by Sarah E. Stuart

When recruiting new talent to your company, there are a myriad of topics you should avoid in the process of determining whether a person is a good fit for the position. The safest and most effective way to interview is to focus closely on whether the candidate meets the criteria for the open position.

While some topics are simply undesirable or taboo, certain factors are prohibited from consideration in hiring by federal and state law. You likely know to steer clear of directly inquiring about race, national origin, gender, age, familial status, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. Remember that opening these lines of conversation with a candidate you later do not hire can lead to legal trouble.

While most employers understand to directly avoid these topics, indirect or incidental discussions of off-limits subjects can also lead to trouble. Here’s how to prevent those accidental missteps before they occur.

  1. Don’t accidentally age your candidates. Keep all conversations related to age at an arm’s length. It is easy to indirectly inquire about a candidate’s age by asking about when they graduated high school or their memory of a major event (such as the assassination of President Kennedy). Be aware of how numerous topics may inadvertently tie a conversation to age.
  2. Beware innocent curiosity. When a candidate has an interesting name or a unique accent, you may be inclined to ask about it. These questions, among others, often reveal information about a candidate’s national origin or religious background. If the candidate then is not hired, you may expose the company to legal trouble.   If a candidate grew up in the same area as you or attended the same college or university, take care to not go down a road that would inquire about the candidate’s religious background, national origin, or age.  What non-professional clubs or organizations a person has listed on their resume or brings up in conversation may well lead to proxy conversation about race, age, gender, or religion.
  3. Focus on the performance of essential duties, leaving room for accommodations. Sometimes it may be obvious that a candidate has a disability or a medical condition, or a candidate may reveal a disability or medical condition without inquiry. If so, be clear about job expectations but leave open the potential for considering reasonable accommodations. For example, you may ask a candidate about their ability to work long hours and overtime.  You may also ask whether a candidate can perform the job duties, with or without a reasonable accommodation.  Stay open-minded in your discussions about the potential for accommodations, if raised, to remain in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  4. Do not forget that “filler” conversational topics can easily lead to out-of-bounds topics. It may seem innocent enough to ask questions such as: Do you have any kids? Or what does your husband/wife do? These questions, however, imply questions about familial status and sexual orientation.  For the same reasons, even when a candidate is obviously pregnant or wearing an engagement ring, avoid bringing up their due date or wedding plans.

Overall, if a question has potential to reveal an answer that could be tied to employment discrimination, reconsider it. Even if a candidate raises the topic, steer the conversation in a new direction. Should you have any concerns or desire training for your company’s interviewers, our firm is happy to assist.