Eight Interview Questions to Avoid

Have you ever wondered if your interview questions are legal?

Anyone who has ever been tasked with interviewing candidates for employment has at one time or another questioned the appropriateness, or even the legality, of some of their interview questions. This is totally understandable. With a constantly changing legal landscape and social norms, it’s almost a given that at one time or another even the best interviewers will cross that dangerous “red line.” What may seem like an innocent “get to know you” type question may in fact be an illegal intrusion into the applicant’s personal life. Following are eight interview questions you’ll definitely want to avoid.

  1. Should we call you Mrs., Miss or Ms.? The applicant’s marital status has no bearing on their qualifications or suitability for the position. Stick with the always safe “Ms.” and you can’t go wrong.
  2. Do you have children or do you plan to have children? For years interviewers have used this question to determine whether or not female applicants are likely to experience excessive time off from work for unexpected child care needs. It’s also a thinly disguised way to determine whether or not the employee is likely to file medical claims related to childbirth. Whether or not a female applicant has children, or plans to have children, is irrelevant to the hiring process and the question should never be asked.
  3. What are your childcare plans? Who will care for your children while you are at work? Once again, this is an illegal intrusion into the applicant’s private life. These questions can be viewed as sexually discriminatory and are none of the employer’s business. They can be viewed as an indication of sexual bias, especially if they are only asked to female applicants.
  4. Do you plan to marry? If you know (without asking) that an applicant is single, it may seem appropriate to ask if they plan to marry. Don’t ask. Whether the applicant is male or female, inquiring about their marital plans can be viewed as an attempt to determine if the applicant is likely to have a “life event” that may impact their ability to come to work or even their likelihood of remaining an employee after the marriage takes place. Stay away from this question.
  5. Does your spouse work? What does your spouse do for a living? These questions may seem innocent on the surface but may have negative implications from a legal perspective. Questions of this type can determine things like economic status, who is the primary economic contributor to the household, who is most likely to miss work time due to childcare issues, etc. If the applicant volunteers this information without prompting, that’s fine. Just don’t ask.
  6. Are you the head of your household? Once again, this type of question can be viewed as a not so subtle attempt to find out whether or not an applicant is married, who the primary breadwinner in the family is and who is likely to be off in the event childcare needs present themselves. None of this is relevant to the process of determining a candidate’s fitness for the position.
  7. Are you married, single, divorced, engaged or widowed? This type of question used to be very common on employment applications but has disappeared in recent years. As seen in the preceding examples, any attempt to discern the applicant’s marital status opens up a host of potential problems, creating a potential pathway for an enterprising plaintiff’s attorney to bring charges of sexual discrimination. These questions can safely be asked after an applicant is hired for benefits and other appropriate reasons. Just don’t ask them before the applicant is hired.
  8. Does your spouse have health insurance? This question can be viewed as sexist. It can also open the employer to charges of disability discrimination depending on whether or not the applicant (or their spouse) has a real or perceived disability. It can also create a negative impression with the applicant regarding the willingness of the employer to provide reasonable and appropriate healthcare benefits to their employees.

This is just a sampling of questions that employers should avoid as they interview candidates for employment. Obviously, there are many more that should be avoided. Your best course of action is to design a structured interview form before you start the interview process. All questions should be job related and non-discriminatory. Applicants can be safely asked about their education and employment history, any special skills or abilities they may possess, and how they feel that they match up with the requirements of the job. Ask all applicants the same set of questions and make appropriate notes on their responses.