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What can I ask an applicant in an interview? What should I avoid?

Bona fide occupational qualifications are generally a safe harbor for any type of topic, including age, conviction record, and so on.  Otherwise, here are some basic do’s and don’ts:

  • Typically, age is not an appropriate topic for questions on pre-hire, but it is appropriate when it is a bona fide occupational qualification.
  • Employers are allowed to ask whether the applicant is authorized to work in the United States, and once a job offer has been extended, will ask for proof of authorization.
  • Employers may ask questions about whether an applicant has the specific training or education needed for the position.  There are very few jobs where asking about education would be improper.
  • Employment history questions are perfectly fine, including why the employee is no longer working for a previous employer.
  • Questions about height and weight should be avoided unless they are a bona fide occupational qualification.
  • Military experience is acceptable to ask about and is often pertinent and of great interest to employers.  You may discuss education, training, or work experience that was gained during military service.
  • Questions about national origin in general are not appropriate.  However, questions concerning abilities to communicate and ability to perform the job are appropriate.
  • Most questions about organizational affiliations may be asked, but avoid any organizational affiliation where the person’s race, religion, or sexual orientation would be implicated.
  • Avoid questions about pregnancy or childbearing plans.  A better idea is to ask all applicants what their job availability is and how long they plan to work.
  • Questions about race and religion are highly personal and totally inappropriate.  You are allowed, however, to ask potential employees about their availability for working.  If someone says he or she cannot work on a Saturday, then it is appropriate to ask why.
  • Avoid questions about the sex of the applicant, even if Pat, the androgynous figure from Saturday Night Live, comes into your office for an interview.
  • Marital and family status should only be addressed by general questions about availability and how the applicant will be able to perform certain tasks.
  • Questions about union membership should be avoided.
  • It is always a bonus to be able to show that you asked the same questions, as appropriate, to all applicants, and that there was a paper trail of the questions and what was discussed in the interview—either by notes made during or right after the meeting or by a form that is dated and acknowledged by the interviewer.
  • Don’t forget to check state laws.

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