Human Resources News & Insights

3 innocent interview queries that can get you into trouble

You and your managers know the obvious questions you can’t ask job applicants. But sometimes, the most innocuous-seeming exchanges can put you in peril of violating discrimination laws.
Here are three fringe areas to avoid — and tips on how to get the info you need in a safe, legal way.


Don’t ask: How far is your commute? You can’t pick applicants based on where they live, for the obvious reasons — some neighborhoods are heavily populated by specific ethnic groups.

You really just want to know if the person can get to work during your operating hours.

Instead, ask: Are you able to start work at 9 a.m.?

Sick time

Don’t ask: How many sick days did you take last year? This question could be interpreted as digging into a candidate’s personal health information – and that’s prohibited.

Instead, ask: How many days of work did you miss last year?

Clubs, organization affiliations

Don’t ask: Do you belong to any clubs or social organizations? You may want to know about workers’ hobbies and extracurricular activities, but this question can reveal info about workers’ political or religious affiliations, which aren’t related to the job.

Instead, ask: Are you a member of a professional group that’s relevant to our industry?

For an overview of effective interview questions, go here.

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  1. What about “How many unplanned days off did you take last year?”

  2. I feel that’s asking the same question, only reworded, so that would be OK.
    For companies that require a 30 day advanced notice for vacation leave, that would weed out those who have depleted their sick leave, and then who must use their vacation leave for “sick days” when they can’t make it into the office on Monday’s or Friday’s.
    Not that I have any experience with those types of employees…
    If a potential applicant answered seven days or more, they would be off the list of hopefuls.

  3. JohnnyHR says:

    Brian – That’s a good question to ask.

  4. I’m curious if anyone else feels it is not appropriate to discuss the length of commute? I do this every day in my initial phone screen of the candidate before I even consider bringing them in for a personal interview. And many times we are remotely recruiting for positions at client sites. I don’t understand when this question became discriminatory. While not the basis for a hiring decision, the commute is very important. Sure I want to know if the person can get to work at a specific time, but just as importantly I want to know if they are willing to make the drive every day – especially if it is a long drive.

    The answer above on neighborhoods with specific ethnic groups, etc. doesn’t make sense to me, I see the resume and I see the address. I may know how far the person is from the office and I may already know in what area they are located. More important to me is ensuring the candidate knows how far they are from the office – and I need to ensure they consider that before time is spent on a candidate who is – in their opinion- is not within a reasonable driving distance.

  5. JohnnyHR says:

    TG – I think their point is to assure the applicant can be where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there. That is the most important factor. The “how long is your commute? question is almost irrelevant unless you want to make a judgment as to how long a commute is too long. To some people 45 minutes is okay and to others 20 minutes is too long. You’re right on the comment about discovering if the applicant lives in an ethnic neighborhood – the address tells you that.

  6. TG: many people seem to ask that question. I’m in CA where commuting is awful and as an HR candidate I have been asked that question in the interview. I do agree with the rewording that’s indicated above.

    What I don’t agree with is the “how many days did you miss” question. I think that’s just another color of an inappropriate question. This is where background and reference checks are important and I believe should replace that question (and you may even be able to get a reference to tell you that).

  7. I tend to agree with SM. What if the candidate had a death in the family that necessitated travel, or some other legitimate reason for a once-in-a-lifetime absence? Yes, they could tell you that — but that’s verging on too personal in an initial interview. When my father died, I spent his last days in the hospital with him and then more time winding up his affairs and making sure my mother was okay — it’s the most time off I’ve ever taken, but it won’t ever happen again. Had I been in the market for another job, I would have been uncomfortable being asked the “days off” question at a first interview.

    The length of the commute is irrelevant, as JohnnyHR says, unless you are making a judgment call based on the answer, which would be short-sighted (one of my best employees ever had a commute of over an hour, and she did it for six years). The length of the commute does not tell you where the applicant lives — which you already know anyway, since the address should be on the resume or application.

  8. When I did recruiting, I used distance as an advantage. I was often able to get candidates who lived nearby but had higher-paying jobs on the opposite (high-priced) side of the city to come work for us in our (lower) pay ranges by stressing the time they would save on their commute. For one applicant, his daily commute time was cut from about 3 hours to about 20 minutes when he came to work for us. When you factor in the additional stress of the traffic, time away from family, etc. we were able to offer a better overall work experience to the candidate, even at a slightly lower pay scale.

    Hopefully we are pretty much past the point where any great number of people are still discriminating against others (I know there are still some backwards people out there). As someone mentioned above, if they were trying to intentionally be discriminatory, they could just look up the address from their application/resume.

  9. Length of commute might be considered if you live in or have to drive through an area where traffic is horrendous. Metro Atlanta is horrendous (I lived it), however there are worse areas like LA, NYC, DC/Maryland/Northern VA. People in congested areas like that take usually that into consideration and tend not to have tardiness problems. They either have a flex time schedule, use public transportation OR arrive at work early. Just my opinion but I find that employees who live closer to the office tend have more issues with tardiness than do employees with longer commutes.

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