Inappropriate and Illegal Interview Questions to Avoid
November 02, 2023
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against Target Corporation for using inappropriate interview questions. The EEOC claimed that Target asked questions during job interviews that were unrelated to the position and disproportionately screened out qualified applicants based on race and gender. Target settled the lawsuit with $2.8 million, agreeing to revise its hiring practices.
In the hiring process, it's crucial to ensure that candidates are treated fairly and without bias. However, there are certain questions that are inappropriate or even illegal to ask during an interview. This guide will shed light on 100 such questions and explain why they should be avoided.
Why it's inappropriate: Asking about a candidate's age can lead to age discrimination. The focus should be on the candidate's skills and experience, not their age.
Stat: According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), age discrimination cases accounted for approximately 21% of all discrimination cases in 2019.
In 2004, a 54-year-old computer scientist claimed that Google denied him employment based on his age. His interviewers were significantly younger and allegedly asked questions that hinted at age discrimination. The case was settled out of court, and while Google did not admit to any wrongdoing, the case brought attention to the potential for age bias in the tech industry's hiring processes.
In 2019, Google settled an age discrimination lawsuit brought by over 200 job applicants over the age of 40 who claimed they were not hired because of their age. The tech giant agreed to pay $11 million to the plaintiffs and to train employees and management about age bias.
Why it's inappropriate:Such questions can lead to discrimination based on marital or family status. They also have no bearing on a candidate's ability to perform the job.
Stat: In a survey, 35% of women reported being asked about their marital or family status during job interviews.
Anecdote:A woman once shared her experience of being asked if she planned to have more children during a job interview. She felt that the question was not only inappropriate but also affected the interviewer's decision.
Why it's inappropriate: Questions about religion can lead to religious discrimination. Employers should respect candidates' religious beliefs and practices.
Stat: Religious discrimination cases made up 4% of all EEOC cases in 2019.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie & Fitch in a case involving a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf. She was denied employment because her hijab conflicted with the company’s dress code, which the company did not enforce uniformly. This case underlined the importance of accommodating religious practices in the workplace.
Why it's inappropriate: Such questions can lead to discrimination based on national origin.
Stat: National origin discrimination cases represented 10% of all EEOC cases in 2019.
Why it's inappropriate: These questions can lead to discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.
Stat: Gender discrimination cases accounted for 28% of all EEOC cases in 2019.
In a case from the early 2000s, a former employee sued IBM for $5 million, claiming he was fired due to his sexual orientation after his manager made a series of homophobic remarks. The case was one of the first major lawsuits involving sexual orientation discrimination in the tech industry.
In a 2007 lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that financial news and media company Bloomberg LP discriminated against employees who were pregnant or returning from maternity leave. The complaint included allegations that during interviews, Bloomberg managers would ask women about their plans to become pregnant or their child care arrangements. Bloomberg settled the lawsuit by creating a fund for the affected employees and enhancing its equal opportunity training.
Why it's inappropriate:Questions that directly or indirectly inquire about a person's disability can lead to discrimination. It's essential to focus on the candidate's ability to perform job tasks, not their physical or mental conditions.
Stat: According to the EEOC, disability discrimination cases made up 33% of all discrimination cases in 2019.
Why it's inappropriate:Racial questions can lead to direct or indirect discrimination and have no relevance to a candidate's job performance.
Stat: Racial discrimination cases represented 26% of all EEOC cases in 2019.
In the 1990s, Texaco settled a racial discrimination lawsuit for $176 million. Tapes were leaked that captured executives making racial slurs and mocking African American employees. It was one of the largest settlements of a racial discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history and led to significant changes in how the company handled diversity and inclusion.
Why it's inappropriate: Financial status has no bearing on a candidate's ability to perform a job. Such questions can lead to socioeconomic discrimination.
Stat: While not tracked by the EEOC, various surveys suggest that up to 15% of candidates have faced questions related to their financial status during interviews.
Why it's inappropriate: Questions about health or physical appearance can lead to discrimination and are not relevant to job performance.
Stat: Health-related questions can potentially violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on health conditions.
Why it's inappropriate:Such questions can lead to discrimination based on personal interests, affiliations, or perceived affiliations.
Stat: Membership-based discrimination is not widely tracked, but anecdotal evidence suggests it can subtly influence hiring decisions.
Why it's inappropriate: Asking about arrest records can be discriminatory. It's more appropriate to inquire about convictions relevant to the job role.
Stat: The EEOC advises against using arrest records as a deciding factor in employment, as it can disproportionately affect certain racial groups.
Why it's inappropriate: Questions about the nature of someone's military discharge can be considered discriminatory.
Stat: Discrimination based on veteran status or military discharge can be a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
Why it's inappropriate:While employers can ask if a candidate is authorized to work in a specific country, directly inquiring about citizenship can lead to national origin discrimination.
Stat: The EEOC reported that national origin discrimination charges made up about 10% of all discrimination cases in 2019.
Why it's inappropriate: Questions about personal habits or lifestyle choices that are not directly relevant to the job can be invasive and lead to unfair judgments.
Stat: While lifestyle discrimination is not explicitly tracked, it's essential to remember that personal habits unrelated to job performance should remain private.
Why it's inappropriate: Such questions can lead to genetic information discrimination, which is prohibited under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).
Stat: The EEOC received 206 charges of genetic information discrimination in 2019.
Why it's inappropriate: While commute time might be a practical consideration, dwelling too much on a candidate's living situation can border on invasive. It's best to ask if they can reliably commute or be punctual instead.
Stat: Discrimination based on residency isn't widely tracked, but it's essential to respect the privacy of candidates regarding their living situations.
The hiring process should be a reflection of a company's values and commitment to fairness and equality. Avoiding inappropriate or illegal questions is not just about compliance but about building a reputation as an inclusive and respectful employer. Always prioritize job-relevant questions and create a comfortable environment for candidates to showcase their skills and experiences.
Why it's inappropriate:Personal beliefs, especially those unrelated to the job, should remain private. Delving into them can lead to bias and discrimination.
Stat: Bias based on personal beliefs can lead to a 20% decrease in job performance, as reported by various organizational psychology studies.
Why it's inappropriate: Comments or questions about a candidate's appearance can be seen as superficial judgments and are irrelevant to their job capabilities.
Why it's inappropriate: Weight has no bearing on most job functions, and such questions can be deeply personal and offensive.
Why it's inappropriate: While building rapport is essential, focusing too much on personal interests can lead interviewers to make biased judgments.
Why it's inappropriate: Personal social media platforms are just that – personal. Unless the behavior directly affects the job or company reputation, it's best to steer clear.
Why it's inappropriate: Tattoos and piercings are personal choices and should not affect hiring decisions unless they directly contradict company policy or job requirements.
Why it's inappropriate: Past personal behaviors, especially if they have no bearing on the current job, should not be a topic of discussion.
Why it's inappropriate: Personal travel habits are not typically relevant to job performance and can lead to biased judgments.
Why it's inappropriate: Inquiring about associations or clubs can lead to bias, especially if the interviewer has preconceived notions about such groups.
Why it's inappropriate: While understanding a candidate's reliability is essential, focusing on their mode of transportation can lead to socioeconomic bias.
Navigating the minefield of interview questions is a crucial aspect of the recruitment process. As we've discussed, certain questions are not just inappropriate but can cross the line into illegality, potentially exposing a company to lawsuits, financial penalties, and reputational damage. The anecdotes we've explored underscore the importance of ensuring that interviewers are well-trained and that the questions they ask are relevant to the job's requirements and do not discriminate based on race, gender, age, religion, disability, or other protected statuses.
Creating a welcoming and inclusive work environment starts at the first interaction between a potential employee and a company. Interviews should focus on skills, experience, and the ability to perform job-related functions. It's essential for companies to establish clear guidelines for interviewers, conduct regular training, and review interview practices to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws.
For recruiters and HR professionals, it's not just about avoiding illegal questions; it's about fostering a culture of respect and fairness, which begins with the first handshake or the opening line of an interview. Keeping this in mind will not only help protect your company legally but also contribute to building a diverse and dynamic workforce that can drive your company forward. Remember, the best talent will always gravitate towards organizations that respect individuality and equality. Let's ensure our hiring processes reflect these values.
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