Ask Away

Interviewing? Get the answers you need without having to ask the tough questions.

Interviewing job candidates is a legal minefield these days. Asking the wrong questions could expose you to lawsuits and fines. The scary thing is, you may say the wrong thing without even knowing it. According to a recent survey, many employers put their feet in their mouths at hiring time. Bernard Haldane Associates, a career management company, found more than one-third of the job seekers it surveyed had been asked illegal questions.

Getting enough information to make an informed decision isn't easy, but there are ways to ask the necessary questions, get the answers you need and stay out of trouble.

One of trickiest areas has to do with disability laws. To gauge an applicant's health status, Joseph M. Sellers, head of civil rights and employment practice at the Washington, DC, law firm Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, advises asking "functional assessment questions." "Instead of asking someone if they have knee or back problems, ask them if they can climb stairs or lift 50 pounds or more several times a day," he suggests.

Workplace violence has received a lot of media attention in recent years, but employers are still often blindsided when it happens to them. Although a simple job interview may not prevent an incident, Christine McGovern, who ran a violence prevention program for Ohio Casualty, an insurance company in Hamilton, Ohio, encourages employers to ask questions that will alert them to violent tendencies. Here are a couple to try: "How do you handle argumentative or difficult people?" and "Describe a situation where it was necessary to confront a co-worker or supervisor and how you handled it." The answers you get may make your hiring decision that much easier.

Ellen Paris is a Washington, DC, writer and former Forbes magazine staff writer.

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This article was originally published in the January 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Ask Away.

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