A personal interview is an essential part of the hiring process, but conducting interviews is not as easy as it seems. It is vital to ask open-ended questions, such as, “tell me about your favorite part of your previous job,” rather than closed-ended questions, such as, “did you enjoy your previous work?” It is also important to set candidates at ease and encourage them to open up. Yet it is all too easy to stray into illegal territory in a job interview, even when you think you are simply being friendly. Here is what you need to know.
You are probably already aware that you must follow fair, non-discriminatory hiring practices. In fact, you should note in your job ads that you are an equal opportunity employer (EOE). This means that you do not discriminate on the basis of marital status, age, gender, national origin, religion, ethnicity, disability, or other protected class. This includes avoiding questions on these topics during the interview.
Innocent Questions Gone Awry
Unfortunately, innocent “getting to know you” questions can lead to big trouble if they reveal information about a candidate’s protected class. For example, you should never ask where the candidate was born, his or her birthday, names of the candidate’s spouse or children, or even the origin of an unusual first or last name.
Instead, stick to questions that are genuinely related to the job. For example, it is fine to ask if the candidate can provide proof of the right to work in the United States. If fluency in multiple languages is an asset in the position, it is acceptable to ask about other languages. Asking whether the candidate is able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation, is fine. If the job requires extensive travel or weekend work, feel free to state that and ask whether the candidate is able to fulfill those duties.
The goal of hiring laws is not to prevent you from gathering enough information to determine whether the candidate is the right fit for the position. The goal is to keep employers from discriminating against employees or applicants. Keep this basic tenet in mind at all times, and how to phrase questions during the interview should become clear. Another key way to protect yourself against claims of employment discrimination is to ask each and every candidate the exact same questions in the exact same way.
Other Potential Pitfalls
How you conduct the interview matters as well. Avoid taking any photographs of candidates unless there is a specific job-related need (and then be sure to photograph ALL applicants). Do not take notes that refer to any physical characteristics or other personal details. Focus on the knowledge, skills, and abilities of each candidate as they relate to the specific job opening, and maintain equal professionalism with all.
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