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Q&A: Are there any questions we should avoid when interviewing job candidates?

Question:

Are there any questions we should avoid when interviewing job candidates?

Answer from Kara, JD, SPHR:

Yes. You should avoid questions that cause an applicant to tell you about their inclusion in a protected class. Don’t ask about race, national origin, citizenship status, religious affiliation, disabilities, pregnancy, sexual orientation or gender identity, past illnesses (including use of sick leave or workers’ comp claims), age, genetic information, or military service. You should also avoid asking about things that might be protected by state law (e.g., marital status and political affiliation). If you were to ask any questions pertaining to these matters, rejected candidates could claim that your decision was based on their inclusion in these classes rather than their credentials.

The types of questions you ask a job candidate should be job-related and nondiscriminatory. This may seem obvious, but employers sometimes ask problematic questions because they believe they are job-related. For instance, an interviewer might ask an applicant if they have any back issues when they are trying to determine if the applicant can lift 25 pounds repeatedly throughout the day. Or when seeking someone to fill a position on Sundays, they might ask if the applicant is Christian or goes to church. Both of these questions are plainly discriminatory and could get an employer into significant trouble.

Thankfully, there’s a way to get this information without asking discriminatory questions. Instead of considering the things that could get in the way of an applicant doing the job and asking about those, frame the question so that it’s about the essential duties of the position. Can they lift 25 pounds all day every day? Are they available on Sunday, since that’s the day you are hiring for? Simple adjustments and precautions can go a long way toward a compliant interview process.

On a final note, you should also avoid questions that are asked purely out of curiosity (Do you have children? What kind of accent is that? What do you do for fun?), as those can easily be misconstrued as discriminatory. When in doubt, return to the job description. Make sure your questions are directly related to the essential duties and answer the ultimate question—can the applicant do the job?

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Kara practiced employment and bankruptcy law for five years before joining us and was a Human Resources Generalist at an architecture and engineering firm for several years prior to that. As an attorney, she worked on many wage and hour and discrimination claims in both state and federal court. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oregon State University and earned her law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School.

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