The horror of realizing that not everyone, even a well-educated CEO, knows the legal questions they can and cannot ask an applicant is a true terror. Recently, I was working with a CEO who clearly crossed the line. We were in the final stages of interviewing for a customer service position and he was meeting the finalists. One of the candidates had, what he thought, was a "Greek sounding last name." On her resume it also listed that she spoke Hebrew. During the interview he asked her "Are you Jewish?" She replied "yes" and then he said "Greek and Jewish is an usual combination. Do you observe the Sabbath?" The candidate became uncomfortable and went into the next interview and immediately pulled out of the running saying the interview left her uncomfortable and feeling like her religion could be used against her if she were employed by the company.
While the CEO's intentions may have been nothing more than a little small talk, the questions were not job related and are inappropriate for an interview. There is a fine line between striking up a conversation and engaging a candidate and asking legal questions. When asked about the line of questioning later, the CEO stated that he was simply interested in the combination of Jewish and Greek heritage. He was also concerned that because it was a Customer Service position that required coverage until 8pm EST, he wanted to know if the candidate observed the Sabbath because it might be difficult for them to cover the phones on Friday nights. While this is a valid concern, the manner in which he asked the question was wrong. Recruiters run into trouble when they assume that interviewers know the appropriate questions and way to get at information. This horror story taught me a big lesson and I now work closely with all my interviewers to make sure they fully understand what is legal and what is not and how to ask legal questions.