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Off-Limits Interview Questions

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Interviews are nerve-wracking for both candidates and employers. Candidates want to present themselves in the best light, while employers want to find the right person for the job. 

It can be difficult to walk the fine line between finding the right fit and asking the right questions. Karen Young is one of the leading experts in helping companies find the right match for their positions in an ethical way. 

Young is president and founder of HR Resolutions and best-selling author of “Stop Knocking on My Door: Drama-Free HR to Help Grow Your Business.” She has more than 30 years of experience in the field, helping employers stay on top of HR management and the hiring process.

In this guide, you’ll find topics Young recommends to avoid, how to navigate difficult questions, and helpful ideas for redirecting conversations. 

Red Light

Any question related to a candidate’s race, creed, nation of origin, age, disability, family status, marital status, gender expression or sexuality. 

“So, tell me about yourself.” While this might be an appropriate icebreaker at a restaurant or dinner party, Young warns this is not an appropriate question before an interview. The vagueness of this question frequently leads candidates to reveal things about themselves that are not only irrelevant to the position, but could subconsciously bias the interviewer before the interview even begins.

“Do you have daycare arrangements in place?” If your company offers childcare or other family-related benefits, that information should be presented to all candidates, regardless of gender expression, Young adds, but should have no bearing on the interview or assessment of the candidates’ abilities.

“Oh, this interview was for today?” Interviewers should be prepared. They should have their questions written down and carefully considered before the interview. They should bring a note-taking device to the interview location, which should be easily accessible for candidates.

Yellow Light

Questions regarding COVID-19 vaccination. Although the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that employers “may” require employee vaccination, Young does not recommend beginning this line of questioning during an interview because it “opens a rabbit hole” of potential exposure to the candidates’ information regarding declared or perceived disabilities. If your company has a mask mandate or other sanitizing procedures in place, present these plainly and direct any questions the candidate may have to the appropriate department.

“What are your professional goals for the next 2-5 years?” “I used to shy away from questions like these,” Young says, “but now I see real value for employers in the candidates’ answers.” Young recommends looking for a candidates’ self-awareness and motivational drive in their answers. All answers are valid, and she encourages employers to identify answers that are a match for the position and the company’s needs.

“Do you anticipate any challenges in commuting to this location or working these hours?” This question is more helpful than asking where a person lives, if they have a car, or other questions that carry a degree of bias or that others could see as potentially discriminatory. It is also more appropriate than questioning the candidate about religious conflicts, family commitments, or other personal details that the company does not need to know. Young elaborates, “If it has no bearing on the individual’s ability to do the job, it should not be asked in the interview.”

Green Light

Ask every candidate the same questions. Young identifies this as one of the five most important strategies for a successful interview. “Asking all candidates the same questions ensures that everyone is judged on the same playing field,” she adds. It also helps the interviewer accurately compare candidates’ abilities and to objectively choose the best match for the position.

“Do you have any concerns about your ability to perform any of the essential functions listed in the job posting?” Young identified this as one of four key strategies to successful interviews. Every question should be geared towards identifying their ability to do their job and be successful in your organization.

“It’s completely understandable if you’re a little nervous this morning, I am too.” This statement allows a moment of empathetic connection and can help to put candidates at ease. 

If, during the course of an interview, you realize you’ve asked a question that is off-limits or inappropriate, Young says the best thing to do is to first, own your mistake. 

“A great thing immediately after,” Young says, “is to say, ‘I apologize, that question has no impact on my interpretation of your ability to perform these duties. I’m nervous today too. Please forgive me.’”

Make a note of what happened, write down what you asked, if the candidate responded and how you handled the situation afterwards. When the interview is over, make your way over to the Human Resources department to explain what happened in full. Even small incidents should not be swept under the rug or ignored.

Study Up 
Interviewers should be well trained to avoid subconscious bias and adhere to federal and state laws, including, but not limited to: 

-Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
-Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990
-Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978
-Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993
-Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) 2008
-Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970
-Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs)


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