How to Avoid Asking Inappropriate Interview Questions: Employer’s Guide

by Daniel B. Griffith, J.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.

In How to Respond to Inappropriate Interview Questions, job seekers received timely advice on how to recognize and avoid illegal and inappropriate interview questions. How sad that they must still guard against such inquiries in the 21st century. What if instead employers avoided Catch-22 scenarios that forced job seekers to either answer such inquiries or avoid doing so at the risk of being excluded from further consideration? Failing to respond to such inquiries is not the fault of the job seeker, but is due to the lack of attention, knowledge, or professionalism of the employer, interviewers, and search committees charged with selecting candidates.

To ensure only appropriate and legal inquiries take place during interviews, employers should consider this guidance:

Know Your Equal Opportunity Laws and Policies Inside and Out
The key to any legal and appropriate interview question is job-relevance. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides guidance on pre-employment inquiries with respect to the protected classes (race, gender, etc.) under its purview. It states, "As a general rule, the information obtained and requested through the pre-employment process should be limited to those essential for determining if a person is qualified for the job; whereas, information regarding race, sex, national origin, age, and religion are irrelevant in such determinations."

Any inquiry that seeks to elicit information about one's race, gender, or other protected class is illegal. The inappropriateness of these questions should be obvious:

  • "That's an unusual name -- what's its origin?" (relating to ancestry or national origin)
  • "When are you due? Do you and your husband know the gender?" (relating to gender, marital status, and pregnancy)
  • "How will you perform these duties using a wheelchair?" (relating to disability)
  • "What religious holidays do you observe?" (relating to religion)
  • "When did you attend State University?" (relating to age)

Some lawful, job-related pre-employment inquiries may touch upon candidates' protected class identities. For example, "Are you eligible to work in the U.S.?" is a standard inquiry of all job candidates. Further inquiry during the interview process is not permissible, but employers must establish the selected candidate's lawful status to work in the U.S. prior to hire. Inquiries like, "Can you work evenings?" or "Are you able to work on weekends?" are acceptable provided they are relevant to the duties of the job and asked of all candidates. Any candidate who cannot meet these basic work expectations may be disqualified, provided such expectations are consistently applied to all candidates irrespective of religious convictions, marital or family needs, or other considerations.

Questions related to religion are generally unlawful unless the employer is a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society that is exempt from federal equal opportunity laws and a particular religious affiliation or belief is a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification. Lastly, direct inquiries about a candidate's obvious or perceived disability is unlawful, but a general question posed to all candidates, such as "Can you perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation?" is lawful. Indications that the candidate has a disability -- such as voluntary disclosure or an acknowledgement upfront that the candidate will need an accommodation -- provides a basis for further limited inquiry pre-employment into the nature of the accommodation needed. EEOC provides further guidance on these parameters.

Be Careful with Unique or Strange, but Not Illegal, Questions
Hiring managers and search committee members want to be inquisitive, thoughtful, and probing to ensure full vetting of candidates to select the strongest and most qualified. They can risk in the process becoming too creative with the questions they pose. The following examples range from simply unique to downright awful and pointless:

  • "What leader do you admire most from any time in history, and why?"
  • "What would you title your autobiography? Why?"
  • "If you were alone in the middle of the ocean on a life raft, what three items in addition to food and water would you want with you to ensure your survival and rescue?"
  • "If you were a vegetable, what would you be? Why?"

The upside of such inquiries (except perhaps the one about vegetables) is that they challenge candidates to think on their feet and thereby demonstrate skills and aptitudes like critical thinking, communication, relating to others, creativity, and intuition, among other qualities, which could be relevant to many leadership, management, and higher-level roles. Rely sparingly on such questions, inserting only a couple in any interview process, and favor more behavioral questions that can help identify candidates' qualifications just as well or better.

The downside is that inquiries that are too far afield or weird test the boundaries of job-relatedness. Will the job require survival skills on a raft? Will I be expected to pen my memoir? Reviewers must also be careful how they evaluate the answers given. For example, a search committee might decline to advance a woman of color to the next stage in the selection process and articulate a number of objective reasons why her leadership capabilities do not match other candidates. Yet, they quietly dismiss any suggestion that their real reason was they didn't like her response to the "leader in history" question when she identified a living radical, black feminist as a leader she greatly admires while many conservative candidates identified "safe" white leaders, such as Washington, Lincoln, or Churchill.

For any question, but particularly unique questions like these, craft it carefully and vet it to be sure it has job relevance and is defensible if subsequently challenged.

Avoid Too Much Informality during On-Site Visits
Whereas initial interviews are often short and perfunctory, and more often than not conducted by phone or videoconference, second and subsequent interviews generally entail campus visits. These may vary between a couple hours to a full day (or more), and involve meeting with multiple individuals and groups. It is thus an even greater challenge to ensure appropriate inquiry into candidate qualifications and appropriate handling of information offered voluntarily by candidates. There are plenty of stories of awkward moments and interview hazards experienced by candidates during visits.

As candidates endure multiple meetings, meals, and encounters, conversation can become informal, even chatty. A candidate's physical presence can trigger considerations, albeit inappropriate, about his or her perspectives, behaviors, and characteristics based on race, gender, age, and other identities. Through many encounters, these and other characteristics may come out through informal and potentially inappropriate ways. For example, consider how rejected candidates might perceive these exchanges in hindsight:

  • A candidate shares information about her children, which leads to conversations about childcare options in the university and city. In an effort to be helpful and encouraging, individuals share details and compare notes about their respective families.
  • A candidate needs time moving between locations due to an obvious limp and use of a cane. He apologizes and explains the basis of his condition. While expressing understanding, individuals share their own personal or family experiences with such conditions.
  • Search committee members compliment an African American woman on her professional dress that expresses her cultural and ethnic identity. This leads to a couple inquiries into the meaning of her attire, to which she responds.
Interviewers must be careful with such conversations. For example, while generally responding to inquiries about childcare options may not violate policy, deeper inquiry and conversation about a candidate's needs in order to respond may be problematic. While matters like childcare, disability accommodations, and similar issues are important to candidates, it is the purview of the hiring manager to address them at the appropriate time, which is generally after an offer is made and before it is accepted. Random individuals who meet with visiting candidates lack this authority.

In subsequent meetings to review candidate qualifications, reviewers should ensure such knowledge does not influence their ultimate recommendations and decisions. Depending on the circumstances, this may involve acknowledging the information that has been revealed and challenging comments, conversations, and recommendations that may suggest reviewers have been adversely influenced by such knowledge.

Seek Advice and Support before Beginning Any Interview Process
As a hiring manager or chair of a search committee, understanding and adhering to basic guidelines for appropriate interview questions and other pre-employment inquiries are essential. Seeking help and advice on such matters is also important. It is a rare institution of higher education that doesn't have at least one individual, or an office, that is expert in and responsible for EEO compliance. Human resources professionals also possess this knowledge and expertise. Seek out these resources, including participating in available compliance training, contacting the appropriate official for advice prior to beginning a search process, or inviting such an official to your initial organization meeting of a search committee to ensure all committee members know the appropriate inquiries to make and unlawful inquiries to avoid. Be sure also to contact these professionals when concerns arise in the course of the selection process. Don't assume it is obvious or that everyone simply knows what constitutes an inappropriate or illegal question or is predisposed to avoid asking it.