Guest Columnist

Column: What owners and hiring managers should never ask job candidates

Guest columnistMarch 31, 2014 

Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a Charlotte-based executive coach and founder of, a friend-sourcing tool for online shopping.

Business owners are generally pretty savvy about discrimination in hiring. They know they should hire the best person for the job, and wouldn’t deny someone a job offer because of the color of their skin, or intentionally pay someone less because of their sex.

And yet even the most enlightened and well-intentioned employers can get into trouble during the interview process. Often, illegal questions get asked during the “getting to know you” part at the beginning of the interview.

“When did you graduate?” You realize that an interviewee went to your alma mater, so you bring it up and start trying to figure out if you were both there at the same time.

“Did you ever take a class with Professor Smith?” is probably OK, but tread lightly around questions about class years, as graduation dates reveal a candidate’s age. According to the website of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids discrimination against people who are ages 40 and older, and some states have laws that protect younger workers as well.

“Where are you from?” A lot of hiring managers like to start with some variation of, “Tell me about yourself.” However, trouble can arise when “tell me about yourself,” veers into the issue of national origin.

You may ask, “Are you legally eligible to work in the U.S.?” But keep in mind that if you’re asking this question, it should be asked of all candidates – not only the ones who appear to be foreign.

“Do you have any kids?” Of course, candidates are trying to build rapport with you, too. It’s a classic gambit for job applicants to scan your desk or office for personal photos or other mementos to remark upon. And telling someone that their children are cute is considered a normal piece of politesse.

But in a hiring context – no matter how cordial – restraint is necessary. According to the EEOC, “(T)here are circumstances where discrimination against caregivers may give rise to sex discrimination under Title VII or disability discrimination under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).”

So what can you ask about? It’s easy to step over the line without realizing it, so I recommend the following approach.

•  Use an interview script to ensure your legality and consistency across candidates.

• Write “ice breaker” questions that avoid the danger zones of age, disability, national origin, pregnancy/marital/family status, race, religion or sex. These can range from “Did you have any problems finding the place?” to “How did you hear about this job opportunity?”

• Use a strong introduction to build rapport. Let the candidate know what to expect – what types of questions you’ll be asking, how long the interview will take, whether anyone else will be meeting with the candidate and when you’ll be making a decision about next steps.

• Write behavioral questions that elicit good data about the relevant competencies for the job.

Keep these tips in mind when it’s time to find great employees, so you can stay in the legal zone and out of hot water.

Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a Charlotte-based executive coach and the founder of

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