Employers and those interviewing job candidates must know the laws associated with what may or may not be asked when screening prospective employees. Unfamiliarity in these areas can open the door to all kinds of problems.
What’s okay to ask?
According to the Federal Equal Opportunity Law, as a prospective employer, you may ask an applicant about anything that directly relates to his or her ability to perform the role being applied for. If there are certain characteristics about a person that need to be known in order to determine if he or she can perform the duties of the job, then it’s legal to ask for such information.
What’s not okay to ask?
However, there are some areas you must not inquire about, either on an application, or in an interview. While some may seem obvious, others may not—and can come up in casual conversation. Avoid possible legal headaches, and keep questions in the following areas out of your interviews, and off applications:
- Religion and/or religious affiliation*
- Race, color of skin, and physical attributes
- If the applicant is, or intends to, become a U.S. citizen*
- Sexual orientation
- Marital status
- Living arrangements
- If applicant is pregnant
- Additionally, avoid requesting photos with applications.
Remember, an inquiry is only appropriate if it helps determine if an applicant has the abilities necessary to perform the job.
Unacceptable: An inquiry into whether applicant is, or intends to become, a citizen of the United States
Acceptable: After an applicant is hired, if he or she could submit verification of his or her legal right to work in the United States
Unacceptable: An inquiry about an applicant’s lineage, ancestry, national origin, descent, parentage or nationality.
Acceptable: What language(s) the applicant speaks, writes, reads, or understands. This may only be asked if a language other than English is relevant to the job being applied for.
Please note that the above points are only examples, and don’t take the place of professional legal advice. There are many other categories of discriminatory inquiries that you should be aware of in order to avoid charges of discrimination in hiring.
*Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ) is the only defense to acknowledged discrimination on the basis of religion, sex, or national origin. See the full legal definition from Cornell Law.