Job interviews offer opportunities to get to know candidates, but if you aren't careful, you can learn too much. Asking the wrong question in an interview could elicit information that you don't need to know — and might, whether you realize it or not, impact your hiring decision. If you learn that a candidate is part of a protected class or has a disability, for example, and then choose another candidate, they could use your knowledge of their status against you in a discrimination claim.
So how do you avoid potential discrimination in interview questions? “Keep it focused on the job,” says Skye Mercer, virtual HR consultant and leadership coach at Skye HR Consulting. “You have time to get to know people personally after you hire them.”
Here are five risky questions to never ask in an interview and some best practices for conducting compliant interviews.
“How much money did you make at your previous job?”
Some states have laws prohibiting this question in interviews. But even if you aren't subject to those regulations, don't ask about previous salary information because it could damage your pay equity goals. Basing pay on historical salary results in continuing to undervalue women who have been underpaid at previous jobs, for example. Plan to pay what the job is worth to you, says Kimberly Prescott, founder and president at Prescott HR, and be upfront about the salary you're offering for the job.
Asking about salary could jeopardize compliance and risk perpetuating pay inequities. But beyond that, it's just a bad look. “You’re looking for the best employees, [but] they’re evaluating you, too,” Mercer says. Asking questions about salary could signal to a candidate that you’re trying to pay less than the position is worth.
“Have you ever been arrested or convicted?”
Ban-the-box laws in several states prohibit asking about criminal background until a certain point in the hiring process, usually at the offer stage. But even if you aren't regulated by a ban-the-box law, avoid asking questions about criminal history. Whatever the candidate’s background, in most cases it isn't related to their ability to perform the job they're applying for.
"Avoid asking questions about that until you get to a point where you're offering a job," Prescott says. "If you have pre-hire requirements, those should be handled after determining the person's eligibility to do the job." As a general rule, ask all candidates the same job-related, role-specific interview questions to fairly evaluate their eligibility.
“Do you own your own vehicle?”
This is one of the more common questions to ask in an interview, but it shouldn’t be: Whether a candidate actually owns their vehicle isn’t relevant to their performance. There are other ways to get to work, and asking about vehicle ownership could reveal financial status or personal decisions that employers don't need to know.
When asking about this, the real question hiring managers want answered is: "Do you have reliable transportation?" If you want to know something about a candidate, don't ask roundabout questions. Formulate direct questions that are clearly related to the job. If you want to assess reliability for a team-based role, for example, ask about a time when the candidate helped their team meet a tight deadline.
“Will other responsibilities interfere with your ability to work?”
Asking questions about duties outside of the job role are irrelevant and could lead to disparate impact. "It could have the effect of disproportionately screening out individuals in a protected class," Prescott explains. If a hiring manager asks if a candidate needs to leave work early to care for dependents, for example, women are more likely to be impacted since they typically handle more dependent care responsibilities.
Instead, ask whether the candidate can work the required hours for the job, for instance, but don't probe into why — it isn't relevant to their performance. Use a pre-screening phone interview to determine whether a candidate meets the role's basic requirements for hours and responsibilities. “The phone interview is the most important way to answer deal-breaker questions,” Mercer says. Make sure candidates have access to base requirements in the job posting so they can self-screen themselves at the application stage.
“Where do you see yourself in [X] years?”
This question isn't job-related and has no bearing on your decision. "Asking a question like that could lead someone to give them information that they don't need," Prescott says. A candidate may reveal that they're getting married soon, for instance, and aren't sure what they or their spouse will be doing two to five years from now. Don't risk eliciting information you don't need to hear. Instead, talk about opportunities the position might offer within the company or directions the role could take.
Try to avoid small talk that could elicit personal information. Instead of starting an interview asking a candidate how their weekend went, which could reveal information regarding marital or parental status, put candidates at ease by setting their expectations. “Start with a warm greeting,” Mercer says. “Talk about your background with the company, and why you love it.” Lay out how the interview will progress, she says, so candidates know how long it will last and whether they’ll have a chance to ask questions. If the conversation drifts toward revealing personal information, redirect the candidate to a job-related topic.
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