Interviewing Engineering Staff: Questions that Can Get You in Trouble

Interviewing for engineering staff can be stressful – even for hiring managers. The employment law landscape changes frequently and can be confusing, particularly if you don’t interview regularly. As such, if you’re planning to add engineering staff early next year now may be a good time to review your company’s interviewing procedures to minimize exposure to claims of discriminatory hiring practices.

Numerous federal and state laws govern the kind of questions employers can and can’t ask candidates. To be safe, only ask questions related to the job for which the candidate is interviewing. Stay away from questions or comments which may elicit information that cannot legally be used in making a hiring decision. Here are some of the most common problem areas:

  • Age: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older. Questions to avoid include asking a candidate his/her age, the year in which he/she graduated from high school, or whether he/she will have difficulties taking direction from a younger supervisor. It is permissible to ask a candidate whether he/she is over the age of 18. Sound advice is to avoid any age-related questions unless an employer can prove a genuine business necessity. 
  • Arrest Record: An arrest does not indicate guilt; therefore, inquiring about a candidate’s arrest record is not appropriate. An employer may, however, ask about a conviction for a felony. An employer must ensure that candidates are informed that they will not necessarily be disqualified from consideration because of any such conviction. 
  • Citizenship: Questions regarding a candidate’s national origin or citizenship are not permissible, as these qualities do not affect a candidate’s ability to perform the job. For example, it is not appropriate for an employer to ask whether a candidate is a U.S. citizen, what his/her native language is, or where he/she was born. An employer may ask whether a candidate is legally eligible to work in the U.S., as this question provides the employer with necessary information. The only exception to this guideline is if a bona fide business necessity exists (for instance, if citizenship is required to perform the job). 
  • Credit: Unless job-related, inquiries concerning a candidate’s credit background are generally not acceptable. Credit checks must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act. Also, questioning whether a candidate owns a home or a car is not appropriate. 
  • Disability: The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits certain questions regarding a candidate’s disability. An employer may not ask whether a candidate has any disabilities, what his/her general medical condition is, or how many sick days he/she took last year. Rather, an employer should focus on whether a candidate can perform specific job- related tasks. Also, an employer may not ask whether a candidate has ever filed a workers’ compensation claim. 
  • Family Situation: Questions relating to marital status, spouses, children or child care are not appropriate, as they are irrelevant to a candidate’s ability to perform the job. However, an employer may ask whether a candidate has outside responsibilities that would affect his/her ability to work overtime or travel, if either is part of the job description. An employer asking questions relating to outside responsibilities should do so of all candidates regardless of sex to avoid the perception of discriminating against either sex. Questions related to pregnancy are never appropriate. 
  • Organizations: As it may result in information regarding a candidate’s religion or race, an employer may not ask a candidate to list the organizations with which he/she is involved. An employer may ask if there are professional organizations that the candidate considers relevant to his/her professional experience. This question limits the answer to that which is job-related. 
  • Physical Abilities: Inquiries related to a candidate’s height or weight are not allowed unless it is a business necessity and all applicants are asked. If physical activity is a job requirement, candidates may be asked whether they will be able to perform the specific task (E.g. lifting 50lb bags). This line of questioning is not usually relevant when interviewing engineering staff. 

Even one illegal question during an interview can subject a company to potentially devastating legal action. To ensure consistent, legal and effective interviewing, employers should consult a qualified attorney and develop guidelines with which to train all employees responsible for interviewing candidates.