Q: I’m interviewing and one strong candidate listed several publications and extracurricular activities related to content that is typically considered off-limits in an interview (think sexual orientation or religious affiliation). If the candidate has the information on the resume, is it acceptable for discussion in the interview? I’m not going to interrogate personal background or discriminate based on it—it would just be a conversation about the work he has done around it. Am I risking a law suit? Should candidates have this kind of information on their resumes?
A: Candidates have given a lot of thought to the information they include on their resume, and in this case, the individual has decided that the work he has done is important enough to keep on it, which makes it fair interview material. Candidates may recognize that some information is sensitive or considered “off-limits” if initiated by the interviewer but may decide to present it as important to who they are and to their work experience.
We know you’re not going to interrogate the individual about the issue, and one technique you can employ to achieve this is what I consider one of the best prompts ever invented: “Tell me more…”—“Tell me more about your contributions to these publications,” “Tell me more about your work with this organization.” This way, you’re not at risk, and you will learn more about the work they have done, which is your focus. This also allows the candidate to go to the depth they are most comfortable with and to bring up the experiences that show their capability for the job they want. Open-ended questions like this allows the candidate to direct the conversation and you to ask more detail if needed.
Stay aware of the legal aspects of discussing certain information in an interview. Check with your in-house counsel for specific direction. It’s worth noting that part of a candidate’s decision to include potentially sensitive information could be to serve as a test for company culture—if the interviewer is challenged by dealing with the content, it could signal to the candidate that they wouldn’t want to work at the company.
Building rapport with interviewees is an important part of the interviewing process, and it can also be the point of risk. Making conversation outside of the “formal” interview frequently revolves around some commonality – where you grew up, went to school, used to work, or volunteer and community activities. These kinds of commonalities serve as great icebreakers, but as the interviewer, sensitive information should not be your starting point. You do not want to appear as if you are probing for information that would constitute discriminatory practices. Don’t ask “Do you have any children?” Instead, saying “Tell me about the rest of your life” allows the opportunity to learn more about the candidate without concern about discrimination on either side of the interview.
No one should feel intimidated at an interview, especially around something that could be considered discriminatory. Your instinct to tread carefully is a good one, and if the candidate put information on their resume for a reason, it’s important to recognize it.