April 12, 2012

Questions You Can’t Ask in an Interview, and How to Ask Them Anyway!

By Paul Bieber

Let’s continue our series on hiring and interviewing, discussing questions you can’t ask in an interview, and yet, still learn the information you need to create a good hiring decision.

First, this column is not written to evade or endorse a prohibited practice. I think some of the questions you can’t ask, like national origin or religious beliefs are correctly banned in our multi-faceted country. I won’t offer any alternatives to these, as they should never be a condition of employment.

In general, the questions you can’t ask about are:


•Religious Beliefs

•Family or Marital Status

•Gender Requirments of a Job

•Health, Including Physical and Mental Disabilities

You’ll notice that some things, by not being on this list, are acceptable. You can ask if someone is a Cubs or a White Sox fan, a Mets or a Yankee Fan. Unfortunately, this is not a great predictor of job success.

During an interview you want to ask questions that give you an insight into the person’s work habits, their motivation and their job skills that are relevant to the job you are offering. Asking prohibited questions may open a can of worms–an applicant can go to a federal or state agency, which can make your life miserable. There are people who go on interviews, hoping a prohibited question is asked, and then, when they don’t get the job, file a charge. They will make the charge go away for a $5,000 settlement. You’ll soon learn this is cheaper than fighting … lawyer fees and your lost time will humble you.

Let’s get specific. You cannot ask a person’s birth date, age, date they graduated from high school or college, or anything that directly infers their age. You can say this: “Our insurance carrier will only insure drivers over 18 (or 21), are you insurable?”

You can’t ask “How long until you retire?” but you can ask, “What do you see yourself doing in your career for the long-term?”

The biggest concern that employers have is the health and physical capabilities of the applicant. You can’t ask “Do you smoke?,” “Do you take drugs?,” or “Do you drink?” Here are some alternatives. Tell the applicant that you are a non-smoking company, and you don’t offer extra breaks for smokers to go outside. “Do you think this is a good policy?” You can ask, “Have you ever been disciplined by another company for not adhering to their guidelines on cigarettes, drugs or alcohol?”

You can’t ask, “How tall are you, and how much do you weigh?” for any job, including those that do heavy lifting or climbing. You can state, “The job you are applying for requires you to stand all day, and be able to lift 60 lbs. on a regular basis. Can you do this?” Describe all of the physical needs of the job, and ask, “Can you perform the tasks I have just described?”

You can’t ask if they have been ill and can’t ask how many sick days they took last year. You can’t ask if they have had a specific illness or operation, but, you can ask, “in total, how many days of work did you miss last year?” This may include vacation, holiday or whatever. You can then decide if this person works enough for your needs. You can’t ask if they took time off for a child or to take care of an ill parent.

The best catch-all question is to ask, “Can you perform the essential job duties with or without reasonable accommodations?” Many companies send applicants for physicals before employment. This only occcurs after a conditional offer of employment, and that is itself a separate can of worms for another blog.

A few more—Don’t ask their religious affiliation or organizations they belong to. You can ask what they enjoy doing in their spare time. (Here’s a Paul tip–if they play golf, ask their handicap. If it is below eight, they are a superb golfer–which takes a lot of practice time, or they are a cousin of Tiger Woods. That much practice time can lead to attendance problems.)

Don’t ask if they are a citizen–just ask if they are legally eligible to work in the United States; don’t ask if they have young children at home or how many children, just ask can they be at work, consistently at 8 a.m., or whatever your start time is.

You can ask, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” But not, “Have you ever been arrested?” You can ask, if they show a military tour on their resume, “What did you learn, and what did you do in the Service?,” but don’t ask what kind of discharge they received.

Are your hands tied? Is this another intrusion into the rights of a business owner? NO and NO. These prohibitions came about because there are unscrupulous employers who do take advantage of people and are not fair due to prejudices.

Your role is to ask questions that are open-ended–you don’t want to ask yes-or-no questions. Ask, “What was your favorite job, and why?” “What talents or skills do you have that make you the best candidate for this job?”

For the last couple of years, you had to work to get more than one applicant to apply for a job. That is changing now, and you have the opportunity to select the best qualified person.

For the flip side, if you are an applicant for a job, don’t hide behind regulations. Volunteer information that will make the interviewer comfortable with you. You may not want to talk about your religious beliefs, but you should talk about your job skills, your motivations, and why you would be an asset to the company.