10 illegal interview question areas and how to avoid them

3 minute read

Posted by Emily Hill on 16 April 2024

Job interviews can be minefields for potential legal issues if employers aren’t cautious.

Understanding which questions are off-limits according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines is crucial to conducting fair and effective interviews.

While personal small talk can be a natural part of the interview process, it’s important that any personal questions do not relate to protected characteristics or imply discrimination.

Here, we outline ten areas where interview questions can lead to discrimination and suggest legal alternatives to gather the necessary information without violating any laws.

1. Race, colour, or national origin

   – Illegal: Asking about an applicant’s race, skin colour, ethnicity or where they’re from.

   – Legal alternative: Questions should focus solely on job qualifications and skills. If language skills are necessary, ask about specific language abilities relevant to job duties.

2. Religion

   – Illegal: Enquiring about religious beliefs or holiday observances.

   – Legal alternative: If weekend or holiday work is required, ask candidates if they are available to work on specific days without mentioning religious practices.

3. Age

   – Illegal: Asking candidates their age or when they graduated.

   – Legal alternative: Ensure candidates meet legal age requirements for specific roles by asking if they are over the minimum age for employment (e.g., “Are you over the age of 18?”).

If age is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), such as needing to be over 21 to serve alcohol, it can be legally specified in the job posting and discussed in the interview. Navigating the complexities of interview questions isn’t just about avoiding legal pitfalls—it’s about ensuring a fair and equitable hiring process. By focusing on job-related questions and maintaining a professional standard, employers can gather the necessary information to make informed hiring decisions while respecting candidate rights.

4. Gender, sexual orientation, or marital status

   – Illegal: Questions about marital status, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

   – Legal alternative: Focus questions on job requirements, such as travel or overtime, without implying these are related to family or personal life.

5. Pregnancy or family plans

   – Illegal: Asking about pregnancy plans or family planning.

   – Legal alternative: Discuss job expectations clearly, for example, “This job requires occasional overtime. Are you able to meet this requirement?”

6. Disability

   – Illegal: Questions about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability.

   – Legal alternative: Ask about the ability to perform specific job functions with or without reasonable accommodation.

7. Citizenship

   – Illegal: Asking if a candidate is a citizen of the country.

   – Legal alternative: Confirm work authorisation by asking, “Do you have the legal right to work in {country of employment}?”

8. Criminal Record

   – Illegal: Asking about arrest records.

   – Legal alternative: It’s permissible to ask about convictions that are directly relevant to the job’s responsibilities, following state-specific guidelines.

9. Credit history

   – Illegal: Asking about credit status during an interview.

   – Legal alternative: If credit history is relevant, it should be checked post-offer and in compliance with local laws.

10. Health and medical conditions

   – Illegal: Probing for health status or medical conditions.

   – Legal alternative: Enquiries should be job-related and consistent for all candidates, such as asking about their ability to handle physically demanding work.

Want to learn more about fair hiring?

Discover how biases infiltrate many hiring processes and learn strategies to engineer a fair and unbiased recruitment process with our fair hiring guide here.

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