Being interviewed for a job is stressful. I remember once forgetting how to spell my last name. The woman asked if I spelled Mettler with one “t” or two and I blanked. I actually guessed—wrong! (I didn’t get the job.)
It might have been easier for me if I’d known that it was as stressful on the other side of the table. A simple question like, “How old are you?” could potentially land a company in court for discrimination.
Most employers already know that you can’t deny employment based on “race, color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marital or family status, pregnancy, disability, genetic information or age.” And that during an interview they can only ask questions directly related to the job they’re filling.
But although it sounds easy, employers mess it up all the time. Ask Abercrombie & Fitch, who are currently in court over a Muslim headscarf.
For example, here are six terrible questions that have been asked at interviews (some I’ve experienced) that had easy—and legal—options.
1. What’s your nationality?
Option: Put a space on the application where the person can answer voluntarily.
2. Are you looking forward to kids some day?
Option: Ask instead, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
3. Have you ever been arrested?
Option: Have a space on the application for information about felony convictions.
4. What religious holidays do you celebrate?
Option: Ask instead, “This job requires working on Saturdays and Sundays. Can you work those days?”
5. We usually have men do this job. Are you sure you can lift 40 pounds?
Option: “Can you lift 40-pound boxes?”
6. Do you have any physical disabilities or illnesses?
Option: Ask instead if the candidate can perform the specific requirements of the job.
One way to avoid running into problems is to write out the interview questions ahead of time, based on the candidates resume.
If you’re still worried you may be treading in muddy waters, do some research. Videos like Legal Interviewing: Asking the Right Questions provide good information on framing interview questions. But you may also want to check in with your legal counsel.
Interviews shouldn’t be stressful or the seeds of a future legal battle. They should be the start of a great employer/employee relationship. Be confident about your questions before you step into the room.
Oh, and if you ever get an employee who forgets how to spell her name . . . go easy on her too.
Diane Mettler has been a manager for nearly 20 years. She's also a freelance writer and editor—with hundreds of her articles published in a variety of magazines—and teaches writing at the University of Washington.