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The potential for liability at the interview stage in the hiring process is tremendous. Fair hiring laws are in place to give every candidate a fair shake in the job interview and selection process. Yet more than 40 years later, job candidates today are still asked questions that are illegal and irrelevant to the job.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal and state laws, it’s illegal to discriminate against applicants on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, citizenship, disability, and age. Consequently, any questions, no matter the interviewer’s intent, on any of these illegal topics should be avoided to ensure that an inference of discrimination isn’t raised when an applicant is rejected. A stray comment by the interviewer that offends an applicant can lead to potential legal troubles.

The key to keeping each job interview legal is preparing your questions ahead of time, using the same questions each time you interview and provide training to the employees who also interview candidates. Sufficient planning prepares you to ask candidates about only the essential skills and qualifications required. Thus, helps prevent you from asking off-the-cuff questions that could be illegal.

Stick to a plan for the interview, which will keep you focused and manage your time accordingly. A good structure to follow is:

  • Give a brief description of the company;
  • Outline the job duties;
  • Ask the applicant questions; and
  • Give the candidate an opportunity to ask you questions.

Limit the questions to job specific areas that focus on the education, experience, and abilities of the applicant and suitability for the position. Avoid making any promises during an interview because simple comments about the hiring process or job security could bind your company. Sometimes candidates volunteer information that you would prefer not to know. The best way to handle this situation is not to pursue it. You can eliminate it as a discussion point and a selection factor.

Carefully planned questions and a structured interview process that is the same for all candidates will ensure equal treatment of all who apply. Small business owners should counsel with their attorney on what questions are legal and the questions that must be avoided while interviewing candidates.

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