Take care: What you ask may be questionable

One must be careful these days what he asks when interviewing job applicants. Ill-advised questions tend to backfire. An illegal question could land you in a pot of litigational soup.
By Raymond Dreyfack December 1, 1999

One must be careful these days what he asks when interviewing job applicants. Ill-advised questions tend to backfire. An illegal question could land you in a pot of litigational soup.

The key is to make sure that questions posed and information disclosed are job related if they affect your hiring decision. Unrelated they could spell trouble.

Stuart Rice, Assistant Maintenance Manager in a metals manufacturing company, learned this the hard way. When Ed Woods, a job applicant, confronted him across the interviewing table, Rice had mixed reactions. On the one hand, Woods’ application was impressive; he had the training and experience required for the job. On the other hand, the guy didn’t appear, at least superficially, to be in the best of health. His hollow cough could be no more than the echo of a recent cold, but then again…

“The job you’re applying for will require some heavy lifting,” Rice said. “Do you have any health-related problems or disabilities which could hamper your performance?’”

The applicant frowned. “No sir.”

Rice refused to let it go at that. “How many days were you absent last year?”

Woods became increasingly edgy. “I don’t remember; not that many.”

“What about compensation claims? Did you file any?”

“These questions are out of order,” Woods snapped. “They’re illegal and I don’t have to answer them.”

“In that case, thank you for your time, Mr. Woods.”

If Rice thought that was the end of it, he was mistaken. The applicant took his indignation to Rice’s boss, Plant Engineer Bradley Groat.

Question: In Groat’s shoes, what response would you make?

Groat’s reply: Groat summoned Rice to his office and confirmed that he had indeed posed the questions the applicant claimed. “The man has a legitimate beef,” Groat said. “You can ask him if he’s able to handle the tasks applicable to the job description in question; you can refer to the company’s sick days policy and ask if he can comply with it; but you can’t inquire about compensation claims until after a job offer has been made. I’ll try to smooth over this as best I can, but I think this points up the need for some training and sensitivity sessions on the subject of interviewing and hiring. Ignorance about what you can and cannot ask could lead to all kinds of problems.”