6 valid concerns that lead interviewers to ask inappropriate questions . . . and how to avoid these missteps

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When, during Interview Right to Hire Right workshops the conversation turns to questions that should not be asked because they may contravene human rights protections, there is always someone who objects, “But before I hire someone there are things I need to know.”

This usually leads to a discussion of valid concerns, which unfortunately have the potential to manifest themselves in questions that should never be asked when interviewing. Asking these types of questions can lead to awkward situations, and in some cases, significant financial penalties.

Here are the six concerns heard most frequently, and my suggestions on how to gather the information you may require without stepping over the line into protected areas, which have no place in the interview.

As I do so, I hasten to point out that what follows is not intended as legal advice, but for general information purposes only. Readers are advised to contact their own counsel regarding any specific legal issues.

The “recommended inquiries” should be asked to all candidates, not just those whose appearance raises concern, to avoid creating the impression that some candidates are being treated differently because of their appearance or gender.

Concern #1: Will this person stay?

No one wants to go through the process of filling a position only to have the newly hired individual quit. If there is a risk that the person will leave soon after joining the staff, this isn’t someone managers want to hire. Hoping to avoid this situation, they ask questions that may violate protections related to family status and age. “Is your husband likely to be transferred with his job? Do you plan to have children? When? How close are you to retiring?”

Recommended Inquiry: “Are you prepared to commit to remain with us for at least three years? Will you commit to staying with us until the end of the summer or until the Christmas season ends (for seasonal positions)?” Of course, there is no guarantee that circumstances won’t change or that the candidate is not truthful when answering. Sometimes you just need to trust that the candidates intend to follow through on their commitments.

Concern #2: How can I confirm employment or check references if the candidate has married and changed her name?

This concern causes interviewers to ask women about their maiden name. In addition to intruding into the area of marital status, this inquiry ignores the possibility of other reasons why candidates (both male and female) may have been known by different names where they were employed previously.

Recommended Inquiry: [Referring to the list of references the candidate provided] “Where you worked previously, were you known by a different name?”

Concern #3: Will this candidate be able to handle the physical demands of the job?

Will the successful applicant be expected to lift heavy boxes as part of the job? Does this job require the staff member to stand for long periods every day? Questions such as these cause managers to set minimum/maximum height and weight standards or ask about the candidate’s health, both of which would violate areas protected by human rights legislation.

Recommended Inquiry: Describe the physical demands of the job and ask, “Does this sound like something you would be able to do?” Alternatively, ask the candidate to describe the expectations of previous jobs. “Describe the physical demands of your previous job.” As necessary, follow up with questions about the weight of boxes he/she was expected to lift. How many boxes did he/she move on a typical day? How much of the day did they spend standing? Sitting at a desk?

Concern #4: Will this person be available for shift work?

This concern leads interviewers to ask questions about family status (questions which women hear much more frequently than men). “Do you have any kids? What are their ages? Who will look after them if you have to work a night shift?”

Recommended inquiry: “This is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation and whoever is in this position will be required to work shifts. Can you be available to work different shifts, including night shifts?”

Concern #5: Will this person be available to work every day of the week?

This concern leads interviewers to ask questions about religious beliefs (especially if the interviewer assumes that the candidate is of a different faith). “What religion/denomination do you belong to? What religious holidays do you observe? What is your day of worship? Do you go to church regularly?”

Recommended inquiry: “Our store is open seven-days-a week. Can you be available to work every day of the week?”

Concern #6: Is this person legally able to work in Canada?

This concern leads interviewers to ask questions about the candidate’s place of origin, place of birth or nationality. “Where were you born? Are you Canadian citizen?”

Recommended inquiry: Seek confirmation that the person is legally able to work in Canada.

Interviewers who ask inappropriate questions are usually guilty of making assumptions about candidates based on gender, race, age and other areas protected by human rights legislation. The better approach is to focus on the job requirements. Before asking candidates any question, ask yourself first, “What does this inquiry have to do with the job?” If the relationship wouldn’t be evident to everyone, it’s best to steer clear of the question.

Suggested Action: Review the questions you are asking. Could they create the appearance of discrimination related to specific groups? Are there better ways to get the information needed to assuage your concerns?

During Interview Right to Hire Right, participants will identify questions which are “off limits” and identify ways to obtain the information they really need to make the right hiring decisions. Email nmscott@telus.net or phone (780) 232-3828 to learn more or to schedule training for leaders within your organization.

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10 tips to recognize staff in ways they will remember for the “right” reasons

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“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou

When Nancy was called into her boss’s office to assist her in preparing for a presentation, she didn’t anticipate that she was in for a recognition experience. She still remembers it, more than a decade later, but not for reasons that her now-former employer would have wished.

While retrieving a laptop that was stored under her boss’s desk, she discovered a framed picture, with a plaque bearing her name.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Oh that,” said her boss. “It’s for you. Some type of performance award. I guess I should have given it to you a few weeks ago. You can take it now if you want it.”

How did Nancy feel about this award? How does she feel about it today? Not pride for what she accomplished. Not appreciation for the company’s gratitude. No, what she still feels is how little importance her boss appeared to attach to the award.

“The recognition lost its meaning because of how it was presented,” she says. “It negated the value of the award and its purposes.”

How Nancy experienced recognition undercut what could have been a sincere expression of appreciation. The company had well-defined criteria for the award and had invested in what it considered to be a suitable token of appreciation. But it had not prepared Nancy’s supervisor to provide recognition in a way that would create a meaningful experience. The boss did not understand that the way recognition is presented—what is said and done—is far more important than either awards or events at which the recognition is delivered.

With the passage of time, people may forget most of the circumstances that surrounded their recognition, but one memory will always remain. They will never forget how the experience made them feel.

Happily, there are techniques that managers and supervisors can use to ensure that recognition is genuine and that it will be presented in ways recipients will value and remember for the right reasons:

  1. Involve the right people in making the presentation. The person delivering recognition should know and be known to the recipient. This may not be the CEO who, although important to the company, may not be as significant in the recipient’s work life as her boss, or maybe the boss’s boss.
  2. Know about the recipient. What are his hobbies? How does she like to spend family time? What are his career goals? Why does she like to read? What is his favourite treat? How does she prefer to be recognized? The more you know about individual staff members, the better you are able to provide Appropriate recognition.
  1. Respect the employee’s preference to be recognized in public or in private. Shy, introverted people dread being called up in front of an audience. Some will actually skip recognition events to avoid the experience, while their more extroverted colleagues will love it.
  1. Make it personal. Recognition is most meaningful when experienced in-person. The impact of your words increases when you can synchronize your body language and tone of voice with your message. If face-to-face recognition is not possible, put your words of appreciation in writing, remembering that a handwritten note is more meaningful than a formal letter or an impersonal email. In his book Megatrends, American futurist John Naisbitt wrote: “The more high technology around us, the more the need for the human touch.”
  1. Be Explicit when describing what the recipient did. When recognition includes specific examples, it shows that you are paying attention to what the employee does.
  1. Ensure recognition is Timely. The longer you wait to acknowledge an employee’s contribution, the less its impact. Delayed recognition is like a glass of champagne that stands too long. It loses its fizz.
  1. Maintain the right balance between being prepared (knowing what the recipient did, why it was important and what you are going to say) and being in the moment. Over-scripted recognition lacks the spontaneity that adds to the meaningfulness of the gesture of gratitude.
  1. Exercise caution when using humour. Many a manager has negated the value of praise they just bestowed by attempting standup comedy. “Maybe we should have given George a gift certificate for a new tie. Where did you get that one . . . at clown school?”
  1. Separate recognition from other feedback. A recognition event is not a performance appraisal. When the manager says, “Susan did a great job on that report, but it was two weeks late,” the word “but” serves as a verbal eraser, eliminating the positive impact of the words that went before.
  1. Avoid following recognition with a request to take on another task. “You did such an outstanding job, I know you will excited to hear that I am going to assign you an even more difficult and time-consuming project.”  Don’t let recognition morph into a form of punishment for achieving success.

Prospect alleges NFL teams asked questions you should never ask during interviews

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You would think everyone would understand it by now. The message in human rights legislation is clear: there are questions that should never be asked during interviews.

The caution expressed on an information sheet from the Alberta Human Rights Commission is typical of the advice these agencies provide:

“Do not ask questions that require disclosure of an applicant’s gender, gender identity, gender expression, or marital or family status . . . ”

Despite these warnings, some interviewers continue to ask about sexual orientation, religion and family status. The decisions to ask these questions can result in severe financial penalties, as circumstances described in a previous article demonstrated.

Now it’s the National Football League which is caught up in a controversy, because of questions a prospective player alleges were asked by two teams during the league’s combine, which is a week-long opportunity for college players to meet with representatives of professional teams and showcase their skills.

Louisiana State University’s Derrius Guice, “projected as one of the top running backs in this year’s draft, told Sirius XM Radio that one team asked if he was gay and another asked if his mother ‘sells herself,’ ” the New York Times reported on March 8, 2018.

That these questions were asked is surprising, both from the point of view of common sense (what do they have to do with playing football?) and because the NFL finds it necessary to provide teams with guidance about the type of questions that cannot be asked when interviewing prospects.

“The league annually reminds clubs of these workplace policies that prohibit personnel from seeking information concerning a player’s sexual orientation,” the NFL said in release quoted in the Times article.

The Times article goes on to explain that, “Before each combine, where all 32 teams interview prospects, the league sends guidance to the clubs about specific language to be avoided in questioning. Among the regulations is a ban on such questions as whether the player likes men or women; is gay or straight; has any children or dependents and who has primary caretaking responsibilities; and whether or not he married his child’s mother.”

While your organization may not provide the same specific guidance as the NFL feels is necessary, most agencies responsible for overseeing the adherence to human rights legislation do provide guidance on how to avoid entering into conversation with prospective employees, either as the result of the questions you ask or because the candidate initiates a discussion, that relates to areas protected by legislation.

Suggested Action: Before interviewing candidates for any position, review the questions you intend to ask. Could any be about topics that relate to the protected areas identified in human rights legislation? (A recommended guide for pre-employment inquiries, from the Alberta Human Rights Commission could be a useful guide when assessing the appropriateness of questions. Similar documents are available from human rights agencies in other provinces and other countries.)

When linked to career goals, training becomes an effective staff recognition tool

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A few days ago, I was out for breakfast and noticed that one of the servers had the words, “Certified Trainer” on her uniform.

“What does this mean?”  I wondered. So, I asked.

What I anticipated hearing—or perhaps, hoped to hear—was a response in which the woman proudly described how she had earned this coveted designation and how the training she delivered prepared new staff to provide the service excellence to which diners were entitled.

The response I received wasn’t even close.

“It means I had to sit through a very boring, five-hour presentation. Just people doing a lot of talking. Now I guess I am supposed to be able to train new servers.”

Wow! Obviously she felt no pride in this designation and no commitment to getting new servers up to speed as quickly as possible. The designation as certified trainer seemed a burden she was forced to bear.

What went wrong here? What could have been done differently?

I’m going to point the finger of blame not at this woman, but at her manager. I imagine a scenario where the franchise requires that each restaurant have one or more trainers, who are required to go through a five-hour program before they are certified to educate new staff.

“Nicole, you’re going to take this training,” the manager announced.

“Why me?”

“Because I said so. Someone has to go, I decided that person will be you.”

No discussion. No explanation of why Nicole was selected.

Assigned properly, training can be an effective staff recognition tool, but only if the individual is a willing participant and sees both the training and resulting designation as recognition for performing well, and is consistent with the participant’s career goals.

What did the manager know about where Nicole wanted to be in a few years? Clearly being the person who trained new staff to serve breakfast in a restaurant wasn’t part of her plans.

Had the manager known more about the career goals of staff members—including Nicole’s—the decision about who to send to the training might have been different.

The decision still could have been to send Nicole if the manager knew that in the future she hoped to become a manager, even if she hoped that would be another sector, such as retail or an office setting. The manager could have suggested that the skills she would learn, which would prepare her to train new food servers, could be transferred to future leadership roles in other workplaces, where Nicole might be expected to train other staff.

The manager could also have explained why Nicole had been selected. “I noticed how you have been mentoring Alice during her first few shifts. She really seems to respond well to your suggestions about how to serve customers. I need to send someone to a program to prepare people to become certified trainers. These are the people who train our new hires. Based on what I have seen of how you worked with Alice and others, I think you would be the best person to attend this session. What do you think?”

Suggestion Action: Learn about your staff members’ career goals and use this knowledge to find relevant training as a way to provide staff recognition that is Appropriate for the person whose contributions are being acknowledged.

You asked: When to check references

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Question: When is the best time to contact the candidate’s references—before or after the interview?

Answer: My recommendation is to check references following interviews, and then to do so only for those who have been tentatively selected—your top two or three choices for the position.

Post-interview reference checks allow you to explore the same topics that were discussed during the interview. Ask how the candidates dealt with a specific situation in the past. How closely do their actions match how your top performers respond under similar circumstances?

Conducting post-interview reference checks means you are able to seek confirmation of what the candidate said during the interview.

“When we interviewed Jessica, she said she regularly contacted parents about their children’s progress. Do you recall this being the case?” Follow up by asking the reference to provide a specific example of a time when Jessica did this.

Some argue that reference checks should be conducted before deciding who to interview. This approach may be a useful tool to whittle a long list of applicants down to a short list to interview.

Conducting a larger number of pre-interview reference checks will take more time, but may help you avoid inviting unsuitable candidates to interviews, which could save both time and expense. On the other hand, pre-interview reference checks may extend the time between identifying a vacancy and filling it, which means that better candidates may be lost to more nimble recruiters.

When conducting reference checks, we shouldn’t waste the time of people who have stepped up to be references. Getting high-quality information from reference checks depends on the goodwill of individuals who know the candidates. We don’t want to destroy this goodwill. Managers who feel they are being contacted for pro forma reference checks may be less inclined to be references in the future, which robs you and other interviewers of valuable information which may help you hire the right people in the future.

Reference who know we are seriously interested in the individuals about whom we are contacting them are more likely to invest their time to answer our questions. Treated right, the candidates’ references can become our hiring allies.

Suggested Action: If you aren’t already doing so, consider conducting post-interview reference checks for tentatively selected candidates.

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During Interview Right to Hire Right, participants develop reference check questions that align with topics the candidates will be asked about during their interviews. Call (780) 232-3828 or email nmscott@telus.net to learn more or to schedule a workshop for the leaders within your organization.

You Asked: About Keeping Track of When You Recognize Staff

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Question: Should I keep a record of every time I recognize staff?

Answer: This could be a way to ensure that your staff recognition efforts are on track and that you are recognizing all staff members, when recognition is deserved.

This could be done with something as simple as a staff list, with spaces to record the date on which you recognized each staff member.

Another equally low-tech tool, but still an effective way to keep track of staff recognition, is a stack of index cards—one for each staff member. Every time you recognize a staff member, note when, why and how individuals are recognized.

Regularly—at least once a week—check your staff list or thumb through the index cards to see when each staff member was last recognized. If you feel it’s been “too long” since you last acknowledged an individual, it may be time to find something the individual has done for which you can Genuinely recognize him/her.

What constitutes “too long” is subjective. Some suggest that staff should be recognized at least once every seven days, while others feel that once a week may place an unrealistic expectation on leaders. You will need to decide what is right for you.

If you are unable to identify a reason to recognize a particular staff member, you may need to look harder. On the other hand, perhaps he/she really hasn’t done anything for which recognition is warranted. If that’s the case, this may indicate a performance issue that needs to be addressed.

Suggested Action: Create a tool, either on paper or electronically, which will work for you to monitor who is being recognized and when.

Strengthen your interview skills with feedback from a colleague

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Interview panel listening to applicant in the office

To foster your growth as an interviewer, seek advice from an experienced interviewer, who has a successful track record of hiring the right people. This should be someone who has researched how to interview effectively or has received training on conducting interviews, such as during an Interview Right to Hire Right workshop.

Invite this person to sit in when you are interviewing candidates—not as a member of the interview panel, but as someone who will observe how you manage the process and provide feedback.

Soon after the interview, he/she should share his/her observations with you. When asking this individual to observe the interview, specify whether you want feedback on all aspects of the interview or would like to focus on specific components.

There are many aspects of the interview that could be the focus of the feedback:

  • How did you begin the interview? What did you do and what did you say in an effort to reduce the candidate’s stress?
  • How did you introduce the interview? What information did you provide to the candidate?
  • How were questions asked? Did you require the candidate to describe what he/she had done in the past and not what he/she “might do” if hired? Did you use followup questions to learn more about what the candidate had done?
  • Did you ensure that the candidate did most of the talking? Did you ask short questions to avoid signaling how you wanted the candidate to respond? How did you show you were listening to what the candidate said?
  • Were you careful to avoid intruding into areas protected by human right legislation, such as religion, family status, age, etc.?
  • What was the role of the interview panel (if there was one)? Who was on the panel and why was each selected?
  • How did you wrap up the interview? What information did you provide the candidate? How did you handle any questions from the candidate?
  • How did you assess the candidate’s responses? What was your criteria? How did this relate to what your top performers would do under the circumstances you asked about?

Hiring the right people is one of the most important tasks leaders take on. Your success depends on the people who are hired. The more effective an interviewer you become, the better the chances you will identify the candidates who have the potential to become top performers—the staff members who will make you and the organization successful.

Suggested Action: Identify someone who is knowledgeable about interviewing, who you are confident will provide valuable feedback. Invite him/her to observe one or more interviews and share his/her observations.

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All aspects of the hiring process, from using resumes to decide who to interview, to writing and asking questions, checking references and deciding who to hire are part of my Interview Right to Hire Right program. Email nmscott@telus.net or phone (780) 232-3828 to learn more or to schedule a workshop for your leaders.