Expert Advice to Ensure a Superior Interview Process

Valerie is currently the CEO and owner of Valerie Martinelli Consulting, LLC. in which she offers Life, Leadership, and Career coaching for women as well as various Management and Human Resource consulting services such as program development, management, and evaluation, human resource audits, and employee handbook and other policy developments.

I was speaking with a client, which led to an interesting discussion about illegal hiring questions and topics. As a Career Coach, I think about this from candidate’s perspective but as an HR Consultant, I also consider it from an organizational viewpoint as well. So, what are some of the illegal topics?


According to the EEOC, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, forbids age discrimination in individuals who are 40 and over. If an employer favors an older worker over a younger one, it is not illegal. This is true even if both employees are 40 or older. However, discrimination can occur when the victim of age discrimination and the individual who inflicted the discrimination are both over 40.

What happens if you are the oldest person in the room? The interviewer doesn’t necessarily need to ask you your age for things to get uncomfortable. However, ignoring a comment could also make the situation awkward. So, what should you do? Explain that your age would be an asset, you are eager to learn, and it does not bother you who assists you. In addition, I advise describing one recent experience in which diversity has been an asset.

National Origin and Race

Unfortunately, discrimination related to national origin has increased due to recent political agendas and inherent biases. This type of discrimination entails treating applicants or employees unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity, or accent, or because they appear to be of a specific ethnic background, even if they are not. This type of discrimination can also include treating people unfavorably because they are married to or associated with a person of a specific national origin. It is important to note that discrimination can occur when the victim and the person who inflicted the discrimination are of the same national origin.

The law prohibits discrimination when it relates to any aspect of employment. A clever interviewer may ask you if English is your first language, which is inappropriate as well as illegal. A more appropriate- and legal- question is to ask what other languages you read, speak, or write fluently.

Interviewers and candidates should also be wary of racial discrimination during an interview or in the workplace. Racial discrimination involves treating someone, an applicant or employee, unfavorably because he/she is of a certain race or due to personal characteristics associated with race. Race/color discrimination also can entail treating someone unfavorably because the person is married to or associated with a person of a certain race or color. Discrimination may occur when the victim and the person who inflicted the discrimination are the same race or color.

The law prohibits discrimination based upon race. It is illegal for an interviewer to ask questions that would specify, directly, or indirectly related to race and/ or color.

Disability and Physical Condition

Discrimination occurs when an employer or entity covered by the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Rehabilitation Act treats a qualified individual with a disability who is an employee or applicant unfavorably because she has a disability.

Disability discrimination also occurs when a covered employer or other entity treats an applicant or employee less favorably because she has a history of a disability or because she is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not fleeting and minor; even if she does not have such an impairment.

The law requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer. This is also known as an undue hardship.

The law also protects individuals from discrimination based on their relationship with a person with a disability, even if they do not themselves have a disability. For example, it is illegal to discriminate against an employee because her husband has a disability.

An interviewer cannot ask about one’s physical condition in such a way that it would require an applicant to divulge their handicaps that do not relate to the position.

Religious Discrimination

Religious discrimination entails treating an applicant or employee unfavorably due to his or her religious beliefs. The law protects those that belong to organized, traditional religions as well as those who have sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs.

Religious discrimination can also involve treating someone differently because that person is married to or linked with an individual of a particular religion.

An employee cannot be forced to participate or not participate in a religious activity as a condition of employment. An example of an illegal interview question related to one’s religious affiliation is asking a candidate what religious holidays they observe.

As HR professionals continue to expand diversity and inclusion programs and initiatives, we must pay close attention to the types of questions that are asked in interviews and how as professionals, we are asking them.


Family, Personal, and Financial Matters

Among these matters includes pregnancy discrimination. Pregnancy discrimination involves treating a woman- an applicant or employee- unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or PDA, prevents discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance, and any other term or condition of employment.

An interviewer cannot ask you if you have children. By the same token, they also cannot ask you if you are married because it is illegal and reveals your sexual orientation. This also brings up sex discrimination, which includes treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of that person’s sex. Discrimination against an individual because of gender identity, including transgender status, or because of sexual orientation is discrimination because of sex in violation of Title VII. The law prohibits discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment. So, in the hiring phase, a candidate cannot and should not be ruled out because one’s sexual orientation.

An interviewer also cannot ask you if you have outstanding debt. Employers must have permission before inquiring about personal credit history. They also cannot use it disqualify a candidate from employment unless it directly impacts the ability to perform the position one is applying for. An interviewer also cannot ask in other ways with hopes of arriving at the same information.

Equal Pay & Compensation

The Equal Pay Act requires that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work. Jobs do not need to be identical but they must be substantially equal. Job content and not titles determine if they are equal. The Equal Pay Act covers all forms of pay, including salary, bonuses, overtime pay, profit sharing, etc. If there is an inequality in wages between men and women, employers may not reduce the wages of either sex to align their pay.

Some states and municipalities have begun to stop asking for salary history with hopes of improving pay equity. Know your local and state laws before providing any of this information before being hired.

There are additional illegal issues, such as those related to one’s criminal record, citizenship, military service, physical data, and a name if it is associated with your marital status, an indication of national origin, for a maiden name, or name changes made by the court.

Human Resources Management

From a Human Resources aspect, the questions that are asked in an interview are very important. As HR professionals continue to expand diversity and inclusion programs and initiatives, we must pay close attention to the types of questions that are asked in interviews and how as professionals, we are asking them.

  • Plan and Prepare. By doing so, you won’t be asking questions that shouldn’t be asked or that are off the cuff questions which could be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Also, be sure that everyone involved in the hiring process is well-trained. Mandating formal training programs prior to hiring can be beneficial. It also can be a good idea to provide a written overview for all interviewers and a brief refresher course from time to time.
  • Create a relaxed interview setting. Be sure it is free of distractions, comfortable, and quiet. This also involves creating an overlap in the schedule between interviews, having materials ready for each candidate upon their arrival, and using the overlap time to discuss and evaluate a candidate’s responses with anyone else on the hiring committee.
  • Job Relevance is Key. Be sure that all questions are relevant to a candidate’s capability to perform the essential functions defined for the position. All the inquiries must be in job-relevant language and do not make assumptions about a candidate’s ability or disability.
  • Consistency Equals Fairness. Consistent questions and a carefully structured interview process that is the same for all candidates will ensure equal treatment of all that apply. Maintain the focus on the job requirements and how each candidate has performed in the past. Fair hiring should be part an organizational, municipal, and state mission and value statements, championed from the top down and a central part of the selection process.

Upholding a strong, consistent, equitable hiring process is important to ensure that top talent that is procured and that top talent will continue to apply.

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