each head of

Interview and key concept

“A list of problematic interview questions would stretch to circle the globe…”

the company will interview the same candidate, a woman named Sally – 45–years–old, married, with two children.  She is a United States citizen, but was born in Spain when her mother was stationed in the U.S. Army.

Bob begins to ask questions about past experiences, past jobs, and then turns to some personal topics.  “When did you graduate from college?”  “Were you born in the United States?”  “How many children do you have?”  “Are you married?”  In a separate interview, John asked many of the same questions.  However, Bob’s motivation for asking his personal questions was because he wants to hire younger, energetic, and enthusiastic employees. He believes they will work harder, for longer hours, and for less money.  Bob believes immigrants are lazy.  He is certain that a mother will not focus on her career, missing work to care for her sick child or to attend a parent–teacher conference.

[Email readers, continue here…]  John asked the same questions, but for very different reasons.  He knew someone who attended Sally’s university and wondered if the two knew each other.   Based on the military family background, John innocently asked about Sally’s birthplace simply out of curiosity.   He also asked about her family and marriage, as the company believes in work/life balance, and celebrates its family–friendly environment.  John wanted to know all about Sally to see if she would be a good fit within his corporate structure.

We can probably agree that Bob is a jerk, and John is a nice guy.   Nevertheless, both interviewers asked the same questions.  Does intent matter?  Believe it or not, the answer is no.  They may both have broken the law.  Especially if Sally answered their questions.

Federal and state governments have what is called “Protected Classes.”  At the federal level, examples include protections around race, color, religion, national origin, age (over 40), sex, pregnancy, citizenship, and veteran status.  At the state level, additional protections can include genetic information, sexual orientation, AIDS/HIV, medical conditions, political activities or affiliations, and many more.

Which classes apply to your company and the applicant are surely questions for a qualified attorney.  And understanding what the federal and state restrictions are that apply to your hiring situation can be the best defense you have.  If you know the protected areas, you can avoid asking questions like those listed above.

It will also help you understand other complex situations.  For example, assume Sally’s religious beliefs include that she cannot work on Sundays.  If the job does not specifically require her to work on Sundays, then questions around this topic would be inappropriate.  But, if you were hiring her to manage a team that works with the NFL, and everyone needed to work on Sunday, a careful conversation could occur.  “Can you work on Sundays because the job specifically requires this?” could be appropriate.

From hiring my first employee to the present, I have conducted over 5,000 interviews.  I have found that understanding the protected class restrictions is the best way to navigate the complicated process of asking legal questions, while still understanding the applicant and the candidate’s fit with the company.

So here’s my two cents worth to save lots more over time: develop a good list of questions, ask others in your company to give you feedback, and consider consulting with an employment attorney.  Review carefully what you can’t ask in an employee interview.

  • Even the interview gets tough we always have a choice to answer the questions .

  • Mark Wayman

    The article basically says “intent does not matter.” True statement.

    Never addresses what you can’t ask an employee. If it did, would be a LONG article! Here are two of my recommendations.

    First, leave the college graduation dates off the resume. You will either be too young or too old. Second, only show last 10 to 15 years of experience. No one cares what you did 30 years ago – and it dates you.

    From the buy side (hiring companies), they often ask Executive Recruiters for “diversity” candidates or “young and energetic”. Completely illegal, but also….very common.

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