Job Questions that Cross the Line
Finding the right candidate for a position may require an employer to be a little creative in its interview style but interview settings and questions should not impose on a potential employee’s human rights. Both employers and potential employees should be prepared before an interview so that everyone knows what questions are acceptable to ask and to answer.
Questions such as, “Are you over the age of 18?” and, “What are your career goals?” are both acceptable because the first may be important for you to know in order to follow other workplace laws and the second is a better question to gauge what this person wants to accomplish if hired for this position—which should be the most important thing for you to learn rather than what is printed on their birth certificate. Pre-employment age questions to stay away from include: “How old are you?”, “How much longer do you plan to work before you retire?”, “What is your birthday?”. Before asking any age-related question an employer should first ask itself, is the answer really important AND will the answer affect its decisions as to whether or not to hire this person. Please note, only ages 40 and over are protected from workplace discrimination under federal law and ages 40 through 69 under state law.
Learning the religion of someone may make you as an employer feel more comfortable in the workplace, however, it is none of your business. Asking a question such as “What religion do you practice?” or “What religious holidays do you observe?” is inappropriate because the Missouri Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on a person’s religion. Outright inquiring about an applicant’s religion may suggest that the answer could affect the applicant’s chance of getting the job. If an employer is concerned about an employee being able to work certain days of the year, they should rather inquire “What days are you available to work?” or “Are you able to work with our required schedule?”
We live in a world where girls play football and wrestle for their high school teams and dads stay home with the kids while mom works. However, some employers still feel compelled to treat one gender differently than the other. Asking only women, “Do you have or plan on having kids?” crosses that line. Other inadvisable questions include: “Is this your maiden name?”, or “We’ve always had a man/woman do this job. How do you think you will measure up?”. Questions that are “okay” to ask and really get the answers you need to make a good hiring decision include: “Are you able to work overtime on occasion or travel?”, “Have you worked or earned a degree under a different name?”, “What do you have to offer to our company?”.
One employer recently made the mistake of asking a job applicant about his medical history during an interview and refused to hire the applicant based on his response. The employer earned itself a day in court as well as an order to pay the applicant $85K for workplace discrimination. Don’t make this mistake by asking the following questions: “Do you have disabilities?”, “Have you had any recent or past illnesses or operations?”, “Do you take any medications?”. A better way to find out if applicants are able to perform the job is simply just to ask, “Are you able to perform the specific duties of this position?”. But, you should ask all of the applicants that question. You should also be mindful about drug tests. Certainly learning if a potential employee uses illegal drugs is important and CAN be asked. However, you can ONLY require a worker to take a medical exam or drug test AFTER you offer the worker the position and as long as you require other employees with similar jobs to do the same thing.
The Department hopes to soon launch a more interactive tool that will help people identify questions that cross the line. For employers, we also offer training about this exact topic that can help prevent your place of business from ending up in expensive litigation. Sign up today!
The Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) is dedicated to investigating and resolving all complaints of discrimination in employment, as well as in housing and places of public accommodation. Education can be the best prevention. For more information on this topic, visit our Discrimination page.