What Not to Ask During an Interview

You’re interviewing candidates for a copywriting position at your agency, and have chosen top applicants from the resumes submitted. You’re preparing a list of questions to help you assess who will be the best fit for the job and company culture. You know what you want to ask, but how about what you shouldn’t ask in the interview?

Nobody wants to end up with their foot in their mouth while dazzling a prospective new hire during an interview. But embarrassment isn’t all you risk when you conduct these meetings. It’s not too hard, in fact, to mistakenly ask a discriminatory question. Even a seemingly innocent query such as “Where were you born?” can result in legal problems for your company. Anti-discrimination and consumer-protection legislation passed since the 1960s restricts the type and scope of pre-employment questions that you can ask. Moreover, court decisions and administrative rulings have refined what you can and can’t ask, and—if things weren’t already confusing enough—standards vary from state to state.

Following are some general examples of questions you should avoid, and some guidelines on what is usually appropriate to ask when interviewing a candidate. Given the potential legal pitfalls interview questions may engender, please always seek out the advice of your legal counsel regarding specific queries.

“What kind of name is that?” In a non-work related conversation, people often ask questions such as this out of genuine curiosity. They may also ask, “What sort of accent is that?” and “Where were you born?” But in a job interview, these queries are considered discriminatory. Indeed, it’s best to avoid any questions that have to do with a candidate’s national origin, name, ancestry, native language or that of his or her family members. Likewise, steer clear of questions that have to do with a person’s citizenship, such as “Are you a U.S. citizen?” However, it is OK to ask a candidate if he or she will be able to prove that they have the right to remain and work in the U.S.

“Do you own that condo?” While it’s acceptable to ask someone where he or she lives and how long they’ve lived there, avoid asking prospective hires if they rent or own. Questions such as these can be discriminatory because they may be aimed at revealing an applicant’s financial status.

“When did you have your 20-year reunion?” Avoid asking questions like this or others such as, “When did you graduate from high school?” Any query that indicates you’re trying to find out a candidate’s age is discriminatory. However, while it’s considered illegal to ask such questions before an individual is on your payroll, you can ask for someone’s age once you’ve hired him or her. This is considered relevant information for health insurance and pension purposes.

“Were you a Chi Omega?” Here’s another area of questioning you want to avoid: Asking what sorority or fraternity an applicant was in, or if he or she observes any religious holidays is discriminatory. And questions that may indicate religious beliefs or affiliations, such as, “Did you have to purchase many Christmas gifts this year?” are also risky.

“Are you pregnant?” Even if this question wasn’t discriminatory, which it is, you don’t ever want to ask it. (If a woman you ask isn’t pregnant, you’re going to feel terrible.) And even if someone is obviously pregnant, it’s not a legal (or appropriate) question. Likewise, it’s best to avoid all questions regarding someone’s marital or family status. However, you can ask an applicant if he or she would be willing to relocate if it’s relevant to the job.

“Have you ever filed a workman’s compensation claim?” You can’t ask this or related queries about someone’s health and physical condition, such as “Do you have a hearing impairment?” Essentially, if a question doesn’t relate to a job requirement and isn’t being asked of all candidates, it’s not OK to ask it. You may, however, state the expected functions of the job and ask the applicant if he or she can perform the duties.

“Is English your first language?” Asking this question, or whether or not an applicant speaks English at home, is considered discriminatory, just like asking someone about his or her national origin or ancestry. However, if you’re hiring a copywriter to create ads in South America, it is acceptable to ask what languages an applicant speaks, reads or writes.

Keep in mind that when you’re interviewing candidates, even a relatively innocent question—one you might ask outside of work—can be discriminatory. As a general rule, every question you ask has to relate to a real job requirement. That’s why preparation and education are key. When in doubt, ask an HR professional or lawyer for advice.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.