Stay in the safe zone when interviewing for a new position

As a small business owner, you’re accustomed to wearing lots of hats—probably including human resources manager. In the absence of a dedicated and trained in-house HR professional, you may find yourself interviewing job seekers—either in person, by phone or in an electronic format.

Before you interview a job candidate, it’s a good idea to have some knowledge about best practices. Specifically, how do you obtain information from a candidate without running afoul of the list of questions you’re legally not allowed to ask?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lists several areas of inquiry where you’ll need to use extreme caution when interviewing applicants. These include pre-employment questions about a person’s race, height and weight, personal finances, previous employment, religion, marital and family status, gender, disabilities and health/medical status. That’s just at the federal level. Your state may have additional requirements.

Depending on specifics, many questions that wander into these subjects can be considered irrelevant to a person’s qualifications for a particular job. If you go there, even inadvertently, you could be on the receiving end of an avoidable inquiry.

To help you stay in the clear, here are some insights into common inquiries:

  • Applicant’s age: Unless the job has a minimum age requirement (a bartender, for instance, or a delivery person), and the applicant isn’t obviously old enough, don’t ask.
  • Height and weight: Only ask if it’s a specific part of a job requirement.
  • Ethnicity and race: If you’re hiring for a role that specifically requires a particular racial or ethnic characteristic, you can state the requirement and ask if the candidate can meet it.
  • Where from: You can ask if the applicant has paperwork that establishes U. S. citizenship (you’d need to see it anyway if they get the job); if not, you can ask where they were born or where their family came from.
  • Current or future pregnancy: Don’t ask—even if the applicant is sitting in front of you in her 8th month and she volunteers the baby’s name. You can ask how long the applicant plans to stay if hired, or if they have any pre-established absences coming up.
  • Existing family: You can ask if someone is married, single and/or has kids. Beyond that (how long, how many kids, ages of kids), no.
  • Military service: You can ask if the applicant learned job-relevant skills while in the military, which branch of the military, and about their discharge.
  • Criminal record: Unless the job is security-sensitive (like handling money), don’t ask. Many states have “ban-the-box” initiatives that prohibit questions like “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a felony?”
  • Finances: You’re allowed to ask about credit, assets, liabilities and similar matters—as long as you comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). But you’re not allowed to use the information to justify a hiring decision.

Things that you don’t even want to think about asking: Faith tradition, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and political affiliation and views.

Additional tips:

  • Make sure your standard job application and job descriptions have been thoroughly vetted to comply with current federal and state laws.
  • While you can’t ask certain questions, the applicant may volunteer the answers. Much of the information you want will appear on the applicant’s resume and/or application. From graduation dates, you can infer the person’s age. From a list of volunteer activities, you can infer other details that would be off-limits to ask.
  • You can often avoid problem questions by reviewing the job requirements and asking if the applicant feels confident that they could succeed in the job.

Job interviews require knowledge and careful, deliberate communication from the interviewer—not only the candidate.