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When Interviewing, Avoid Legal Landmines and Find Out What You Want to Know

Certain questions during interviews with prospective employees can land you in trouble. Here's what you should be doing.
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Asking questions of a prospective employee that are too personal, not job related or just plain inappropriate can set the wrong tone for your organization and can cost you a good candidate. Worse case, these questions might get you sued.

Employers should steer clear of questions that would cause candidates to reveal their race, age, gender, marital or familial status and several other protected characteristics. Do some research to avoid these landmines.  

Related: 13 Questions to Avoid During a Job Interview

Why then do interviewers repeatedly ask inappropriate and sometimes illegal questions? In our experience, most employers are trying to gain reasonable information that is pertinent to the job. They just ask the wrong question. 

For example, we had a client who asked women of child-bearing age if they had children. The question is illegal. He should never have asked it, but his intent was reasonable. He was trying to figure out if the prospective employee would come to work reliably. That is a very appropriate thing for an employer to want to know.

Here’s the problem. Having children does not necessarily make an employee less reliable. Most parents have sufficient child-care arrangements. In our 50-plus years of business experience, we have known as many childless employees who had attendance issues as those with children.

As we explained to our client, it would have been far better to have simply asked what he wanted to know. If you want to determine whether a person will come to work on time every day when scheduled, the first step is to ask that question.

Begin by describing the job and the attendance requirements associated with the position. For instance, “The successful candidate for the receptionist position will need to be at the front desk at 8 a.m. ready to serve our clients and answer the phones. If the receptionist is absent, I have to move another employee to the front desk. This means that two employees are not at their usual jobs. Probably more than any other position in the firm, the receptionist role requires a person who will have near-perfect attendance.”

Related: The Interview Questions You Aren't Asking But Should Be

You have described the requirements of the job and explained why they are important. Now, ask what you really want to know, “Do you have commitments that would keep you from coming to work every day, ready to start at 8 a.m. or from staying until the close of business?”

When asked a direct question, most applicants will give a truthful answer. Those who have situations that would keep them from meeting your attendance requirements will most likely take this opportunity to disclose. If the candidate says that the attendance requirements are not a problem, you should dig a little deeper and ask them to describe a time when they worked under similar circumstances.

Along with asking the applicants, call former employers to verify attendance histories. Include recent employers if possible. Even if the candidate doesn’t want his/her current employer contacted, he/she should be able to provide a reference who is familiar with his/her attendance history. Don’t skip this step.

Finally, if you are going to ask candidates if they have committments that would keep them from meeting your attendance requirements, ask it of every interviewee. Remember, both men and women have outside obligations that can sometimes interfere with work performance. Keeping the focus on the job requirements, not on gender roles, will get you the information you need to make good employment decisions.

Related: 9 Questions to Ask Candidates' References