Have You Ever Asked an Illegal Interview Question?

HR & Safety

One in five employers has–unknowingly

Job seekers may think they’re the only ones sweating the job interview: afraid they’ll say the wrong thing or answer inappropriately: but hiring managers are under just as much pressure.

When it comes to drawing the line between what is and isn’t appropriate to ask a job candidate, the parameters aren’t always clear. In a recent CareerBuilder survey, 20% of hiring managers indicated they have asked a question in a job interview only to find out later that it was illegal to ask.

The survey also revealed the less-conventional interview questions hiring managers have asked to see what really makes a candidate tick.

“It’s important for both interviewer and interviewee to understand what employers do and don’t have a legal right to ask in a job interview: for both parties’ protection,” says Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. “Though their intentions may be harmless, hiring managers could unknowingly be putting themselves at risk for legal action, as a job candidate could argue that certain questions were used to discriminate against him or her.”

Interview Questions That Aren’t Okay to Ask

The following questions are illegal to ask. Yet, when asked if they knew if these questions were illegal, at least one third of employers indicated they didn’t know:

  • What is your religious affiliation?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • What is your political affiliation?
  • What is your race, color, or ethnicity?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you disabled?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you have children or plan to?
  • Are you in debt?
  • Do you social drink or smoke?

Often the legality of the question is in how the interviewer asks it. For example, a number of hiring managers didn’t know the legality of asking the following:

  • “When do you plan to retire?” Asking candidates what their long-term goals are is okay, but asking when they plan to retire is off the table.
  • “Where do you live?” Asking candidates where they live could be interpreted as a way to discriminate based on their location and is therefore illegal. Asking them if they are willing to relocate, however, is okay.
  • What was the nature of your military discharge? Asking why a military veteran was discharged is illegal; however asking what type of education, training, or work experience received while in the military is not.
  • Are you a U.S. citizen? While it’s okay to ask if a candidate is legally eligible for employment in the U.S., it’s not okay to ask about citizenship or national origin.

Unusual, but Legal, Interview Questions

Some interview questions seem inappropriate because they are, as noted above. Others, however, seem inappropriate because they are unfamiliar. Although the following interview questions may have one wondering, “What does this have to do with the job?” there is a method to hiring managers’ perceived madness.

Below are some of the most unusual: but still legal: interview questions hiring managers say they have asked job candidates, and what these questions really assess:

  • How would you wrangle a herd of cats? A hiring manager might ask a question like this to gain insight into a candidate’s ability to organize, lead, and motivate others.
  • Do you believe in life on other planets? A question like this might be asked to see if a candidate has an attitude that anything is possible.
  • What superpower would you like to have? How candidates answer this question can provide insight into how they view their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • If you were stranded on an island, what two items would you like to have with you? Answers to this question could indicate a candidate’s ability to weather a tough situation with limited resources.
  • If you did not have to work, what would you do? This question provides a peek into a candidate’s values and interests outside of work, which can help assess for cultural fit.
  • If you were trapped in a blender, what would you do to get out? This question might assess a candidate’s creativity, ability to think on his or her feet, and problem-solving skills.

More than 2,100 hiring and human resource managers across industries participated in the nationwide survey, commissioned by CareerBuilder and conducted online by Harris Poll from Nov. 4 to Dec. 2, 2014. For more tips on interviewing job candidates, click here.

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