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It’s not a matter of forbidden questions. It’s a matter of how to elicit information about a candidate’s likely ability to do a job well. In the light of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, it’s wise to avoid interview questions about physical appearance (weight, for example), age above 18, marital status, children, religion, disabilities, ethnic derivation and finances. But really, why chase junk information into a legal thicket? These questions are generally either irrelevant or too broad to yield anything valuable about job performance. It may take some preparation and practice, but it is possible to ask targeted interview questions and get good data.

Here are four steps:

  • Identify the skills and attributes a job requires,
  • Measure everything objectively that you can — the existence of an engineering license or keyboarding speed, for example. For attributes and skills that cannot be measured this way, craft some non-identity related questions about the skill set,
  • Interview consistently and
  • Follow up.

Prepare a Written Job Description

Step one is just good HR practice. Why do you need an employee? What tasks do you expect this employee to perform? What are your metrics for distinguishing between a good performance and a lackluster one? What skills and characteristics would contribute to good performance? Cute is not a skill set, but personable might be if you can break it down a little further. Be as specific as possible. This is also a useful tool for regular performance reviews, employee retention and advancement or firing, if necessary.

Prepare Interview Questions Specifically Linked to the Skills and Qualities Listed in the Job Description

The self-reporting problem gets tricky. Would any interviewee ever admit that they are not good with deadlines or find clients irritating? Consider crafting competency-based questions along the lines of, “Tell us about a time when you had to [deal with workplace conflict/ complete a job in much less time than anticipated/ learn new software very quickly.]” Stories are meaningful. If there are no stories, then this interviewee has no experience. You may want to avoid the canned internet questions. If you ask an accomplished candidate applying for a professional position what color crayon she’d like to be, she’ll pick the color annoyed.

Don’t be too clever. That’s where interviewers stray. If you want to know if an interviewee can travel to Saudi Arabia on short notice, ask that question. Don’t ask women if they have young children or dark haired men if they are Jewish. If you believe that older candidates may not be technologically sophisticated, don’t ask about age, ask about software proficiencies.

Ask Each Interviewee Questions about the Same Skills or Attributes

Consider asking everyone the same interview questions, unless it seems too robotic. Perhaps you might want to have a variety of inquiries under each of the identified workplace competencies. It would be a little ridiculous to ask an interviewee in a wheelchair if he can climb a ladder. Be prepared to ask about alternative solutions instead. “This position requires packing down 25 lb. boxes from 25 feet above the floor. Have you ever dealt with this issue and how might you approach it?” Involve the candidate as a problem solver.

What should you do about volunteered information? Let’s suppose that the interviewee volunteers information about great childcare backup resources, or notes the need to eat at regular intervals because of diabetes. The interviewee has voluntarily disclosed information that you were not permitted to ask interview questions about. This is not a problem; just don’t write it down in your notes. Obviously, a candidate who asks for reasonable accommodation for a disability will have to disclose something about the accommodation needed.

Follow Up

If you have narrowed the pool down to two or three people, meet with them again and consider involving other people in your organization. This may allow you to delve deeper into matters of particular concern, like technical competence or ability to bring a fresh perspective to a project. It will also allow them to ask questions, reducing the risk that they will start the job with a false impression of responsibilities. Only candidates or employees who feel badly treated are likely to sue you.

Nothing will render you speechless or socially awkward faster than focusing on things you can’t say. If you have identified the qualities you are looking for and given some thought to how to ask for that information, however, you can have an interesting and informative conversation that will support a sound hiring decision.

Legally Sound | Smart Business Episode 22

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