Skip to Main Content
Filter By +
Topic +

2 Questions You Never Should Ask a Job Candidate … and What You Should Ask Instead

We’ve all heard the popular saying, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” While that adage may remain open for debate, there is such a thing as a poorly worded question, which can pose a big problem for employers interviewing prospective employees.

Whether used to build rapport or vet a candidate’s ability to meet job requirements, some questions mistakenly can draw attention to an individual’s protected characteristics, as defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Even if discrimination was not intended, a candidate can make a claim in good faith if he or she believes discrimination occurred and cost him or her the job, as in the 1992 case of Stukey v. United States Air Force.

In this example, a female candidate named Linda Stukey was asked several gender-based questions during the interview process that were not asked to male candidates, such as her ability to work with men and her child care arrangements. When the job was awarded to a man, she sued and was awarded $89,371.24 in lost wages when the court concluded the Air Force Institute of Technology practiced illegal gender discrimination. After each party presented its evidence, the court found the “impropriety and sheer number of gender-based questions made it reasonable to conclude that the selection committee gave Stukey a low rating because of her sex.”

So how’s an interviewer supposed to get to know a candidate, gauge his or her ability to perform the job and comply with EEOC regulations? Very carefully … and by ensuring all interviewers in the hiring process ask the right questions. Below are two examples of seemingly innocent questions that may be problematic; we’ll also look at what interviewers could ask instead to get the information they seek.

“Are you hoping to start a family soon?”

Hold the mic on this one. Asking a question like this poses a problem because it violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and elicits a response about the candidate’s personal life. Instead, if you’re looking to get to know more about who you’re interviewing, ask: “What are your hobbies outside of work?”

Aside from averting risk, such an alternative can provide you with a better sense of who the candidate is, as well as his or her interests outside the office. For example, you could learn the prospect serves as president of the PTA, meaning he or she possesses valuable leadership skills.

Or, if you need to assess the candidate’s ability to meet job requirements without inquiring about children, ask: “Do you anticipate anything that could affect your ability to carry out the responsibilities of this job in the future?” This risk-averse question is to the point and directly relates to how the candidate could meet the requirements for the job at hand.

“What language do you speak at home? What’s your nationality?”

Press the pause button here. Asking about one’s national origin could violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead, ask: “I see you currently (work/live) in (city/state). What’s your favorite thing about (working/living) there?” By doing so, you’re able to respectfully open a conversation to learn more about the candidate.

If you need to ensure he or she meets the job requirements, ask: “Are you legally authorized to work in the U.S.?” Since all candidates are required to answer this question during some phase of the hiring process, this can be seen as less intrusive.

Making sure the right candidate makes it through your door is important, but so does adhering to EEOC regulations. That’s why it’s essential all interviewers – from department heads and front-line managers to a prospect’s potential teammates – understand what they can and cannot ask. Learn more about interviewing candidates the right way by downloading our free interview guide.

Disclaimer: This blog includes general information about legal issues and developments in the law. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal developments. These informational materials are not intended, and must not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You need to contact a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction for advice on specific legal problems.