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Interview for Success, and Avoid the Legal Pitfalls

We all know how litigious our society has become in the area of employment-related issues. In times of high unemployment, the research shows an increase in employment practices-related claims. Every recruiter, hiring manager, executive, and department manager must realize that asking the wrong questions or making improper inquiries can lead to discrimination or wrongful-discharge lawsuits, and these suits can be won or lost based on statements made during the interview process. Thus, it is important to incorporate risk management into your interviewing process to help minimize your firm's exposure to employment practices liability.

Individual managers or their firms can be accused of asking improper questions or making discriminatory statements or comments during interviews that reflect bias. It is also possible to make assurances or promises during interviews that can be interpreted as binding contracts. Recognizing these potential danger areas is the best way to avoid saying the wrong thing during interviews.

What To Avoid

To minimize the risk of discrimination lawsuits, it's important for interviewers to be familiar with topics that aren't permissible for questioning. For example, you shouldn't ask a female applicant detailed questions about her husband, children, and family plans. Such questions can be used as proof of sex discrimination if a male applicant is selected for the position, or if the female is hired and later terminated. Older applicants shouldn't be asked about their ability to take instructions from younger supervisors.

It is also important to avoid making statements during the interview process that could be alleged to create a contract of employment. When describing the job, avoid using terms like "permanent," "career job opportunity," or "long term."

Interviewers should also avoid making excessive assurances about job security. Avoid statements that employment will continue as long as the employee does a good job. For example, suppose that an applicant is told that "if you do a good job, there's no reason why you can't work here for the rest of your career." The applicant accepts the job and 6 months later is laid off due to personnel cutbacks. This could lead to a breach of contract claim where the employee asserts that he or she can't be terminated unless it's proven that he or she didn't do a "good job." Courts have on occasion held that such promises made during interviews created contracts of employment.

Be Consistent, Objective, and Prepared

Most companies have at least two people responsible for interviewing and hiring applicants. It's critical to have procedures to ensure consistency. Develop interviewing forms containing objective criteria to serve as checklists. They ensure consistency between interviewers, as well as create documentation to support the decision if a discrimination charge is later filed by an unsuccessful applicant.

Learn to assess job candidates on their merits. When developing evaluation criteria, break down broad, subjective impressions to more objective factors.

Obviously, you must prepare for the interview by reviewing the application, resume, test results, and other materials submitted by the candidate. Try to put the candidate at ease. Ask questions that can't be answered with a "yes" or "no" response. These open-ended questions allow applicants to tell all about their skills, knowledge, and abilities. Some examples are: "Why are you leaving your current employer?" "Do you prefer routine, consistent work or fast-paced tasks that change daily? Why?"

Legal Pitfalls

Here are three potential dangers when interviewing:

  1. Asking improper questions

  2. Making discriminatory statements

  3. Making binding contract statements

The following are examples of questions that should be avoided in interviews because they may be alleged to show illegal bias.

  • Are you a U.S. citizen? (This can adversely impact national origin.)

  • Do you have a visual, speech, or hearing disability?

  • Are you planning to have a family? When?

  • Have you ever filed a workers compensation insurance claim?

  • How many days of work did you miss last year due to illness?

  • In what off-the-job activities do you participate?

  • Would you have a problem working with a female partner?

  • Where did you grow up?

  • Do you have children? How old are they?

  • What year did you graduate from high school? (This reveals age.)

As you can see, these rather simple and seemingly nonthreatening questions can easily cause managers to fall into one of the aforementioned pitfalls when conducting interviews.

Hiring Best Practices

Companies that use "best practices" in interviewing and that are extremely effective in consistently hiring top performers use customized or standard behavioral-based interview guides to remain consistent in their line of questioning. These companies not only train their recruiters, but they also train their executives, department managers, and hiring managers on legal and effective interview questions and techniques to utilize during the interview.

These same "risk wise" companies will conduct a job analysis audit for every position within their companies to establish the types of behavioral and situational questions necessary for their interviewing process. A job analysis audit is a process whereby a company compiles objective data of what is required to be successful in a given position. This process is conducted via interviews, surveys, and testing (both hard skills and soft skills testing). This process allows the company to objectively identify the competencies, behaviors, thinking, and decision-making styles, as well as the technical skills that are common among their top performers and required for the position in question.

This process also establishes a hiring "benchmark" or interviewing "guide" for managers to follow. The resulting list of critical competencies is what interviewers will use to evaluate candidates. This benchmark, customized to each position, allows the company to define the core line of behavioral interview questions that will uncover these critical competencies, behaviors, and thinking styles, as they directly relate to the job requirements.

Some of the most effective behavioral hiring assessments in the market will provide the necessary behavioral interview questions to pose to candidates. This is due to the assessment's objective evaluation of each candidate's competencies.

Here are a few examples of legally defensible behavioral interview questions that will assist in uncovering core competencies in an interview.

  • What has been a particularly demanding goal for you to achieve? (This question taps into the candidate's achievement orientation and requires them to explain the obstacle and their thought process and actions to overcoming the obstacle.)

  • Can you think of a situation in which an innovative course of action was needed? What did you do in this situation? (This allows you to uncover whether the candidate can develop innovative solutions to work-related problems and identify potential opportunities and ways to capitalize on them.)

  • What are the typical customer interactions you have in your present position? Can you think of a recent example of one of these? (This question focuses on the candidate's customer service orientation.)

  • Have you ever been in a situation where you have had to take on new tasks or roles? Describe one such situation and what you did. (This question allows you to probe into the candidate's degree of flexibility.)

In your present position, what standards have you set for doing a good job? How did you determine them? (This question allows you to uncover whether the candidate has high work standards.)


Conducting a job analysis audit to objectively identify the core competencies required for a given job, and then customizing a list of behavioral-based interview questions like the ones mentioned above to identify those competencies, can significantly reduce your exposure to employment practices claims and increase your potential for hiring top performers.

By instituting guidelines such as these and making sure that your organization's managers follow them, you will have gone far in reducing your risk of a lawsuit from an employee or job applicant.


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