Since the purpose of a job interview is to learn more about applicants, recruiters often ask a variety of questions to get a complete picture of the person in front of them. But, beware: there are several things you cannot ask candidates in an interview—even if the intention behind the question is seemingly harmless.
When determining legal vs. illegal interview questions, the difference usually lies in whether or not the line of questioning relates to a person’s qualifications for the job. A recruiter’s questions must be focused on the skills and experience needed to perform the job well. For this reason, it’s better to save small talk and personal questions until after an individual is hired. If not, the recruiter may unknowingly discriminate against the applicant.
Hiring discrimination is often subconscious, which is why human rights laws prohibit recruiters from asking for certain information. This helps reduce bias in the interview process. If pre-employment discrimination is suspected, the recruiter and/or company may face steep consequences such as a costly lawsuit or a damaged brand reputation.
Some interview questions are obviously off-limits (or at least they should be), while other questions are more indirect but need to be carefully avoided just the same.
Race and Citizenship
Anything related to race, color, place of origin/ethnic origin or citizenship is off-limits. Hard stop. Unlawful questions like ‘What country are you from?’ have absolutely no bearing on a person’s ability to do the job.
There are very few acceptable exceptions to this rule. The only question that may be appropriate is: ‘Are you authorized to work in this country?’ This is an obvious requirement for a job.
Sex, Gender and Orientation
Sex, gender and sexual orientation are as unrelated to a person’s ability to perform the duties of a job as the color of someone’s skin or where they were born. Describe the job, then ask the candidate if they can perform all of the functions. It’s that simple.
Some companies ask applicants for an emergency contact person even at the interview stage. While it’s great to know who to contact in case something goes awry, asking for details about the nature of the relationship with the contact is strictly out-of-bounds.
Religion is another topic to avoid during interviews—and in the workplace entirely. Unlawful questions include ‘Do you go to church?’ and ‘What religious holidays will you need off?’
Even asking questions about weekend work could be seen as a religious proxy question. Instead, ask questions like: ‘Are there shifts you cannot work?’ or ‘Do you have any commitments that might prevent you from working the assigned shifts?’
With the exception of cases where age is a legal requirement (such as working in an establishment that serves alcohol), recruiters can’t ask questions related to an applicant’s age.
You cannot ask:
How old are you?
What year were you born?
When did you graduate high school?
When did you first start working?
All these questions directly or indirectly answer how old the candidate is. Some young applicants show tremendous promise and some older applicants still have lots of time left in their careers—and plenty of practical experience. Age shouldn’t be a factor in making hiring decisions.
‘Do you have a disability?’ ‘Have you ever filed a worker’s compensation claim?’ Neither of these questions are appropriate during an interview. Describe the duties of the job and ask if the candidate can perform them. If they can, they’re qualified and should therefore be considered for the position.
Although questions about relationship status, children and family/home life are great commonalities between a recruiter and a candidate, these questions should be avoided.
Do not ask:
Are you married?
Are you single?
Do you have any children?
How old are your children?
Questions about evening work or childcare arrangements often alienate single parents. Instead, ask ‘What days and shifts can you work?’
In the same vein, you cannot ask women if they are pregnant or if they’re trying to (or would want to) have a family. Even if a candidate looks pregnant, it is never acceptable to ask questions about this subject. Just describe the job and then ask if they can perform all duties.
As a recruiter, when you solicit certain information, you risk discriminating against candidates without just cause. Be sure to ask all applicants the same questions regardless of gender, race, age or any other factor that does not relate to job performance.