While asking general questions about age or religion aren't clear-cut under discrimination laws, queries about a person's disability are not allowed.
Are you pregnant? What religion are you? How old are you?
There are certain questions most of us don’t expect hiring managers to ask during a job interview because we think they’re too personal or even illegal.
But while such inquiries aren’t always legal no-nos, they can be hazardous.
Cynthia M. applied for a job at Florida insurer, and believed she was more than qualified for the position. But during the interview she was asked about her religion and probed about her marital status.
“I was asked point-blank if I attended church and ‘which one?’ ” said Cynthia, who didn’t want her full name used because she feared it would hurt her continued job search. She was also asked if she had a family. When she told the recruiter she had a daughter, the interviewer asked, “Is that all?”
“That particular interview was very brief and there was zero response to my carefully thought-out letter I sent after the interview as a follow-up,” she explained. “I guess he didn't like that I was a single parent.”
A reader on our Facebook page, Linda Och, wrote recently that during a phone interview for a job she was asked her birth date and age. “I never heard from the employer again. I feel it was the cause of my not hearing about a second interview,” she maintained.
“Is this not discrimination?” she asked.
While you can’t refuse to hire someone based on a characteristic that’s protected under the nation’s labor laws, including things like religion or age, questioning a job applicant about such things by itself isn’t going to get government discrimination defenders banging down any company doors.
What happens as far as hiring decisions after the questions are asked is what ends up getting employers in legal hot water.
“Pre-employment inquires about a person's race, sex or pregnancy, national origin, religion or age are not technically illegal under the laws we enforce as long as they are asked of all people,” said Justine Lisser, a spokeswoman and senior attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Employment decisions made on those bases -- such as denying employment to all pregnant women, or everyone who isn't a Christian, are illegal, however,” she continued. “When investigating a charge of discrimination, the EEOC will look at these types of pre-employment inquiries as indications of discriminatory intent.”
Nigel Telman, an attorney with Proskauer, an employment law firm that represents employers, said questions related to protected categories such as age or religion may seem innocuous to some hiring managers but can end up causing problems down the line. “An applicant who didn’t get the job can allege they told the employer something about a protected characteristic,” he noted.
Indeed, if there turns out to be a pattern pointing to discrimination against a certain group or groups, such questions may become substantiation of illegal practices.
In the case of Texas Roadhouse, questions by hiring managers about age are part of anecdotal evidence in the age-discrimination case against the restaurant chain brought by the EEOC last year.
The EEOC case alleges that managers were instructed to hire younger job applicants, and that older unsuccessful applicants nationally were told: “There are younger people here who can grow with the company” and “You seem older to be applying for this job.”
Texas Roadhouse officials did not immediately return a telephone call requesting a comment.
While asking general questions about age or religion aren’t clear-cut under discrimination laws, queries about a person’s disability are not allowed.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are prohibited pre-employment inquiries about an applicant’s disability, according to the EEOC.
The agency states on its “pre-employment inquires” web page that:
- Employers generally cannot ask disability-related questions or require medical examinations until after an applicant has been given a conditional job offer.
- Employers are permitted to ask limited questions about reasonable accommodation if they reasonably believe that the applicant may need accommodation because of an obvious or voluntarily disclosed disability, or where the applicant has disclosed a need for accommodation.
In addition, it’s illegal to ask questions about genetic information or family medical history under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, the EEOC’s Lisser pointed out.
And, she added, “It is also illegal for an employer to advertise for specific characteristics such as sex, age or race.”
Given that personal questions could lead to claims of bias, you’d think employers would have abandoned the practice already.
“Some managers need a reminder that these questions are hazardous to the company,” said Richard Howard, an employment attorney with Meltzer Lippe. “Hiring managers should absolutely steer clear of questions regarding age, race, religion, pregnancy, and marital status.”
Has a hiring manager ever asked you an inappropriate question related to age, race, religion, pregnancy, health, or marital status? Share your story below.