April 26, 2022

This article by Traliant VP of Human Resources Maggie Smith was originally published in Fast Company.

As employers across industries look to fill millions of job vacancies in today’s hot labor market, now’s the time to review interview and hiring practices to ensure a fair employment process.

Start by reviewing job descriptions and be aware of cultural and gender stereotypes and keep wording neutral and inclusive. Outdated descriptions in job postings can unintentionally discriminate or show unconscious bias. For example, code words like “young, energetic company” could discourage people who are over 40 or have a disability.

Whether interviews take place in person or remotely, HR leaders, managers, and recruiters should be particularly aware of what questions they can ask candidates, and which ones pose a legal risk and can lead to complaints of discrimination and bias.

Personal Questions and Small Talk

Asking personal questions that aren’t job related can be problematic. A simple rule to follow is to keep interview questions focused on the position, the skills and experience needed, and realistic expectations for the role.

Questions about a candidate’s age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, marital or pregnancy status, or genetic information should all be avoided. These categories are protected from discrimination under laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Other questions to avoid:

  • What medications are you currently taking?
  • Do you have any disabilities
  • Have you filed any workers’ compensation claims?

Some questions to avoid may seem obvious, but it’s easy to slip into casual conversation and end up asking something that can potentially cause problems for you and your organization.

For example:

  • “Do you have any kids?” Asking personal questions like whether a candidate has children, or plans to, could be viewed as family-status discrimination: treating candidates differently because they have or don’t have children.
  • “Where are you from originally?” This may seem like an interview icebreaker, but questions like this can be associated with national-origin discrimination. It can also be used to screen out candidates from other protected groups.
  • “When did you graduate?” This question is another way of asking about a candidate’s age. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits employment discrimination against people who are 40 and older.

Instead, some good icebreakers that can get the conversation going are:

  • “Tell me how you heard about this opportunity?”
  • “What interests you in this position?”

Caregiver Bias

The EEOC recently published guidance explaining how discrimination against applicants or employees with caregiving responsibilities can violate federal employment laws when based on a person’s sex, race, color, religion, or other protected characteristics.

For example, the EEOC noted that it would be illegal discrimination to ask female applicants and employees, but not male applicants and employees, about their childcare responsibilities, or deny male workers’ requests but not female workers’ requests, for leave related to caregiving responsibilities.

The agency’s announcement highlights the need to offer flexible work arrangements and benefits, including caregiving benefits, which can be a competitive advantage in this tight job market.

Ask Different Questions Based on Specific Candidates

Asking candidates applying for a particular position the same set of defined questions is another way to reduce unconscious bias in the interview process. And, regardless of whether you extend a job offer, you’ll need to retain résumés and cover letters for at least one year after filling the position. It’s a requirement, so interview notes should be kept separate from these documents. If you’re ever required to justify your company’s employment practices, asking each candidate the same questions, not writing on résumés and cover letters, and keeping notes can help you.

Focus on the Candidate’s Surroundings

The shift to remote jobs has changed (maybe forever) what we think of as work space. When interviewing candidates who may be sitting at their kitchen table or at a desk in a bedroom, it’s  important to focus on the conversation and not the surroundings. The background setting can potentially distract the interviewer from the candidate’s qualifications and contribute to bias—consciously or not.

On the lighter side, there are other factors that even the best prepared candidate may not be able to control in the virtual work world. Rather than try to ignore the elephant in the room, or the cat walking in front of the candidate, take a moment to put the person at ease. We’ve all been there—the family dog barks at the wrong time or someone shows up at your door during a meeting. As the interviewer, have some grace and give the candidate permission to be human! It’s all about creating psychological safety and a more transparent interview process that puts candidates enough at ease that they’ll feel comfortable asking questions, too.

Look for a “Culture Fit”

Hiring for “culture fit” can also raise the risk of discrimination and affinity bias, which is the tendency to relate and gravitate toward people who share the same background, race, gender, age, etc. Instead, consider how diverse candidates can add to the organization’s culture, rather than just fit into it. Reframing your thinking can help attract and retain people who share your organization’s values while enhancing it by contributing something new. This can include communication styles, experiences in various industries, nontraditional education/training, and diverse life experiences.

In this unpredictable hiring environment, organizations need to be agile, flexible, and proactive to attract and retain candidates. Ensuring an inclusive, equitable interview process is an important step.

Maggie Smith is the Vice President of Human Resources at Traliant, a provider of online compliance training to help organizations create ethical workplace cultures of respect and inclusion. With more than 20 years of experience in HR, she is always seeking new and better ways to balance business goals with the needs of employees.



Maggie Smith