Inappropriate interview questions

This past Saturday, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Right Job, Wrong Question” by Dennis Nishi. (Note: The article was reprinted in my local paper on Sunday, with the heading “Right Answers to Wrong Questions,” so you may be able to read it in a print version of your paper as well.) The article does a good job of preparing job applicants for what to do if they’re asked an inappropriate question, and I’ll summarize that article in Thursday’s post. For today, I want to make sure that you know and can recognize what “inappropriate” questions are.

In the United States, employers are not allowed to ask job applicants questions about

• age: Some jobs, such as bartending, do have age requirements, so employers are allowed to ask if you meet the requirement. Otherwise, age is off the table. A gray-haired friend of mine was asked what her birth year was, which may have been someone’s attempt to circumvent asking her age, but the question was still illegal.
• marital status: Some employers may attempt to get around this with women—who can be the targets of discrimination based on marriage or parenthood—by asking if they want to be addressed as Miss, Ms., or Mrs., or by asking about their maiden name. Those aren’t legal, either!
• gender: This will most likely come up if you are applying for a job that is most typically held by someone of a different gender. They can ask if you have experience with the type of work, but they can’t say things like, “We usually hire women for this job. Why do you want to do women’s work?” or “We usually hire men for this job. What makes you think you can handle it?”
• disabilities: They cannot ask about mental, psychological, or physical disabilities—or about past illnesses or surgeries—and if they hire you, and you do have a disability, they have to accommodate it. So they may ask you if you can perform the duties of the job without any accommodation. While we’re at it, they can’t ask about your height or weight either.
• drug, alcohol, or tobacco use: However, they can ask if you have ever used illegal drugs.
• religion: They can’t ask. However, they may need to know depending on requirements for special days off that would cause scheduling problems or concerns, so this one is a bit tricky.
• citizenship status: They are allowed ask if you are authorized to work in the U.S., but not if you are a citizen.
• nationality or heritage: While this is related to citizenship status, it can be a very different question. Employers should not ask where you were born, where your family came from, or what type of accent you have.
• race: You may be asked to reveal your race for affirmative action purposes, but it has to be optional.
• pregnancy: Employers cannot ask women if they are pregnant or plan to get pregnant, and they can’t ask men if they’re planning a family. A friend of mine just got a new job, and she’s seven months pregnant! I should ask her to write a guest blog about her experiences in job hunting during pregnancy.
• finances: They can’t ask if you’ve ever been bankrupt, or have a mortgage, or about any other type of debt. However, for some jobs it is a requirement that you have good credit, so they are allowed to do a credit check in those situations.
• arrest record: They can’t ask if you’ve been arrested, but they can ask if you’ve been convicted of a felony.
• organizational memberships: They can ask about membership in professional organizations, but not about membership in religious, civic, political, or social organizations.

One more thing to be aware of is that some employers have asked applicants for their social media site passwords or have insisted that applicants log on to their site and surf it while the interviewer watches over their shoulder (“shoulder surfing”!). Some states have passed, or are in the process of passing, laws that prohibit this practice, and it may be declining anyway. (You can check on the law in your state here.) But it’s one more thing to be aware of as you prepare for interviews. . .clean up your social media sites!