Everyone has heard the old saying, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” Questions show interest, start conversations and create bridges for connection.  So, it’s no wonder that, when it comes to recruiting, employers devote the majority of the screening process to asking questions. Business owners hope that by making the right inquiries, they will find the rock star talent they need to help ignite and sustain strong, profitable growth.

In theory, a thorough questioning of candidates makes sense. With the cost of making a bad hire amounting to almost 15 times the employee’s salary, there really should be “no stupid questions” in recruitment either, right?

Sadly, no. When it comes to hiring, some questions are not only bad; they are illegal. And unless you want to find your business on the receiving end of a US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge or discrimination lawsuit, employers must take care to avoid making illegal inquiries at all costs, especially on job applications.

What is a Job Application?

While it may seem obvious, it’s useful to revisit the job application itself. The application is a list of questions that employers use to collect factual data on each applicant like work experience, skills, certifications and education.

Job applications help business owners impartially compare candidates. Unlike a resume and cover letter, on job applications, applicants answer the same questions in a standard format. This arrangement gets rid of the presentation and hyperbole present in most cover letters and resumes and helps employers get right to the facts when comparing applicants –apples to apples and not apples to oranges.

What You Can’t Ask

Federal discrimination laws prohibit job application questions that discriminate on the basis of race, sex, national origin, religion, disability or age or create a disparate impact for one of these protected classes. While there is no way to list every unethical or illegal question out there, there are four common themes that business owners should take care to avoid when creating or reviewing their job applications.

Birth dates and age

Questions concerning an applicant’s date of birth, graduation date, or retirement plans can give the perception that an employer is using age as a factor in the hiring process. Asking these age-related questions can potentially lead to discrimination claims, if members of a protected class are affected. Unless the law requires a minimum age to perform a particular job, employers should immediately remove all age and birthdate-related questions from their applications.

Familial concerns

Most family-related questions are illegal, because they can inadvertently ask a candidate to reveal information about her race, national origin, religion, age, sex or membership in another protected class. Some common examples of prohibited inquiries related to family include:

  • Asking whether the applicant is married, divorced, separated, widowed or single;
  • Asking if the applicant is gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual or transgender; and
  • Asking about childcare needs, pregnancy, adoption or foster care

Disability and Health Status

Both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act prohibit discrimination and retaliation against applicants who exercise their rights under these laws. Federal discrimination laws, therefore, prohibit any employment application questions related to one’s health status. Some common health-related questions to avoid include:

  • Whether the applicant has a disability that will affect job performance;
  • Whether the applicant has ever been injured at work or filed for workers’ compensation benefits; and
  • How many sick days the applicant took the previous year.

Race and Religious Inquiries

Employers should never ask any questions regarding an applicant’s race, color, national origin and religion for any reason including:

  • What foreign languages the applicant can speak, read or write (unless a foreign language is a job requirement);
  • How the applicant feels about working with members of different races or religions; and
  • The name of the applicant’s priest, rabbi, imam, minister or other religious leader.