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As the old saying goes, if you ask a stupid question, you will get a stupid answer. But when it comes to conducting a job interview, the consequences of an ill-advised query can be much more severe, as an illegal line of questioning could be used as the basis for a discrimination lawsuit against your company.

While some topics of conversation are obviously off limits, certain seemingly benign areas of small talk can also prove problematic. Understanding what constitutes an illegal question and learning how to avoid such discussions, including those initially voiced by the candidate, is essential for hiring managers looking to stay compliant during the recruitment process.   

Familiarize yourself with what topics are out of bounds

Any questions that are not directly related to the candidate’s qualifications for the position should be avoided, and explicitly illegal interview questions include anything involving 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.

Hiring managers often get themselves into trouble when determining someone’s availability, since asking whether they’ll take time off for religious holidays or will need to work remotely to care for their children could be construed as discriminatory.

Avoid the perils of small talk

Many hiring managers like to create a more casual atmosphere when interviewing job candidates, sometimes going as far as taking the candidate out for a meal or a coffee break. One potential problem with this method is that small talk has a way of naturally bringing up topics you are not allowed to ask about. If the subject of family arises, you should know you are not allowed to ask “how old are your kids,” “what does your spouse do for a living” or “what do you do for child care?”

Similarly, any questions that deal with age are verboten, meaning even if you find out that you and the candidate share an alma mater, it’s inappropriate to ask what year he or she graduated from the school.

Take control of conversations that veer off-topic

Oftentimes, a candidate will casually volunteer some information about his or her personal life, particularly when asked why they are interested in the position, or where they see themselves in five years. While interviewees are obviously at liberty to tell you these things, you should continue to refrain from asking about anything related to the forbidden topics, and try to steer the conversation back on topic.  

A candidate may also specifically ask about paternity or maternity leave, or any benefits related to childcare. You are free to answer their questions, but do not comment upon or inquire further about the nature of their family situation. It’s okay to clarify your company’s policies on the topics expressly asked about, but know not to ask for more details.

Takeaways

  • Don’t ask any questions about forbidden topics or that are not directly related to the job’s requirements.
  • During small talk, fastidiously avoid any discussions that could touch on children, marital status, age or other perilous subjects.  
  • If the candidate brings up a problematic area, steer the conversation elsewhere.

To learn how integrated HR software can help employers stay compliant and efficient throughout the hiring process, schedule a free demo of JazzHR today.

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