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You Can’t Ask That! Pop Quiz on Preemployment Inquiries


October 4, 2021  by  Sarah Doar
Category:  Recruitment and Hiring

You Can’t Ask That! Pop Quiz on Preemployment Inquiries

Due to recent changes in law and initiatives to weed out bias in hiring practices, it is time to brush up on your interview skills.

Here’s a tip: Avoid any questions that may unnecessarily elicit the protected status of a job applicant, which includes age, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, national origin, citizenship or immigration status, honorably discharged veteran or military status, or the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability (RCW 49.60.180).

Do you know what questions you can and cannot ask job applicants? Let’s find out with this pop quiz! Some hypothetical questions are provided below. Please answer whether you think an employer could ask this question during an interview, and then click on the Answer link to see how you did.

Interview Question 1: Future Plans

“We have had to fill a lot of positions lately due to retirements. What is your five-year plan?”

  • Ask at any time
  • Never ask
  • It depends on the context: Use caution

Answer

It depends on the context: Use caution. While generally it is okay to ask whether a candidate intends to remain with the employer on a permanent basis, asking the question after making the statement about retirements could indicate a preference for candidates that are not nearing retirement age. It is an unfair labor practice to refuse to hire an individual because they are 40 years of age or older (see RCW 49.44.090).

However, public employers covered by a Washington State Department of Retirement Systems (DRS) pension plan are allowed to ask if the applicant has retired from a DRS-covered entity in order to avoid impacts to the potential employee’s benefits.

Interview Question 2: Prior Arrests and Convictions

“This job is a position of trust and entails handling money. Have you been convicted of a crime such as fraud, theft, or embezzlement in the last 10 years?”

  • Ask at any time
  • Never ask
  • It depends on the context: Use caution

Answer

It depends on the context: Use caution. Preemployment questions about arrests or convictions are an unfair labor practice unless the inquiry is reasonably related to the job duties and is limited to occurrences within the last 10 years. In this hypothetical case, there’s a direct connection between the job duties and the nature of the crimes committed. If the job did not involve the handling of money, then prior convictions of fraud, theft, or embezzlement would likely not be relevant.

Law enforcement agencies, state agencies, school districts, businesses and other organizations that have a direct responsibility for the supervision, care, or treatment of children, mentally ill persons, developmentally disabled persons, or other vulnerable adults are statutorily exempt from this rule.

Interview Question 3: Relations

“I notice your last name is Smith. Are you related to Mayor Smith?”

  • Ask at any time
  • Never ask
  • It depends on the context: Use caution

Answer

It depends on the context: Use caution. Questions about family members are typically off limits but if your jurisdiction has anti-nepotism employment rules, it may be necessary to confirm whether the applicant is related to a current employee or official.

Interview Question 4: Honorifics

Our application form has a place for the applicant to choose an honorific, i.e. () Mr. () Mrs. () Miss () Ms.

  • Good idea
  • Bad idea
  • It depends on the context

Answer

Bad idea. This is never appropriate. This question is essentially asking for the marital status of the applicant and, potentially, could reveal their gender identity as well.

Interview Question 5: Place of Birth

“Were you born in the United States?”

  • Ask at any time
  • Never ask
  • It depends on the context: Use caution

Answer

Never ask. It is essentially inquiring about the citizenship or immigrant status of the applicant, both of which are protected classes. While it is appropriate (and required by federal law) to confirm that the applicant has a legal right to work in the U.S., that legal right is available to anyone with a work visa, not just U.S. citizens so there is no reason to ask where someone was born.

Interview Question 6: Salary Information

“We believe that folks should not expect to make more than 10% more than what they made at their previous job. What is your current salary?”

  • Ask at any time
  • Never ask
  • It depends on the context: Use caution

Answer

Never ask. This is a new limitation in Washington. Employers may not seek the wage or salary history from a job applicant or from the applicant’s current or former employer (RCW 49.58.100). In 2019, the legislature formally found that such pay practices contribute to persistent earning inequalities for women (see RCW 49.58.005).

How many did you get right? If you did not do so great, retake the quiz again after reviewing WAC 162-12-140 and MRSC’s Hiring Procedures page. 

To learn more about strategies to create a diverse workforce and a build culture of inclusivity at your worksite, join us for Inclusive Hiring Practices for Local Governments on October 28 where we will hear from Rachel Bender Turpin of the Madrona Law Firm and Juan Padilla, HR Director for the City of Tukwila.  


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Sarah Doar

Sarah Doar joined MRSC in September 2018.

Most recently, she served as a Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Island County. At Island County, Sarah advised on many aspects of government business, including compliance with public record and opening meeting laws. She also defended the County in Growth Management Act and Land Use litigation. Prior to moving to Washington, Sarah practiced land use, environmental, and appellate law in Florida for over eight years.

Sarah holds a B.A. in Biology from Case Western Reserve University and a J.D. with a certificate in environmental and land use law from Florida State University College of Law.

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