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Illegal job interview questions

If you are a manager at a large corporation with a well-staffed HR and legal department, you've probably gotten a wealth of training on how to conduct a job interview. But if you own your own company or are a manager in a small business, it might be up to you to keep yourself out of trouble when you start the hiring process. Do you know what kinds of questions you're legally allowed to ask? Knowing the limits will help you avoid lawsuits and make smarter hiring decisions.

First of all, there are a limited set of topics that are protected -- in other words, you may not make hiring decisions based on these considerations. The good news is that the list is quite short and is mostly obvious stuff that common sense would dictate is off limits:

National origin
Disability status

Marital status

Sometimes, though, applying this list in real-world situations can be confusing, and it's easy to ask something out-of-bounds when it's possible to get the information you really want with a slightly reworded query. Networking site Excelle put together a list of illegal questions and their re-worked legal alternatives.

Illegal question: How old are you?

Legal version: Are you over 18?

Remember that while you can't ask someone's age, it's perfectly legal to ensure they're legally old enough to work for you.

Illegal question: Do you have kids?

Legal version: Are you willing to travel for this position?

You can't ask if someone is married, divorced or has kids. But if you are trying to determine if they can manage travel or flexible hours, go ahead and ask that directly.

Illegal question: Are you a U.S. citizen?

Legal version: Are you legally authorized to work in the U.S.?

Where your candidate is from is immaterial; the real question is if they can legally work here. Just don't directly ask if they have a work visa -- it's HR's job to ensure all the paperwork is complete before the start date.

Illegal question: Have you ever been arrested?

Legal version: Have you ever been convicted of [fill in the blank]?

Perhaps surprisingly, you can't ask someone about their general criminal background. But it's appropriate to ask about criminal behavior that's directly related to the specific field or career in which the person is applying.

Photo courtesy Flickr user bpsusf.

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