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Ten Questions You Don't Want to Ask in a Job Interview

In 1999 alone, nearly 80,000 complaints were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and many of them alleged discriminatory hiring practices. How can so many companies have left themselves open to such charges?

According to John C. Fox, the chairman of the labor and employment law group at Fenwick & West LLP in Palo Alto, California, and a former executive director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program in Washington D.C., although many employers have emphasized training and education in recent years, training has typically focused on recruiters and HR staff.

However, many of the legal blunders are committed at the hiring-manager level. To avoid potentially problematic hiring practices, make sure that your hiring managers are versed in what interviewing practices are legal and proper.

Fox also blames problematic hiring processes on the sizzling economy, record-low unemployment, and the consequent frenzied hiring atmosphere. In the rush to recruit new talent, companies are plowing through job applicants. and leaving their training manuals on the shelf.

"A lot of companies are pretty highly regulated and trained on this," Fox says. "But in an industry like manufacturing, where you have very high turnover and companies that are desperate to hire workers, a lot of the formalities go right out the door."

Questions to Avoid
The EEOC publishes a manual titled Employer EEO Responsibilities. Every smart company should make sure that the employees who conduct interviews on its behalf understand the information contained in this manual.

What follows are a number of topics to avoid in interviews. Some of the questions below are not discriminatory per se, but would trigger close scrutiny by the EEOC because they could be evidence of a discriminatory motive.

  • Do you have children under age 18? What are your plans for child care? Questions such as these could be viewed as discriminatory against women if the employer asks them only of women. In addition, federal law prohibits employers from making preemployment inquiries into child-care arrangements.
  • Do you have a credit record? Rejecting an applicant because of a poor credit rating tends to have a disproportionately negative impact on minority groups. Questions along these lines are unlawful unless there is a business necessity for knowing the answers. These questions may also have a disproportionately negative impact on women because many married women do not have an independent credit history.
  • Are you pregnant? Do you plan to have children? Employers should avoid asking any questions regarding pregnancy or childbearing plans because discrimination based on pregnancy is unlawful under Title VII.
  • Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime? According to the EEOC, members of some minority groups are arrested disproportionately more often than whites, so making personnel decisions on the basis of arrest records could have a disparate impact on these groups. Depending on the position, however, the employer could have a valid business need to exclude such applicants. For example, a bank could be justified in excluding applicants convicted of embezzlement.
  • What is your date of birth? Questions that give away an applicant's age could indicate unlawful discrimination on the basis of age.
  • When did you graduate from high school or college? Similarly, since most people graduate from high school or college at around 18 to 22 years of age, these questions tend to reveal an applicant's age and could be considered discriminatory.
  • Are you available to work on weekends? This question sounds innocent, but according to the EEOC, may demonstrate intent to discriminate by discouraging applicants of certain religions that prohibit working on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays.
  • What is the lowest salary you would accept? Because women have traditionally been paid less than men for the same work, they might be willing to accept lower pay. But as the EEOC points out, it is unlawful to pay a woman less than a man because of community wage patterns that are based on discrimination.
  • Have you ever filed a workers' compensation claim? This question is unlawful because it is likely to reveal information about applicants' disabilities.
  • Do you have a disability? What is the nature of your disability? The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids employers from making any pre-offer inquiries into an applicant's disability.

Building a Safer Interviewing Process
The safest way to steer people in your company away from asking problem interview questions is to provide standardized questions to be asked of all applicants. While following a script may eliminate much of the candor and conversational flow that drives a good interview, it can also prevent a costly lawsuit.

 


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