Safely ask the interview “no-no’s” by reframing forbidden or illegal questions to get the information you need when hiring. Lots of forbidden interview questions deserve answers. They’re based on a job-related concern. Here’s how to reframe them to make them acceptable.
(Now, some topics just don’t belong in the conversation. They’re not related to the job, they’re none of your business – and while asking the question’s not illegal, using the answer to make a job decision may be illegal and is certainly ill-advised. Why expose yourself to an EEOC claim and lawsuit – or risk passing up a great employee for an irrelevant reason?)
Reframing is easy. Just follow these three steps. And always consult your company’s employment attorney for legal advice.
1) State the actual job requirement.
2) Ask if that requirement will present a problem.
3) Ask EVERY candidate the reframed question – not just certain applicants.
Ethnicity and language
NO: What is your native language?
NO: Is that a Spanish surname?
NO: Are you a US citizen?
YES: Fluent Spanish is a job requirement for this position. Can you meet that requirement? (And it would also be OK to test fluency.)
YES: Are you authorized to work in the US?
Age and date of birth
NO: How old are you?
NO: When did you graduate from high school/college?
NO: When’s your birthday?
YES: “Are you over the age of 18?” if the position requires a minimum age.
Religious beliefs and practices
NO: What church do you attend?
NO: What religious holidays do you observe?
YES: This job requires you to be available to work on Wednesday evenings. Does this present a problem to you?”
Personal health details
NO: How tall are you?
YES: Can you reach items on a shelf that’s five feet tall?
NO: How much do you weigh?
NO: Do you smoke? (unless you have a no-smokers employment policy)
NO: Do you drink alcohol?
NO: Do you eat meat?
NO: How many sick days did you take last year?
NO: Do you have any preexisting health conditions?
NO: Have you had any recent illnesses?
NO: How’s your family’s health?
NO: When was your last physical?
NO: Do you have any disabilities?
NO: Do you have any use of your legs (candidate in wheelchair, for example)
YES: This job requires you to carry dumbbells weighing up to 25# throughout the shift. Does that requirement present a problem for you?
YES: This job requires you to demonstrate the following list of yoga positions during class. Can you meet that requirement?
YES: This job requires typing at the front desk. Can you meet that requirement?
Note: The Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodation for disabilities. So if someone replies, “Well, I can lift items that weigh 25 pounds, but I have a shoulder problem that prevents me from reaching items on a shelf above my head” then a logical response would be to ask them how that could be reasonably accommodated, or to restate the question: “Can you lift items weighing 25 pounds or less from a shelf below your shoulder height?” Then, if you hire them, make sure the shelf is lowered!
Marital status, kids, childcare
NO: Is this your maiden name?
NO: Are you married, divorced, widowed?
NO: Do you have a domestic partner?
YES: Would you be willing to relocate if needed?
NO: If you get pregnant, will you return to work?
NO: Will you return after maternity leave?
NO: What are your plans for having kids in the near future?
NO: Do you have kids?
NO: What are the ages of your children?
NO: Do your children live with you?
NO: How will you handle child care?
NO: Can you get a babysitter on short notice?
Travel, overtime, or unusual hours
YES: In this job you would have to work from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. one week per month. Does this present a problem to you?
YES: In this job you would have to work from noon until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Does that present a problem for you?
YES: This job will require extensive overtime and travel for the next year. Does this present a problem for you?
YES: This job frequently requires last-minute unscheduled overtime. Does that present a problem for you?
Avoid small talk that results in disclosing information that shouldn’t be considered.
NO: When your kids were younger…
NO: What did you think of J.J. Pearce High School when your kids were there?
Gender, racial and ethnic conflict
NO: Do you mind having a female/male supervisor?
NO: Can you work with a group that’s all/mostly men/women?
NO: Do you have a problem working for a Latino supervisor?
YES: Have you ever been disciplined or fired for insubordination or refusing to follow a supervisor’s instructions?
YES: Are you eligible for rehire at your previous employer?
YES: Tell me about your previous experience in supervising teams.
YES: Tell me about a time you had an employee who resisted your instructions.
NO: Is your husband/wife in the military?
NO: Are you in the National Guard/Reserves?
NO: Were you honorably discharged?
YES: Do you have any upcoming events or other commitments that would require extensive time away from work?
Note: it’s OK to ask about the candidate’s rank when discharged and to discuss skills acquired through military service.
Place of residence
NO: Do you plan to live in this area long?
NO: Do you live nearby?
NO: How far is your commute?
YES: Are you available to start work at 7 a.m.?
Arrests and convictions
NO: Have you ever been arrested?
YES: It’s OK to ask if they’ve ever been convicted of a specific crime reasonably related to the job in question – for example, theft or larceny for a position handling cash.
If you need to know because the position is bonded, then ask it this way:
YES: To fill this job, you must be bonded. Is there any problem that this requirement presents?