Interview questions: What’s legal, what’s not?

Conducting job interviews is one of the most legally dangerous tasks performed by managers.

One misguided question could cause an applicant to think he or she was re­­­­jected due to one of the federally pr­o­­tected categories (race, gender, disability, age, national origin, religion or pregnancy status). That’s why every question should relate to this central theme: “How are you qualified to perform the job you are applying for?”

Take this hiring quiz to see if you know which questions are legal and which are not:   

 1.  A female applicant explains the time gap in her employment history by saying that she took time off to raise her two children. Your next question is:

a) How old are your children now?

b) What child care arrangements have you made?

c) You might be asked to work later than 5 p.m. on occasion. Would you be able to meet that requirement?

d) What happens when your kids are sick?

 2.  An older job applicant is very overweight. The job requires lifting heavy boxes and you wonder how he’s going to do it without having a heart attack. You say:

a) Do you have any health problems?

b) When was your last physical?

c) This job requires lifting 60-lb. boxes onto a three-foot platform for the entire shift. Can you handle that?

d) Would you be willing to take a physical with the company doctor?  All new employees are required to pass it.

 3.  You notice an engagement ring on a female candidate for a sales rep position. You wonder if she’d be comfortable traveling on the road with the male sales team. You ask:

a) Do you have any reservations about traveling with the other sales reps? You’d be the only woman.

b) Do you think your husband’s going to object if you have to stay overnight?

c) You may have to stay overnight when traveling with the rest of the sales force. Would that bother you at all?

d) This job requires a lot of overnight travel. Will that cause problems at home?

 4 . It’s illegal to ask applicants to describe what information about themselves on an application form:

a) Height & weight

b) Skin color

c) Eye/hair color

d) Scars/identifying marks

 5.  When should you ask an applicant to supply the name of a person to be contacted in case of emergency?

a) After the person has officially been hired.

b) During the job interview.

c) On the application form.

d) When the new employee first reports for work.

 6.  You can ask about an applicant’s religious affiliations when:

a) He tells you about his experience as financial director of his church.

b) Her résumé lists membership in religious organizations.

c) The applicant names a pastor as a reference on the application.

d) None of the above.

See answers in box below.

The envelope, please …

1. C will keep you out of trouble. You’re not asking about family matters here, just whether or not an applicant can fulfill legitimate job requirements.

The other questions aren’t illegal at face value, but they’ll put you at a legal risk: If you use the information to disqualify an applicant, you could be guilty of sex discrimination.

2. Either C or D. Specifying company re­­quirements to all prospective employees is not discriminatory. The problem with A and B is that these questions suggest you’re making assumptions based on appearance (he looks too old, too fat, too weak, etc.). That puts you squarely in forbidden territory in disability and age discrimination laws.

3. C is the safest choice; B is the disastrous one. Again, C states an actual job requirement—without B and A’s sexist overtones. The rule of thumb for questions that may cross sex boundaries: Ask yourself, “Would I ask the same question of a male (female) candidate?”

4. Only B is against the law. But you could also be treading on uncertain legal ground with the other three choices, unless those characteristics are rock-solid bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ).

These days, not much passes for a genuine BFOQ. Eye/hair color might be legitimate queries for a modeling agency. Or, asking for height and weight could pass muster under very limited circumstances. Otherwise, these questions only invite suspicion from EEO regulators. If you really don’t need the information for actual job-related reasons, don’t ask it.

5. The answer is A or D. Once you’ve made the offer or the employee is on the payroll, the time has generally passed when you might have discriminated on this basis. Emergency contact names can become an issue because of possible race discrimination when traditionally ethnic last names are identified. Remember that discriminating against people for associating with or marrying into these groups is also illegal.

6. D, none of the above. You are never allowed to question a candidate’s religious affiliation, beliefs, observances or practices. You can ask about availability to work specific days or shifts, but only if you can justify a business necessity.