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Building your business: 3 questions never to ask during a hiring interview

By Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a nationally syndicated columnist, executive coach, and the creator of the product quiz website www.ABorC.com.

Business owners are generally pretty savvy about discrimination in hiring. You know you should hire the best person for the job, regardless of gender or race. Most hiring managers 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, myself included. Often, illegal questions get asked during the chatty, “getting to know you” part at the beginning of the interview. This is when we’re trying to build rapport and get the candidate warmed up and talking.

‘When did you graduate?’

Your interviewee walks into the coffee shop. You look down at her resume and are reminded that this woman went to your alma mater. It’s always nice when you discover you have something in common with the person you’re interviewing, so you bring it up and start trying to figure out whether 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,” because it’s a nice softball of a question that can settle down a nervous applicant. 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.

In a nonwork social situation, the appropriate thing to say is, “Thank you. What about you? Do you have kids?” 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).”

What to ask instead

So what can you ask about? At this point, it might seem you have to watch every word. And the truth is, it is very easy to step over the line without realizing it. That’s why I recommend the following approach instead of improvising.

• First and foremost, 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. For example, you can 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. For example, “One of the most important things this position will be responsible for is fundraising. Can you tell me about times you’ve raised money for a good cause in the past?”

Keep these tips in mind when it’s time to find great people for your business, 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 www.CartCentric.com, a friend-sourcing tool for online shopping.
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