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Motivating Employees: HR tips for getting employees motivated and engaged with your company.

Interviews: Questions to Ask and to Avoid

by Carli Seeba

Congratulations—you’re hiring a new employee.  Now that you have it narrowed down to your favorite candidates, it’s time to bring them in and ask them a few questions to see if they are the right fit for your company.   What questions to ask?  Even scarier, what questions are no-nos?  Generally, the list of prohibited questions coincides closely with the protected classes under federal and state laws.  Where things get really confusing is sometimes it just depends on how you ask a question.  

Before you actually meet with your candidates, sit down and write a list of questions you will ask every candidate.  Be prepared—it’s one of the biggest things you can do to prevent yourself from blurting out an illegal question.  Also, by being consistent with your questioning across candidates, you are comparing apples to apples while reducing your chances of being accused as to asking discriminatory questions toward one candidate.

Let’s break it down into a few broad categories to illustrate what sorts of questions are allowed and which ones are out-of-bounds:


  • What you Cannot Ask
    • How old are you? How much longer do you plan to work before you retire?
  • What you Can Ask
    • Are you over 18? What are your long-term career goals?

Family Status

  • What you Cannot Ask
    • Do you have kids?  How old?  What sort of childcare arrangements do you have?  Are you going to have more children?  What is your maiden name?  Who is your closest relative to notify in case of emergency?  What do your parents do for a living?  If you get pregnant will you continue to work?  Are you married, single, or divorced?  Are you living with anyone?
  • What you Can Ask          
    • After hire, number and ages of children or spouse for insurance purposes.  What are your long-term career goals?  Tell me how you become interested in this industry?  In case of emergency, who should be contact?  Travel and overtime may be required on short notice-will that be a problem?  Can you travel?  Have you worked under another name?


  • What you Cannot Ask
    • Questions about a candidate’s heritage.  Where is that accent from?  What is your native language?  Are you a US citizen?  How long have you lived here?
  • What you Can Ask
    • Are you authorized to work in the US?  What languages do you read, speak or write fluently?  What is your current address? 

Health and Physical Abilities

  • What you Cannot Ask
    • What is the nature of any disabilities you may have?  Do you smoke or drink?  Do you use drugs? How tall are you?  How much do you weigh?  How many sick days did you take last year?  Have you had any recent or past illnesses or operations?
  • What you Can Ask
    • Are you able to perform the necessary job duties of this job well and safely?  In the past, have you been disciplined for violating company policies forbidding the use of alcohol or tobacco products?  Do you use illegal drugs?  Are you able to reach items on a shelf that’s five feet tall?  Are you able to lift 50 pound boxes?  How many days of work did you miss last year?  Are you able to perform the functions of this job with or without reasonable accommodations?


  • What you Cannot Ask
    • What religion are you?  Which religious holidays to you observe?  Do you belong to a club or social organization?
  • What you Can Ask
    • What days are you available to work?  Are you able to work this company’s required schedule?  Do you belong to a professional or trade group in our industry?


  • What you Cannot Ask
    • This job has always been held by a man/woman.  Are you up to the task?  How do you feel about supervising men/women? 
  • What you Can Ask
    • What can you offer our company?  Talk to me about how you will manage a team?

Other Miscellaneous    

  • What you Cannot Ask
    • How far is your commute? Have you ever been arrested?  Do you live nearby?  Were you honorably discharged from the military?
  • What you Can Ask
    • Are you able to start work at 7am?   Are you willing to relocate?  Have you ever been convicted of (fraud, theft, etc…)?  How can your military experience benefit our company?

These are just some rules to thumb—no list can be extensive as to questions to avoid.  Keep your questions specific and away from information that could result in someone crying discrimination based on your states protected classes.  Oftentimes, candidates volunteer some of this information, whether you ask it or not.  Don’t fall down the rabbit hole and pursue the line of questioning—for instance, you might have a proud mom start talking about her kids.  Don’t continue to pursue that subject, even though she initially brought up the topic. 

If in doubt whether a questions is legal or not, consult a HR specialist.  Hiring is a very exciting and nerve-wracking experience.  Make sure you prepare yourself properly for the experience!