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Why Recruiters Ask Illegal Interview Questions: Q&A with Chris Fields

Cornerstone Editors

Recruiting is a balancing act. Hiring managers want to ensure that they select the right person for the right job — but that can mean veering dangerously close to questions that are inappropriate or even illegal. "Do you have kids?" or "Are you married?" Both questions break the law, notes Chris Fields, an HR consultant and job coach. Here, Fields talks about why these kinds of questions get asked and how candidates should respond.

Are candidates and recruiters generally aware of questions that are off limits?

Often candidates don’t know that these questions are illegal because they come up during small talk. Some employers point out a wedding ring — not because they really want to know but because they want to get the applicant talking. It's not so much a question as a conversation starter. But some questions that ask directly about any disabilities or pregnancies are outright illegal. Unfortunately, job candidates don't feel like they have a choice because of the competition, so they answer them.

Do some employers have motive for asking appropriate questions?

They’re trying to find out if someone can work their shifts without any personal distractions. When you hire someone, it’s a costly investment so you don’t want to make a poor decision. You can minimize the poor decisions by having metrics, asking relevant questions and vetting with background checks.

How can employers rephrase the questions in a legal way?

Don’t think about the physical attributes you're looking for, but what you need someone to do and base questions off the position you’re hiring for. If you need someone to work a holiday schedule, don’t ask if they celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. Just tell them, "We need coverage during this time period. Is that a problem?" You don’t need to know why that’s problem; all you need to know is whether they can do it — yes or no. When you get into why they can’t do it, that’s when you get into trouble and start making judgments.

Tell us about a scenario when a job candidate was asked something inappropriate.

One woman I talked to had an interview where the interviewer complimented her wedding ring. "Wow," he said, "you must really be loved. What does your husband do?" That’s not necessarily an illegal question, but it made her feel inadequate. She didn’t know if she was going to be judged on her ring.

You don’t want job candidates to come away thinking they did something wrong by wearing a wedding ring or wearing a nice outfit. When a recruiter says, "That looks like an expensive suit you’re wearing," the candidate wants to know they look nice, but they don't want the interviewer to think they don't need the job. Also, they don't want to work for a company that would judge based on those things.

For an organization, integrity is important. It’s important to provide a good candidate experience because even if you don’t give someone the job, you want the person to have a good view of the company. You don’t want applicants to leave the interview feeling like they’ve been manipulated or compromised in any way.

Image: Can Stock Photo

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