In our last posts, we talked about how implicit bias impacts hiring and what steps you can take to start minimizing those biases. Now, it’s time to get specific and tackle one area where bias really comes out to play: the interview. Even successful recruiters and hiring managers may not realize how seemingly innocent questions can open the door for bias to barge in.

Before we dive into the list of questions you shouldn’t ask in as an interviewer, here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: only ask questions that pertain to the candidate’s ability to perform the job duties. Anything else is irrelevant, and possibly legally problematic. Once you know personal information about the candidate, it’s easy to let that information slip into your decision making process. Often, hiring managers let this information inform their judgment about whether a candidate is a “culture fit.” Though culture fit can be important, the concept can also be used to rationalize biased thinking. 

To avoid this dilemma, make sure you don’t ask these questions:

  1. “Are you planning on having a family?” People seem to think that this is conversational, when in fact, it’s an illegal interview question. A candidate’s family planning is no concern of the hiring manager, and it is almost surely being asked for discriminatory reasons (passing on candidates who may take maternity leave).
  2. “Where do you live?” This one is more subtle. Note that where the candidate lives has nothing to do with whether they can perform the job duties. Instead, ask “Are you comfortable commuting to X location for work?” That’s all the relevant information you need.
  3. “When are you planning on retiring?” Age discrimination is all too common, and too difficult to prove. But if you do want to make an easy case for your candidate’s attorney, then ask this question. If the candidate needs to commit to the position for a specific length of time, just ask if that’s feasible.
  4. “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” Not only is this irrelevant, but it makes assumptions about the candidate’s sexual orientation. If a candidate shares this info with you, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t root it out.
  5. “Do you have a criminal record?” This one is trickier, because there are some jobs that require a candidate to disclose this information. You may ask questions that pertain to the position, such as asking a candidate for a truck-driving position has any DUIs or speeding offences. If there are no concerns specific to the role, then opt out of asking about their criminal history.
  6. “Are you religious?” Little needs to be said; unless you’re hiring priests, this probably has nothing to do with the role.
  7. “Are you a citizen?” You don’t have to be a citizen to work in the US, so ask this instead: “Are you legally eligible to work in the US?”
  8. “Do you have any medical issues or disabilities?” This may be relevant to the job, but it’s asked in the wrong way. Using our rule of thumb from above, edit the question so that it focuses on specific job duties: “Are you able to drive for more than 6 hours a day and lift up to 50 pounds?”
  9. “What is your current salary?” There are opposing opinions about this question, but in some states, the question is outlawed. The reason is that asking the question may allow businesses to keep incoming candidates’ salaries below market value, if they’re coming from more junior positions. 
  10. “What ethnicity are you?” This dreaded question, though often coming from a place of pure curiosity, is a curse for people of color. A person’s ethnic or racial background is never relevant to the job duties, so forgo asking this question, even if it’s just born from friendly interest. 

The point of this is not to make the interview process limiting and robotic; it’s to protect candidates, especially those with identities that are discriminated against. Of course, all of us want to get to know people, but we can respect that the interview is a formal process with a specific intention, and bringing too many irrelevant questions into the interview will likely damage its integrity. When constructing interview questions for your next hire, just double-check that every question is explicitly related to one of the job duties. Follow that rule, and you’ll minimize the opportunity for biased decision-making to arise.