What You Can’t Ask a Job Candidate is as Important as What You Can Ask

Sept. 27, 2004
As a human resources professional or business owner, you face many challenges during the hiring process – from sorting through stacks of job-applicant résumés to making an attractive offer to the one person you believe best matches the specifications of your open position’s job description. The whole procedure is more than time-consuming; it can be stressful as well.

None of the demands of finding and hiring the best candidate are more complex than those of the interviewing process. Besides spending a significant portion of your time listening to what your final candidates have to say, you must – without violating any of the employment discrimination laws in place – evaluate each applicant’s ability to successfully perform the job.

You have a responsibility to your company and to all prospective employees to avoid any semblance of discrimination or impropriety in your hiring processes. You must keep your interview questions related to specific job activities; in fact, it’s probably a bad idea to ask any question that doesn’t deal directly with a specific job’s requirements.

If you feel any question on your list might lead to an applicant’s perception of discrimination, eliminate that question from the discussion. You can’t possibly read the minds of job seekers now or in the future, especially when the ones who ultimately weren’t offered the job might try to convince themselves that the reason they weren’t hired was “discrimination” – rather than their level of skills. The result could be an unfounded and unnecessary legal action that would, at the very least, distract you from your current job functions in meeting important and strategic company goals.

Use the following points as general guidelines to develop your list of appropriate interview questions for all job candidates. If you have questions about what’s permitted by law (especially regarding special circumstances in your state), consult with your company’s legal department or another reliable source. And above all, remember this: If you believe any question or part of your discussion with a potential employee could be perceived as discriminatory, avoid it.NameYou may discuss: Use of another name and additional information (relative to a change of name or use of an assumed name) necessary to enable a check of education or work record.You may not discuss: Maiden name. For example, do not ask: What is your maiden name? What is your mother’s maiden name?AgeYou may discuss: Before hiring, whether the applicant is over the minimum age for the job’s hours or working conditions; after hiring, verifying same with a birth certificate or other ID, as well as asking age on insurance forms.You may not discuss: Age; birth date; or questions that might identify the applicant’s age, especially if he or she is over age 40. For example, do not ask: How old are you? What year were you born? When did you graduate from high school?Citizenship/National OriginYou may discuss: Ability to speak, read, or write English or a foreign language if required by the job; offers of employment contingent upon verification of identity, residence, and work authorization in the United States.You may not discuss: Birthplace, nationality, lineage, ancestry, national origin, and parentage of applicant or applicant’s parents or spouse. For example, do not ask: Where were you born? Where are your parents from? What’s your heritage? What is your mother’s tongue? What language do you normally use? How did you learn to read, write, or speak a foreign language?Race/ColorYou may discuss: Equal opportunity employment at your company; race only as required for affirmative-action programs.You may not discuss: Race or color; complexion or color of skin, eyes or hair; any direct or indirect reference to race, color, or racial groups. For example, do not ask: What race are you? Are you a member of a minority group?Gender/Marital Status/Children/ChildcareYou may discuss: Company policy regarding work assignment of employees who are related; anticipated absences from job; freedom to travel, if job requires; and ability to meet work schedule requirements. You may not discuss: Applicant’s gender, marital, and family status; number or ages of children or dependents; provisions for childcare; pregnancy; birth control; or name or address of relative, spouse, or children of adult applicant. After hiring only, you can ask about marital status/dependent information for tax and insurance forms. For example, do not ask: With whom do you reside? Do you live alone? How many children do you have? Are you married? Do you plan on having children? Are you pregnant?Physical, Health, or Mental DisabilityYou may discuss: Candidate’s ability to perform essential functions of this job with or without reasonable accommodation; applicant’s impressions of performing the essential functions of the job; days of leave taken during the last year; and attendance requirements of this job.You may not discuss (until after offer is made and then only related to job performance): The existence, type, or severity of disability. For example, do not ask: Do you have a disability that might interfere with your ability to perform the job? How many days were you sick last year? Do you have any pre-existing health conditions? Do you have (name of disease)?Religion/CreedYou may discuss: The company’s regular workdays and hours.You may not discuss: Applicant’s religion, religious days, or whether religion would prevent him or her from working weekends or holidays. For example, do not ask: What religion are you? Do you attend church regularly?ResidenceYou may discuss: Place of residence.You may not discuss: Ownership of residence. For example, do not ask: Do you own or rent your home? How much are your house payments?Military ServiceYou may discuss: Relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities acquired during applicant’s military service.You may not discuss: General questions about military service such as dates, discharge, or service in a foreign military service. For example, do not ask: How long did you serve in (name of country)? Where did you serve?Economic StatusYou may discuss: Salary history, but you cannot use this information to disqualify applicant.You may not discuss: Credit ratings, charge accounts, bank accounts, bankruptcy, car ownership, ownership or rental of a home, length of residence at an address, or past garnishments of wages. For example, do not ask: Have you ever declared bankruptcy? How long have you lived at (address)?Organizations/Societies/ActivitiesYou may discuss: Job-related organizations, clubs and professional associations to which the applicant belongs, omitting ones that indicate race, religion, creed, national origin, ancestry, sex, or age.You may not discuss: All organizations, clubs, and lodges to which applicant belongs. For example, do not ask: Are you a member of a senior citizens’ group? Have you ever been a member of (name of religious group)? Would you write down the names of all the clubs in which you’re a member?Height/WeightYou may discuss: Height and weight issues that are related to the performance of the job.You may not discuss: Height and weight issues that are not related to the performance of the job. For example, do not ask: Do you think you need to lose weight? Is being short a problem for you?ReferencesYou may discuss: Who referred applicant to the job and names of persons willing to provide professional references for applicant.You may not discuss: Questions of applicant’s former employers or acquaintances that elicit information specifying applicant’s color, race, religion, creed, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental disability, medical condition, marital status, age, or sex. For example, do not ask: Did your last employer have a problem with your divorce? Have any of your former employers commented on your ancestry?Toward the end of each interview, be sure to explain the next phase of your hiring process to all successful candidates. This description should include items such as a physical or drug test (where applicable), as well as a background check through an independent service such as VeriCruit (www.vericruit.com) to look into each candidate’s driving history, Social Security number, criminal record, credit history, and possible listing on a sexual offender registry. You must obtain written permission from every candidate – on a form that’s separate from all of the other job application documents – to take these steps; if any of your candidates seem uneasy about your request, take a few moments to discuss his or her concerns before taking further action with that person in your hiring process.Established in 1996, Industry People Group™ is the leading full-service recruitment solutions provider in the HVAC, sheet metal, refrigeration, control, electrical, plumbing, and piping industries. Headquartered in Des Moines, IA, this privately held company also has offices in Chicago and Pittsburgh and specializes in finding top talent for all levels of contracting, wholesale, manufacturing, consulting engineer, and facilities management firms within these trades. The company’s three divisions are: findMEP, the country’s premier management and executive recruiter in these industries; MEPatWORK, the leading Internet job posting and résumé board for apprentice- to management-level job seekers in these industries; and VeriCruit, a background verification service that offers hiring companies insight into a job candidate’s driving history, criminal background, employment, education, credit, and more. For additional information about Industry People Group and its human capital solutions, please go to (www.industrypeoplegroup.com) or call (888) 482-2562 (toll-free).

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