A job application, by its very nature, asks personal questions. But what are you allowed to ask on one, and what should stay out of bounds? According to the Society for Human Resources Management, “The guiding principle behind any question to an applicant — whether the question is asked by the interviewer or appears on the employment application — should be, ‘Can the employer demonstrate a job-related necessity for asking the question?'”
So, before putting a question on the job application, verify whether it’s vital to the applicant’s skills, qualifications and competency for the role. Below are common inquiries that do not belong on a job application.
Federal and state antidiscrimination laws make it illegal for employers to discriminate against job applicants based on their:
- National origin.
- Sex, including gender, sexual orientation and pregnancy.
- Genetic information.
It’s important to note that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) provision that allows certain discriminatory practices if the individual’s religion, sex or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.
Generally, though, employers should avoid job application questions that may give the perception of being used to weed out applicants in a discriminatory manner. For example, you cannot ask if they are a U.S. citizen, although you can ask whether they are legally allowed to work in the U.S. Moreover, you cannot ask whether they are pregnant or have children — but you can ask whether they will be able to perform the essential job duties.
School graduation dates. Requesting high school and college graduation dates may create the appearance that you’re trying to figure out the applicant’s age.
Salary history. A growing number of states are enacting salary history bans, which prohibit employers from asking job applicants to disclose previous salary information.
Sick days taken in past jobs. Asking applicants how many sick days they took in previous positions may give the impression that you’re trying to determine whether they have disabilities.
Height and weight. Unless you can demonstrate how the applicant’s height and weight are relevant to the job, questions about their height and weight may be illegal under federal or state law.
Criminal history. Federal law allows employers to inquire about criminal history on the job application, so long as the information is not used in a discriminatory way. However, many states and localities have “ban the box” laws, which require employers to remove questions about arrests and convictions from employment applications.
Military discharge. You can ask limited questions about an applicant’s military service, such as service dates, training received, work performed, and rank at the time of discharge. However, it’s not advisable to ask the applicant why they were discharged, as this could cause you to receive legally protected disability information on the applicant. It could also open you up to disparate impact claims based on race discrimination.
Prefixes and maiden name. Asking for the applicant’s maiden name or prefix (e.g., Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms.) may be perceived as gender or marital-status discrimination. A safer bet is to ask the applicant for their first, middle and last names.
Your safest course is to work with HR professionals who are familiar with federal and local rules.