There are numerous state and federal antidiscrimination laws designed to assure that employers hire based upon skill, rather than stereotypes. Therefore, there are some things an interviewer isn’t allowed to ask. How do you know what’s fair game? Here are some questions that should raise red flags.
1. “WHAT’S YOUR RACE?”
It is illegal for an employer to ask you questions about race or skin color. Unless appearance is a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ)-for example, if you’re applying for a modeling job-you cannot be required to submit a photo with an application.
Fair questions: None. An employment application may include a space where you voluntarily indicate your race.
2. “WHAT IS YOUR NATIONAL ORIGIN?”
An interviewer cannot ask if you are a U.S. citizen, where you were born, or remark upon your accent. Unless a business case can be provided, a company can’t specify that English be the only language spoken on the job.
Fair questions: “Are you eligible to work in the U.S.? Could you, once employed, submit documentation to that effect?” Companies now require all employees to fill out an I-9 form, in order to confirm that you’re a citizen or resident who is eligible to work. If fluency in a language other than English is a job requirement, an employer may ask how you learned that language.
3. “WHAT IS YOUR MAIDEN NAME?”
An interviewer can’t discriminate on the basis of gender or marital status. Recruiters may not ask different questions of female and male applicants or of married and unmarried women. It’s also inappropriate for an employer to ask if you’re planning to have a family or have young children.
Fair questions: An employer can ask for your full name or whether you’ve worked under another name-in order to check your employment history. Interviewers may inquire about childcare and other family issues by asking: “Where do you see yourself in five years? What hours are you available to work? Do you have other responsibilities that may interfere with your ability to meet the requirements of the job-such as overtime or travel?”
4. “HOW OLD ARE YOU?”
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects people over the age of 40, who work in companies with more than 20 employees, from employment discrimination. Employers may specify an age limit for a position only in rare cases where it can be proven that age is a BFOQ. (For example, the choice of one actor over another, using age as a basis for authenticity.)
In all other cases, an interviewer may not ask when you were born, when you graduated from high school (since most students graduate at age 17 or 18), or any other questions from which your age may easily be determined. Individuals under age 40 aren’t covered by the ADEA, but many states offer them some protection.
Fair questions: Are you the minimum age required to perform this job? (Federal allows those aged 14 and 15 to work in a limited capacity; 16 and 17-years-old can perform non-hazardous jobs.) Some job applications include a space for your date of birth, along with a disclaimer.
5. “DO YOU HAVE ANY DISABILITIES?”
Under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer may not discriminate against a qualified candidate who is disabled, and must make “reasonable accommodations” for physically or mentally impaired employees.
The ADA also states that you can’t be asked about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability. The following questions are also unacceptable: “How many days were you sick last year? Have you ever filed for worker’s compensation? What prescription medications do you currently take? Are you an alcoholic? Have you ever been treated for drug abuse?”
Fair questions: “Can you perform the basic functions of this position with or without accommodation?” The ADA doesn’t cover illegal drug use, so it’s perfectly legal for an employer to ask whether you use these substances. Some companies also request all new employees to have a medical examination.
6. “WHAT IS YOUR RELIGION?”
There is no reason for an employer to ask you about your religion or about any holidays you observe.
Fair questions: “Weekend and holiday work is required. Will this pose any difficulties for you?” Also, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows religious organizations and sectarian educational institutions to express religious preference when hiring.
7. “HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ARRESTED?”
You are innocent until proven guilty; therefore, it is illegal for an interviewer to ask if you’ve ever been arrested.
Fair questions: Employment applications often include questions about felony convictions, along with a disclaimer saying that a conviction won’t necessarily remove you from consideration.
In accordance with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) policy, employers must weigh a variety of elements when factoring convictions into hiring decisions. These include the nature and severity of the offense, the time that has elapsed, and whether the offense has any relation to the position advertised.
8. “WHAT TYPE OF MILITARY DISCHARGE DID YOU RECEIVE?”
An employer may not ask whether you received an honorable or dishonorable discharge.
Fair questions: The interviewer is allowed to inquire about your rank when discharged and discuss the skills you gained while in the military.
9. “HAVE YOU EVER FILED FOR BANKRUPTCY?”
Questions about your financial status, whether you own a home, or have previously had wages garnished are off-limits.
Fair questions: If good credit is a requirement of the job, a company is within its rights to perform a credit check.
10. “DO YOU BELONG TO ANY ORGANIZATIONS?”
It’s inappropriate for an interviewer to ask whether you are affiliated with or are a member of any political, social, or religious groups-including unions.
Fair questions: An interviewer may ask you if you’re a member of a professional organization, like the American Bar Association.
HOW TO REACT TO UNFAIR QUESTIONS
Try and determine what type of information an employer is looking to receive with her questions. For example, if an interviewer asks if you have children, you may deduce that she wants to know if you’d be missing work often to care for them. You might simply answer that you have no problem meeting the position’s attendance requirements.