“Do you like essential oils?” Is NOT a Legitimate Interview Question!

William Wiggins candidate experience, EEO, Employment Law, Hiring Bias, Hiring Managers, HR, Interviewing, Learning, Policies, Recruiting, Risks, Talent Management, Talent Strategy, Working With Recruiters 3 Comments

After being twenty minutes late for our long-awaited connection, she opened the conversation with:

  • “About me, prior to coming here, I worked at a day spa.”
  • “Do you like essential oils?”
  • “I feel like we’ve met before?”
  • “Oh, November is your birthday? That’s Sagittarius, I’m a stereotypical Capricorn.”
  • “Do you have any pets or young children? Good, because we work super long hours.”
  • “I’m a biking geek, do you bike? This team is super judgy when it comes to biking and fitness.”
  • “You graduated college in 1984? You don’t sound that old?”
  • “What are you reading? I’m reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I know I’m such a dork.”

You’re probably wondering why I’m detailing my experience at the local speed-dating chapter. I’m not. The commentary and questions were a part of an infamous phone interview I had for a management position. What began as a prime opportunity to work for one of the world’s leading online retailers became the rock bottom of candidate experiences for me.

The backstory – this occurred after three separate no-shows and missed connections all on the part of the hiring manager, who on one occasion confessed that she knew she had a phone interview but opted to go biking instead. “I thought someone would have let you know, my bad” was the apology – and the encounter ended, thank goodness, with “awesome, we’ll be in touch.”

Nearly two months later I received a call from the recruiter to schedule a face-to-face meeting for the same job now that the hiring manager was “back from her trip to Thailand”; in a moment of complete clarity I realized that this process had more twists and turns than the Amazon…and I wanted off this ride. So, then and there, I removed myself from the process.

The problem

Despite the existence of EEO laws created largely to promote fairness and to mitigate discrimination of any kind in hiring practices, we still have untrained hiring managers and recruiters asking questions that are illegal and irrelevant to job performance. Interview questions should be designed to determine a candidate’s capability to perform the essential functions of the job as defined in the job description, not to find out if the candidate prefers boxers or briefs.

The fix

The first step in fostering a fair, ethical, and legal interview process is having an HR department that keeps their hiring managers and recruiters trained and current on the latest legal hiring practices. Standardize your interview process for consistency, and consider offering training on best interviewing practices for your hiring managers/staff charged with interviewing your candidates. Let’s start with teaching the basics.

Questions that are illegal and non-job related

  • What religion are you?
  • Are you married?
  • I see you were in the military. What type of discharge did you receive?
  • Is Spanish your first or second language?
  • How old are you?
  • What year did you graduate high school/college?
  • How did you injure yourself?
  • Do you have any medical problems that would interfere with your work here?
  • Do you rent or own your home?
  • How is your commute from all the way down there?

Standard interview questions that can be asked of all applicants:

  • If hired can you provide proof that you are legally authorized to work in the US?
  • Are you able to perform the requirements of this job with a reasonable accommodation?
  • Are you at least 18 years old (if that is your company’s policy or an applicant needs to be a certain age for legal reasons)?
  • Can you work Sundays, Christmas, and Easter (if those are viable shifts)

Casual questions to steer clear of that could later be troublesome

  • Do you bike or workout?
  • What are you reading?
  • Do you have any hobbies?
  • Do you like essential oils?

The benefit of implementing a standardized process

Developing and maintaining a standardized process and questions for interviewing to evaluate candidates will not only improve the candidate experience, but it will also lower your organization’s risk of scrutiny and legal landmines. The ultimate advantage of a standardized, fair, and compliant process is that it helps the interviewer gather focused, relevant data to match the right person to the right job; yielding better hiring results, without question.

William has held consulting and strategic HR and Benefits roles at Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Kaiser Permanente, and Williams-Sonoma. He has a proven track record for building employee engagement through leadership training and development, and building sound employee recognition programs. He is an industry leader when it comes to building strong collaborative HR partnerships and leadership teams that focus on the staff engagement, retention, career development, and staff recognition programs. William’s training curriculum includes Crucial Conversations, Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace,New Leadership Training, and EEOC 101. He believes that an organization’s human capital is their most valuable asset.

Comments 3

  1. Technically those questions as _questions_ aren’t illegal… but lead to information which is illegal to use in hiring decisions. Don’t expose your company to legal risk by asking them.

    Most of those off-limits questions are invasively personal and, in the case of that flaky hiring manager, just plain idiotic. But then again, that’s the response she would have expected from a stereotypical Aquarius like me. 🙂

    1. William Wiggins Post
      Author

      Absolutely! I’m sure from her perspective, it was all about making conversation, or getting to know the candidate. They’ll be plenty of time for that in the break room after the candidate gets the job.

      Is there such a thing as a stereotypical Aquarius ??

  2. Another great recruitment story of candidate experience gone awry. Should we begin archiving these and then produce a book written by HR pros from every part of the universe entitled “Recruitment Blunders: You Gotta Be Shitting Me”. Thanks for sharing.

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