Question marks with magnifying glass

Do’s & Don’ts: Are You Asking the Right Interview Questions?

Have you ever made a bad hire? You’re not alone. Surveys have found that 48% of all new hires have to be replaced in the first 18 months. Hiring the wrong person can be an expensive mistake too—on average, a bad hire can cost a company 30% of the person’s annual salary. There's a lot at stake.

Determining the right fit in the interview and hiring process is so important, now more than ever. And while asking thoughtful interview questions can help you learn if a candidate is a good fit for your work (or not), there’s one thing you have to watch out for: illegal interview questions.

Even inadvertently, some interview questions can skirt the line of discrimination when they touch on issues like race, gender, or health status. That’s especially true in Hawaii, where state anti-discrimination laws go far beyond federal protections.

The good news is you can get the information you need while staying within the law, and protecting the rights of everyone involved.

Check out our tips for what to ask — and what NOT to ask — when interviewing candidates.


1. Legal Status

Citizenship, nationality, and ancestry are protected classes, so you want to avoid any questions that touch on these issues. Focus instead on what’s required for the job. In most cases, that means all you need to know is whether or not they’re authorized to work in the U.S. legally. The exception is for positions that specifically require someone to be a U.S. citizen. If that’s the case, be sure the requirement is stated up-front in the job description.

DO: Ask, “Are you legally authorized to work in the United States?”
DON’T: Ask about the person’s citizenship, where they were born, or where their parents came from. Remember, while talking story is often expected in the interview process here in Hawaii, you can talk story and avoid these types of questions.


2. Schedules

Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion (which includes not having a religion). At the same time, while your neighborhood may not be a protected class, Hawaii employers may make unfair assumptions about a candidate’s availability based on where they live and the distance of their commute. Keep it fair by sticking to questions about their availability and your actual job requirements, such as whether they can start work at 9 a.m., or are available to work weekends.

DO: State the scheduled requirements in terms of both hours, shifts, and days. Then ask, “Are you able to work within our these requirements?”  
DON’T: Ask about the person’s religion, what holidays they observe, or where they live.


3. Future Plans

You may be leery of hiring an older candidate because you think they’re likely to retire in a few years, but it’s actually illegal to reject someone for this reason. Instead, focus on the person’s plans for the future—after all, an older candidate may turn out to have more staying power than someone younger who’s thinking of changing careers or moving to another state. (In fact, Hawaii law prohibits all age discrimination, not just discrimination against workers over 40, as covered under federal law.)

DO: Ask, “What are your long-term career goals?”
DON’T: Ask how much longer the person plans to work, or when they plan to retire.


4. Availability

It’s illegal to use a person’s marital or family status as a reason for hiring. As in other cases, their availability is what really matters, so if the position involves a lot of overtime, weekend shifts, or late evenings, focus on that.

DO: Ask, “Are you available for travel? or “Will you be able to work outside of regular business hours?” Whatever it is, be as clear and as specific as possible and then ask, “Are you able to meet these requirements?”
DON’T: Ask if the person has children, or about their child-care situation.


5. Ability to Do the Job

People with mental or physical disabilities are protected classes under federal law, while Hawaii law prohibits discrimination against pregnant women. Be specific about requirements—does the position require heavy lifting? long hours on your feet?—and keep interview questions focused on the job itself. After all, it’s the person’s ability to do the work that matters.

DO: Ask, “Are you able to perform the essential duties of this position, as listed in the job description?”
DON’T: Ask about the person’s disabilities, medical conditions, or whether they are pregnant.


6. Pay

The goal of Hawaii’s Salary History Ban is to end the cycle of pay discrimination (11 other states have passed similar laws). Employers aren’t allowed to base a worker’s pay on their past salary, so it’s a topic you want to avoid asking about in interviews. And even though re-framing the question around an applicant’s expectations for pay is still legal, it’s a sticky question that you’ll probably want to avoid. Instead, look at what other companies are paying for similar jobs, and come up with a pay range based on objective criteria like experience, education, and skills.

DO: State the pay range for the role.
DON’T: Ask about how much someone was paid in their last job.


Final Thoughts

As an employer, your goal is to get the right person for the job—and that can be tough to do in Hawaii with our record-low unemployment. Anti-discrimination laws don’t need to make hiring harder. The important thing to remember is that all candidates deserve a fair opportunity (and that diversity can be good for business too). So be sure to:

☑ Ask the same questions of all applicants
☑ And avoid questions that are personal or discriminatory


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