I realize we live in a post PC world, filled with spectacle and alternative facts, and all over social media it looks as though civility has left the building.

And that may be true.

Civility may have left the world of social media, but employment laws are still the same. There are certain things we just can’t ask — even in a post-PC world.

For many of you I’m sure this is old news, but with a constant stream of people entering recruiting, it bears repeating.

It is so easy to become complacent. After all, it is just a phone screen or just a Skype interview, and while it is good to be comfortable in your work, it can lead you into trouble if you wander too far off the beaten path.

Walking a fine line on what you can ask

Unfortunately, we live in a world where bias, both conscious and unconscious, are real things and where coffee can be too hot. It’s important to be warm, friendly, and open, but we need to remain professional.

I was recently part of a panel that was advising people on their resumes. One person asked if he should remove the date he graduated college from his resume. The answer from my fellow panelists was unanimous — Yes!

What does that tell you about our profession? We are not allowed to ask about a person’s age, but for a long time we have navigated and done the math based on the date someone graduated from school. But don’t ask about a person’s age or anything that might be mistaken as trying to get that information. For example, if you see someone has listed that they have a degree but did not put the date, you may ask them if they finished their degree if it is not clear, but be careful about asking them when.

We live in an environment where more of us are working from home and conducting interviews on Skype or something similar. You may notice, when you have someone taking an interview from their home, that in the background there may be pictures of children or a family. Many of us got into the profession because we enjoy talking to people.

It’s very tempting to try to connect

The temptation to try to connect with people is higher for us than it is for most people. However, I would caution you about asking for details about the photos you see in the background. If you do, innocent as it may seem, you may be putting yourself and your company at risk.

You may even be thinking that “this job requires travel, and I can see they have a family, so I should ask about that.” If you must ask, ask about the job requirement, not their personal life.

You may ask,”This job requires 30 percent travel, are you able to commit to that?” You may not ask, “I see you have a family and this job requires a lot of travel; are you comfortable with the travel requirement?

Likewise you may notice some religious jewelry, perhaps a necklace or a picture in their home office. Again, this is something to avoid. It’s not appropriate to ask where a person goes to services or anything that may imply you are looking for information regarding someone’s personal beliefs. Religious affiliation or non-affiliation is not fair game in an interview for employment.

Over the last few months, Facebook and Twitter have been alive with vigorous political commentary. No matter your personal views, an interview is neither the appropriate time nor place to share those thoughts or to ask about them.

One question we ask regularly is about salary. Now, asking about salary is a big taboo in our society, but recruiting is one area where culture has typically permitted the question. However, be aware that the laws around salary inquiry have changed and continue to change. You may no longer legally ask about salary in Massachusetts and Philadelphia. As the equal pay effort gains momentum, I would not be surprised for this question to become broadly illegal in many places.

Some things you just can’t ask

So let’s get to the meat and potatoes of the issue. What are the questions that you just can’t ask?

  • How old are you?
  • How many sick days did you take last year?
  • Are you the care giver for elderly family members?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you have any kids?
  • Are you a liberal or conservative voter?
  • Do you plan on starting a family?
  • Where are you from, originally?
  • Are you Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Hindu?
  • It is so rare to see females succeed in this industry. How do you feel you will do?
  • Are you gay?
  • You aren’t a member of a union, right?

How DO you ask about sensitive topics when it is relevant to the job at hand? You have to ask your questions in such a way as they relate to the written job requirements. For example:

This job regularly requires lifting 50 pounds or more. Are you able to do that? This job requires 30 percent travel — will you be able to commit to that?

I find starting my questions with “this job requires.” It saves me from wandering into an area I shouldn’t go.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we have candidates that volunteer information that would be considered protected or privileged. So what do you do in a case where a candidate has provided such information? The best thing to do is not to pursue it and don’t make a note of it.

Building credibility and staying out of legal trouble

My final advice to you is this: Prepare your questions in advance and avoid off the cuff questions whenever possible. Consistency equals fairness. Keep the focus on the job requirements and how the candidate has performed in the past.

When asking questions, remember that job relevance is the key factor. Your interview questions should be designed to determine a candidate’s capability to perform the essential functions you have defined for the job. Make sure your questions are in job-relevant language, and don’t make assumptions about a candidate’s ability or disability.

Finally, take the initiative to not only to share this information with your team, but with your hiring managers as well. We don’t get a lot of formal interview training in our profession and our hiring managers tend to get even less. If something were to go wrong, you don’t want the hiring managers indicating that you never told them what questions they could or could not ask.

Personally, I would use this as a way to create an opportunity to train the hiring managers on how to interview. This creates a win for you and your company by keeping you safe from any possible legal trouble, and it gives you the opportunity to build credibility as a subject matter expert with your hiring managers.

By Mike Wolford

As the Talent Intelligence Titan with over 15 years of progressive experience, I've dedicated my career to revolutionizing the talent acquisition landscape. My journey, marked by leadership roles at esteemed organizations like Claro Analytics and Twitter, has equipped me with a deep understanding of recruiting, sourcing, and analytics. I've seamlessly integrated advanced AI technologies into talent acquisition, positioning myself at the vanguard of recruitment innovation.