Amanda Groves

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Fair hiring laws exist to give every candidate an equal chance in the recruitment process. And yet, no matter how familiar some recruiters may be with the rules of the road, a surprising number get tripped up and find themselves inadvertently asking illegal questions. And while doing so might do no greater harm than simply turning good candidates off, in the worst-case scenarios, you could be exposing your organization to a discrimination lawsuit by not following through with HR compliance requirements.

Here’s how to keep your interviews on the right side of the law.

Understand what constitutes illegal questions

Illegal interview questions are those that are not related to the applicant’s candidacy. These include interview questions about the candidate’s age, race, ethnicity or color, gender or sex, country of national origin or birth place, religion, disability, marital and family status, or pregnancy. If you ask a question that requires the candidate to reveal information on these topics without it being clearly related to the job, then you’ll be violating state and federal discrimination laws. Examples of such questions include:

  • What does your wife do for a living?
  • How will you manage childcare while you work?
  • Do your religious beliefs mean you’ll need time off for certain holidays?
  • Are you planning on starting a family?

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has plenty of information online to help you avoid the pitfalls.

Plan and prepare

Determining the interview questions in advance and making sure you are familiar with the candidate’s resume will help keep you on track. A structured interview process with carefully planned questions ensures that you treat all candidates equally and don’t veer off course.

Make sure to ask each of the candidates the same job-related questions, ensuring that they are pertinent to the essential skills and qualifications that you’ve identified as necessary for the role. Off-the-cuff questions can easily get you into trouble, especially when the interview is friendly and both parties are relaxed. To avoid this pitfall, stick to your interview plan.

Train your interviewers

Any candidate who makes it past an initial HR screening will likely go on to be interviewed by line managers and leaders who don’t necessarily have any formal experience conducting interviews. It’s a scenario where someone could inadvertently drop in a question that breaks anti-discrimination laws without even realizing it.

As such, you need to make sure that everyone involved in the hiring process is briefed on the law, the kinds of things they should not ask, and that they are sticking to a prepared set of questions. It’s always a good idea to provide a formal training program for non-HR employees who are regularly required to sit in on interviews and to refresh that training from time to time.

Always keep job relevance in mind

When you plan your interview questions, it’s best to keep their relevance to the job at the forefront of your mind. If a question has no bearing on the person’s skills, experience or capability to perform the role, then don’t ask it. Refer back to the job description and advertisement to make sure you’re always relating back to the role requirements.

What to do when information is volunteered

Sometimes a candidate will volunteer information that you would rather not know. You can’t undo this, but it’s best to move on swiftly and not make a note of it. Don’t pursue any discussion of the subject and continue with your interview plan. When you’re making hiring decisions, you need to ensure that this information is not a factor in your selection.

Keeping it fair and legal

Too often, people involved in the hiring process ask questions that are illegal and not related to ability or job performance. It may be inexperience, a genuine mistake, or wrong-headedness, but the key to keeping your interviews legal is through education and training, keeping your interviewing processes consistent, and keeping yourself up-to-date with the law. Not only will you make better hires, but you’ll keep your company and its reputation on the straight and narrow.

Have you ever been asked an illegal interview question? If so, tell us about your experience in the comments section below.

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