They Can Ask That on an Application?

There are some questions that just shouldn’t be asked in an interview. In fact, Human Resource professionals know that legal complications can occur if questions that are too probing crop up during that check-out-the potential-employee event. Of course, an employer wants to know who they are getting. Why should they hand the keys to the castle to someone who is incompetent, a self-aggrandizer, or worse? The drive to mine as deeply as possible into every aspect of the job candidate is intense when what is at stake is spending cherished company resources onboarding and training in hopes a value added asset has been acquired.

However, there are rules as to how far an interviewer can go. Specifically, interviewers should stay away from the following:

Are you a U.S. citizen? (Of course, the employer can ask for proof of eligibility after the candidate has been hired.)

What is your native language?

Are you married?

Do you have kids?

How long have you lived here?

What religion do you practice?

Do you plan on becoming pregnant?

How old are you?

What clubs do you belong to?

When do you plan to retire?

Do you have a disability or chronic illness?

And this isn’t the complete list of no-no questions. Clearly, privacy rights are being weighted in favor of the job candidate. Or are they?

Filled out a job application lately…especially for a professional position? There is a major health care provider in New Hampshire that has a job application that looks downright 1984-Big Brotherish in its line of questioning. And although I haven’t conducted an exhaustive study of statewide applications, my hunch is that these guys aren’t alone. Questions asking the applicant’s age, ethnicity, race, Social Security number, driver’s license number, whether or not they have a disability or are a veteran, are just some of the intrusive inquiries made on this application. This begs the question, why can employers examine so closely a job seeker’s past on an application, but not in an interview?

Here is part of the answer. Job applications become legal documents in that the applicant must sign that all information given is true. Notice that interviewees don’t have to swear on a Bible. This is useful for screening out applicants with past criminal convictions or other unwanted behaviors. Companies can use the application to check for truthfulness and integrity, which protects their organization and the people who work there from disreputable people. Another issue is that employers are required to file U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports with the Federal government. Applications standardize the hiring process and can be used as documentation that shows employment discrimination is not occurring. This is much harder to prove in an interview.

Two additional points about the discrepancy between questioning on applications vs. during interviews: Human Resource professionals should be the ones viewing completed applications, chuck full as they are with private information. When a receptionist, for example, is the one handling the app, then that is evidence of a shoddy operation. And let’s not assume that all applications are in perfect synch with EEOC guidelines. One Boston professor informs me that, “I have found many job applications with prohibited questions on them. If someone doesn’t complain to the EEOC then the practice will continue until someone does.”

Job applications and interviews are governed by the same EEOC rules. Unfortunately, it can’t be safely assumed that all employers will follow those rules. Like it or not, diligence and knowledge about what is appropriate and what is not is yet another task falling to the already overburdened job seeker.

Jenni Proctor

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