The rough economy has made many people desperate for a job. In their eagerness for gainful employment, many people may overlook improper interview questions. Depending on how they are asked, questions about personal topics such as marital status, race and health are more than just poor manners - they are illegal under federal and some state and local laws. These types of questions can be used to discriminate against applicants, and it is your right not to answer them. Here are eight questions your employer cannot ask you. (For related reading, look at 5 Tips For Acing A Phone Interview.)
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1. How old are you?
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), protects individuals who are 40 or older from being discriminated against in the workplace in favor of younger employees. There is no federal protection in place to protect workers younger than 40 from age discrimination. To determine if you are legally eligible to perform a job, employers are allowed to ask if you are over the age of 18.
2. Are you married?
Questions about marital status are prohibited. Employers might be tempted to ask this question to find out if your relationship could have a negative impact on your work. For example, if you are married you might be more likely to leave the company if your spouse gets a job transferred to a different city. Even a question as seemingly innocent as "Do you wish to be addressed as Mrs., Miss, or Ms.?" is not allowed.
3. Are you a U.S. citizen?
Citizenship and immigration status cannot be used against a potential employee during the hiring process according to The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Employers must wait until after a job offer had been extended to require a worker to complete the Employment Eligibility Verification (I-9) Form and submit documentation that proves identity and employment authorization. It is lawful for an employer to ask an interviewee if they are authorized to work in the US.
4. Do you have any disabilities?
This question might seem necessary to determine if a job applicant can perform the required duties, but it is illegal to ask under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Employers cannot discount anyone from a job because of a physical or mental disability. In fact, the law requires that they accommodate disabilities unless they can prove it would cause significant difficulty or expense to do so. Employers also cannot ask you if you have had any past illnesses or operations.
5. Do you take drugs, smoke or drink?
Concerns about drug, alcohol or nicotine addictions are valid as they can impact an employee's quality of work and the rates of a company's health insurance coverage. However, an employer might find themselves in legal trouble if they don't frame questions about these potential problems in a careful manner. They are allowed to ask if you have ever been disciplined for violating company policies about the use of alcohol and tobacco products. They can also ask directly if you use illegal drugs, but an employer can't inquire about your use of prescription medications.
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6. What religion do you practice?
Inquires about religious beliefs are a sensitive issue. An interviewer might be curious for scheduling reasons such as holidays that an employee might need off, or if the candidate will be unavailable to work on weekends because of religious obligations. It is illegal to intentionally discriminate against an employee or harass them based on their religious beliefs. Employers are required to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices in regards to things such as dress and grooming policy and flexible scheduling.
7. What is your race?
There is no situation in which questions about an employee's race or skin color should be use to determine their eligibility for a job. This protection is granted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Employers are permitted to ask an employee to reveal their race on a voluntary basis for affirmative action purposes.
8. Are you pregnant?
Questions about family status tend to affect women the most, but they can also pertain to men in certain situations. Employers might have concerns about an employee taking time off work for pregnancy leave or not having child care arrangements during work hours. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act states that an employer cannot refuse to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, because of a pregnancy-related condition, or because of the prejudices of co-workers, clients or customers.
It is, however, lawful for employers to ease their nerves about an employee's availability or commitment to a position by asking about long-term career goals or the ability for an employee to work overtime and travel.
The Bottom Line
It is important to know your rights as an employee. Unlawful questions are not acceptable on applications, during the interview process or in the workplace. Although improper questions by employers might be simple mistakes, they could also be intentional cases of discrimination that should be reported. (For more, check out Taking The Lead In The Interview Dance.)
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