Things You Should Never Ask Job Applicants

Things You Should Never Ask Job Applicants

For employers, knowing the permissible questions to ask job applicants is like navigating a minefield due to the complexity of employment laws.

However, understanding federal employment law can help avoid explosive situations. Read on to learn about questions allowed by US employment laws and those that are not.

Disclaimer: This article provides general information only and is not legal advice. Consult an attorney before making any legal decisions. Certain information may not be applicable to specific businesses or employers due to differing state employment laws.

What Employers Can and Can’t Ask

Questions that Cannot be Asked

Most questions that cannot be asked relate to specific traits, attributes, or characteristics prohibited by the US Federal Government. These characteristics form the basis of discrimination and cannot be the reason for rejecting a job applicant.

These prohibited characteristics include:
  • Disability
  • Race/color
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Pregnancy
  • Genetic information
  • Citizenship
  • Veteran status
  • Familial status

Additionally, certain states consider sexual orientation and marital status as protected characteristics:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Marital status

While employers are generally advised to avoid asking about these characteristics, avoiding direct or indirect inquiries is only the beginning.

Even discussing or indirectly eliciting information about a protected characteristic can violate employment laws. Asking an applicant about starting a family, even if combined with a question about future plans, could be a violation. Similarly, asking about celebrating religious holidays indirectly inquires into a job candidate’s religion.

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To play it safe, employers should avoid these topics entirely.

Questions that Can be Asked

Although questions are limited due to protected characteristics defined by federal and state governments, some questions help assess an applicant’s suitability for a company.

Generally, employers can ask about an applicant’s ability to fulfill specific job duties/obligations, like lifting weight, and whether the applicant meets specific job requirements, such as legal documentation for US residency.

Employers can disqualify an applicant if they lack the necessary skills, qualities, or characteristics for the job. For example, if heavy lifting is required and an applicant appears to have a disability that would hinder this, asking about their lifting capabilities is likely allowed as long as disability is not mentioned.

Interviewers can also ask questions about company culture, work ethic, and job skills.

Applicant Questions and Interviewer Responses

In job interviews, questions asked by employers are only one aspect. Interviewees often have questions of their own for the interviewers, which may be problematic for the employer.

If an interviewer is inexperienced or uncomfortable answering questions about protected characteristics, they can defer to the human resources department or seek legal advice.

Recap: Rules to Follow

To avoid violating employment law, interviewers should follow these rules:

  • Avoid asking direct or information-elicitng questions about protected characteristics.
  • Do not ask about illegal duties or responsibilities.
  • Refer questions about protected characteristics asked by applicants to the human resources department or legal counsel.
  • Ask applicants about their ability to fulfill specific duties/obligations of the job.

While these rules apply in many circumstances, employment discrimination laws are nuanced, and it may be wise to consult with human resources professionals or legal counsel. Expert advice may be necessary to comply with employment laws.

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Additionally, the principles outlined in this article extend beyond job interviews to areas such as firing, compensation, employee classification, transfer, promotion, layoffs, job advertisements, recruitment, testing, company facilities, training, fringe benefits, pay, retirement plans, disability leave, and other employment terms and conditions.

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