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8 Legally Sensitive Subjects Interviewers Should Never Ask About

by laurent schwartz | Dec 09, 2014
A job interview can be stressful. Here you are, face to face with a potential employer, and he or she gets to ask most of the questions.

It's complicated enough to answer, "Why do you want this job?" But what do you do when the interviewer asks, "What country are you from?" or "What year did you graduate from college?" Should you think twice before answering?

There are no federal laws that prohibit what employers may ask job candidates, but there are laws that prohibit what information employers can use to make employment decisions.

According to U.S. anti-discrimination laws that span from 1964 to 2008, it is illegal to deny employment to someone based on what are known as "protected classes." However, not every hiring manager is aware of what those protected classes are. Because of this, you may field some inappropriate questions during an interview.

Below is an explanation of some of the protected classes, plus a few examples of interview questions that may seem innocent but are inappropriate for hiring managers to ask.

1. Race, color, national origin, and citizenship. Race, color, national origin, citizenship and/or immigration status cannot be used in hiring decisions. Employers also cannot create policies or procedures that disproportionately target candidates by these factors. If you face questions about these issues or if you're directly asked about your country of origin, Christine Assaf, human resources professional and blogger with HRTact.com, suggests you either refuse to answer or tactfully redirect the conversation by saying, "I don't think that pertains to my experience."

2. Religion. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers are not supposed to ask questions about your faith unless religion is a bonafide occupational qualification. Religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies are examples of employers for which this rule is exempt and hiring managers could consider your religious affiliation a qualification.

3. Sex (including pregnancy) and marital status. "The law doesn't prohibit employers from asking whether an applicant is pregnant or has pregnancy plans, but taking pregnancy into account for the application process is prohibited," says Jeanne Goldberg, senior attorney advisor in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is even true if the job demands extra time or requires travel that could take you away from your family. However, according to the EEOC, an employer may ask about your spouse and kids after you've been hired, for tax and insurance purposes.

4. Disability. Donna Ballman, an employment attorney at Donna M. Ballman, P.A. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and author of "Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired," says, "Employers aren't supposed to ask questions about disabilities or accommodations until they make a conditional job offer." That is, until the employer makes a tentative offer to employ a candidate, based on that candidate's ability to meet certain conditions.

Employers can ask questions about reasonable accommodation or changes to the standard work environment that would enable an individual with a disability to perform the job's duties only when the applicant voluntarily discloses a disability or the need for accommodation.

5. Age. There are federal and state labor laws that mandate a minimum age when minors can start working, as well as a maximum number of hours that are permissible for them to work. In addition, employers may set minimum age requirements for candidates filling positions with certain responsibilities, like serving alcohol. However, it's forbidden to deny employment to candidates because they're too old. Specifically, individuals who are 40 and older are part of a protected class.

"Studies showed that many employers would stray from hiring over the age of 40 because they fear health-related issues and/or paying for retirement," Assaf says. For this reason, an inappropriate interview question could be as direct as asking an applicant's age or as indirect as inquiring about what year they graduated from college. "If the answer is somewhere in the '70s, you might be disclosing that you're over 40, which might lead to age discrimination," Ballman says.

6. Drug use. Asking about drug use or addictions isn't illegal, but it's tricky if you were asked about drugs and then denied the job, Ballman says. "If the employer denies employment because of an addiction or history of addiction, then they may be engaging in disability discrimination," she explains. While it's forbidden to deny employment based on past drug use or addictions, it is legal to deny employment for current illegal drug use. However, employers can request drug tests before hiring an applicant, and state laws dictate procedures employers must follow.

7. Conviction records, arrest records and background checks. There are no federal laws that prohibit an employer from asking about arrest and conviction records, but some states have laws that ban these questions. According to the EEOC, if the employer believes the applicant engaged in the conduct for which he or she was arrested/convicted, that information could prevent him or her from employment only if it's evident the applicant cannot be trusted to perform the duties of the position, considering the nature of the job, seriousness of the offense and length of time since the offense occurred.

8. Current economic status. Some states have banned employers from asking questions about credit history and/or pre-employment credit checks, Ballman says. Additionally, employers may not subject ethnicity or religious groups to heightened background or security checks. The use of credit ratings and economic status also should be avoided since they tend to impact minorities and females more adversely. Consult your state's labor department for the processes employers must adhere to for background and/or security checks.

Advice to applicants:

According to Ballman, you should prepare to hear interview questions that seek to reveal information about a protected class, and you shouldn't overreact if you do. Make a note of the question, your answer and any unusual reactions in case you need it in the future. It can possibly result in a discrimination lawsuit if the question was asked and an applicant who was less qualified than you received the job, she says. According to Assaf, you should be careful about what you disclose in an interview, and "there is nothing wrong with refusing a question."

Advice to interviewers:

Interviewers should only ask questions that pertain to the needs of the job. According to the EEOC, it is assumed that pre-employment requests for information will form the basis for hiring decisions. Therefore, employers shouldn't ask for protected class information unless they have a legitimate business need. "Make sure you focus on the ability to do the job," Goldberg says. "Feel free to explain the requirements, demands and the realities of an applicant being able to meet or not meet expectations."