It’s an employer’s market. As of January 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that there were 10.2 million unemployed persons. Also, 3.6 million were considered “long-term unemployed,” which means that they were jobless for at least 27 weeks.
With so many people chasing so few jobs, employers can afford to cherry-pick from among a sea of applicants. It’s a matter of supply and demand, and there is a very large supply of workers to choose from.
And employers are in no hurry to hire new workers. According to Catherine Rampell, in a New York Times article, many companies know that their current employers are afraid to push back when they’re given extra work to do. They don’t want to become an unemployment statistic, so they quietly accept additional responsibilities.
And as a result of a glut of applicants and an overworked staff, Rampell says that employers now take an average of 23 business days to hire an applicant, compared to 15 business days back in the middle of 2009.
But employers aren’t just taking longer to make hiring decisions. They’re also using every tool at their disposal to weed out undesirable candidates in their quest for the perfect hire.
Of course, the best way to determine which applicant would be the best fit is to find out as much information as possible about these candidates. The cover letter and resume are a starting point, but pale in comparison to an actual interview. Professionals can ghostwrite cover letters and resumes, and the information can be embellished to the point of downright lying.
On the other hand, the personal interaction provided by an interview provides a much more transparent setting in which to evaluate an applicant. Ideally, interview questions should focus on the applicant’s skills, abilities, work experience, and other work-related queries.
However, sometimes hiring managers cross the line and ask questions that are illegal, classified as such because they can unfairly disqualify an applicant. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), either these questions are not valid predictors of successful job performance, or they cannot be justified by “business necessity.”
Marriage And Family Questions
Questions about your marital status or other family queries are off limits, according to the EEOC. Some employers prefer to hire married men because they are perceived to be more stable – although some companies prefer to hire single men because they think unattached men can work longer and more irregular hours.
On the other hand, some employers do not want to hire women who are engaged, married, or mothers with young children. The usual rationale is that engaged or married women may move to another state or another part of the country if their husbands are offered another job. Also, they may become pregnant and need to take maternity leave – and may decide to become stay-at-home mothers. Some employers also fear that women with young children may frequently need to arrive late, leave early, or miss entire workdays when their children are sick.
Usually, employers are trying to determine the applicant’s availability. The legal way to do this is to ask, “What hours/shift can you work?” “Can you work on weekends?” “Do you have responsibilities that would prevent you from being able to travel?”
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prevents employers from discriminating against workers over the age of 40. While it is illegal to ask applicants their age – besides asking if they are at least 18 years old, many employers find a way around this.
For example, the education section on most applications will ask candidates to list the dates they attended high school and college. While college dates are rather tricky, since people can pursue a post-secondary education later in life, high school dates are a pretty accurate indicator of a person’s age. Other questions, such as “years of experience,” can also provide a clue to an applicant’s age.
In addition, employers have another way to justify asking applicants their age. Many companies ask applicants to sign a release form agreeing to let the company perform a background check. The forms may ask for a driver’s license – which lists the applicant’s date of birth – and/or a social security number. Some forms also specifically ask for the applicant’s date of birth.
It’s a catch-22 for applicants. They can comply with the request and reveal their age, or they can refuse to fill out the form. But if they refuse, the company can refuse to hire them because it was not able to perform a background check.
An employer cannot ask if the candidate is a U.S. citizen. There is a legal right to ask if an applicant is legally allowed to work in the U.S., but if this person is a lawfully immigrated alien who is legally eligible to work, no other citizenship questions are allowed. This includes questions about nationality, length of time in the U.S., native language.
The only exception to this rule would be a national security issue regarding specific positions or places covered by U.S. statutes or an executive order by the President.
It is also illegal to ask if an applicant is disabled. According to Pacific University, this includes asking such questions as, “What medications are you taking?” and “How many sick days have you taken?” PU states that an applicant may volunteer to disclose information, which could lead to clarification questions.
For example, an applicant applying for a secretarial position may state that she has diabetes and needs to take breaks to take her medication. Based on this disclosure, the employer may ask how many breaks the applicant needs to take and how long the breaks should be.
An employer can legally explain all of the job’s duties and responsibilities and ask if the applicant will be able to perform these duties. This is not considered an illegal question, since all applicants should be asked this question.
Other Illegal Questions
In addition, employers cannot ask gender questions, such as, “Do you think you’ll have problems supervising men/women,” health questions, such as “How much do you weigh?” or questions about religion, such as “What religion do you practice?”
Question That Employers Can Ask
According to TheLadders, there are several questions that employers do have the right to ask applicants. They include:
Military service: “Will you require extended time away from work?”
Criminal record: “Have you been convicted of a specific crime that relates to this job?”
Residence: “Are you willing to relocate?”
Age: “What are your long-term career goals?”
Drugs: “Have you used illegal drugs?” or “Have you violated your company’s alcohol and tobacco policies regarding alcohol?