Playing 20 Questions: Interviewing Without Violating the Equal Employment Laws

Playing 20 Questions: Interviewing Without Violating the Equal Employment Laws

by Tiffany Knight, December 2009

If someone asks for an application to work in your small business, you know the law requires you to give one. Did you know the law also dictates what kinds of questions you can ask this person? Ask the wrong ones in a job interview, and this individual just might take you to court.

Did you just say, "Oh. I had no idea?" That's all well and good, but in this case, just like if you didn't realize you were illegally parked, not knowing the law won't excuse breaking it. The best way to protect yourself against any expensive consequences is acquiring a working knowledge of the kinds of questions that are illegal to ask a potential hire.

You might be surprised by how many areas are off limits - for example, some of the benign topics we all cover at the average cocktail party will break the law in an interview. Since a job interview has much more serious consequences for someone, like determining how they'll pay their mortgage, the rules are, understandably, much more strict. We'll look at some tips for conducting interviews that will keep you off the witness stand.

History of the EEOC

Interview and employment practices are controlled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This Commission was created as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. From 1965 to today, the EEOC's priority has remained the same: eliminating workplace discrimination. The Commission enforces equal rights protection in the workplace which starts right away, in the job interview.

Conducting a Fair Interview

Remember, the point of your interview is to determine whether or not the job candidate has the ability to perform the job. The EEOC has determined these areas are personal, irrelevant and most importantly, illegal:

  • marital status
  • disability (physical or mental)
  • national origin
  • race
  • religion
  • gender
  • sexual orientation
  • age
  • criminal record

Inquiring about personal issues like alcohol use and bankruptcy is also a no-no.

You may ask if your candidate can fulfill the requirements of a job. For example, if the position requires typing from 9-5 during the week, you may ask if a candidate can do that.

Interviewees, on the other hand, can volunteer whatever information they like. What is important to remember is that you, the interviewer, cannot initiate conversation on these topics. The safest bet is simply to avoid those categories altogether.

When interviews go well, people relax and slip into habits of normal human interaction - since you're personally interested in someone, it can feel impolite not to ask about his or her family or other more personal territory. Don't. When you ask these kinds of personal questions, you're violating federal law.

The bottom line is that it's very hard work to run your own business and build a reputation - don't let illegal interview questions, however innocuous they may seem at the time, jeopardize what you've created. No one wants to spend time in court, so stay on task during your interview process. Correctly perform the duties of your job - interviewer.