Interviewing prospective new hires can be a delicate business. It's critical to avoid those personal questions that can get you in legal trouble. But you also need to get beyond the safe questions so you can glean more than sterile, rehearsed answers. How can you obtain the information you need to make an informed choice without landing your company in hot water? Here are some tips for safe navigation.
If you have interviewed applicants before and asked questions which you now realize probably ran afoul of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), don't kick yourself over the mistake. Just make sure not to continue the practice. As it turns out, asking inappropriate questions is a common problem. A survey by CareerBuilder, the giant job board, determined that one-fifth of hiring managers — who, of all people should know better — inadvertently asked illegal questions.
But avoiding questions that could open you up to a discrimination complaint doesn't mean you have to limit yourself to the old standbys, such as, "What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?" Naturally, you need to go beyond a job application and resume to learn enough to make a hiring decision. After all, that's what interviews are for.
Here's a reminder of the most important points to avoid: The Equal Employment Opportunity Act and other federal laws and regulations under its authority enumerate many factors that you can't legally consider when hiring. They include race, color, religion, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, pregnancy status, national origin, age (over 40), disability, or genetic information.
Don't make the mistake of thinking you can wiggle around the prohibited direct questions to get at the information you seek. For example, instead of asking an applicant what his or her religion is, employers might ask, "Will you need time off for any religious holidays?" or something similar. That may be a legitimate question, but it could still be viewed as an effort to identify an applicant's religious tradition, and you might be deemed to have discriminatory intent even if you don't.
In the same way, asking for the dates an applicant received educational degrees could be interpreted as an effort to ferret out his or her age.
The U.S. Government is prohibited from asking job applicants about their political affiliations. And though it's not generally illegal, private employers would also be wise to avoid that thorny topic when interviewing applicants. Making a negative or supportive comment about, for example, a controversial political figure could be interpreted as a question in disguise and open a Pandora's box.
Even when an interview is going well and you're simply trying to get to know the applicant a little better, don't let your guard down and wander into topics that are taboo. Otherwise, if you ultimately decide not to hire that person, you could have opened yourself up to a discrimination charge.
Change the Subject
Suppose the applicant introduces a personal topic, such as politics, religion or age. If that happens, quickly return the conversation to subjects that allow you to assess the person's skills, experience and behavior patterns pertinent to his or her qualifications.
The job interview process can become similar to a game of cat and mouse. Websites and books are filled with tips for job applicants on the best answers to common interview questions. A Google search using the phrase "answers to job interview questions" instantly prompted more than seven million results.
Top-ranked pages coach job applicants on how to reply to the most common interview questions, such as "Tell me about yourself," "Where do you see yourself in five years?" and "Why should we hire you?" So while these are good questions, applicants who saw them coming may have rehearsed the answers they think you'll want to hear.
It's a good idea to dream up a few questions that applicants may not anticipate. CareerBuilder suggests several on its website. Admittedly, some of the suggestions may seem preposterous to you and your interviewees and may lead them to believe you're wasting their time. So if you do use questions such as the ones listed below, assure the applicant that there's a purpose behind each question. Here are a few:
- How would you wrangle a herd of cats? Purpose: To gain insights into the job candidate's ability to organize, lead and motivate others.
- If you didn't have to work, what would you do? Purpose: To learn about the candidate's values and interests outside of work, which can help you assess how well the candidate would fit into your workplace culture.
- If you were trapped in a small, enclosed area, how would you get out? Purpose: To gauge the candidate's creativity and ability to think on his or her feet.
- Do you believe in life on other planets? Purpose: To get a feel for whether the candidate believes that anything's possible.
Some of the standard questions that candidates will probably be prepared to field, such as "Tell me about yourself," can still provide useful insights. If nothing else, you will learn what the applicant thinks you want to hear, which can help with your assessment. And it does suggest that he or she tried to prepare. Just be careful if the response includes the kind of personal facts you're not supposed to ask about. And don't end the interview before you're confident you have learned enough to assess the candidate's skills, knowledge, experience and attitude to make a smart hiring decision.
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