Job Application Questions: Are Employers Really Allowed To Ask You That?

job application questions

For many employers, the job application is the first contact they have with you as a prospective employee. What can they ask you? What does it mean? What should you answer to some of those questions? Here are some areas of concern in your employment application.

In some states, companies aren't allowed to ask about arrests, but if they do, answer truthfully. Same with convictions. If your conviction is expunged, check the state's law where the expunction happened. In most states, if the conviction is expunged you can honestly answer "no" to questions about arrests and convictions -- with certain exceptions, such as jobs in law enforcement. Precluding applicants from being hired due to an arrest or conviction might also have an adverse impact on minorities, so it could be discriminatory. If they ask this, get a copy of the application or make a note of the exact question and your answer.

Age, Sex, Religion, Race, National Origin, Disability, Genetic Information
Your employer isn't supposed to ask questions that reveal a protected status. What do you do if they ask these questions? Answer truthfully, but keep a copy of the application with the illegal question. If you're turned down, it might give you ammunition for a discrimination claim later. If you want the job, don't make a stink about the question. If you feel you must raise the issue, get hired, then point it out gently after you've become a trusted employee of at least six months to a year.

More: 8 Ways Employers Can Discriminate Against Workers -- Legally

Credit Information
Many employers still conduct credit checks on prospective employees. Yet credit checks may also have an adverse impact on women and minority applicants. If you think you've been denied a job due to a credit check, you may have a discrimination claim. If the employer intends to run a credit check on you, your application will ask for your written permission. If you don't give permission and the credit check is run anyway, the employer is violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act and possibly your state's law.

It may be legal for an employer to refuse to hire you because you had a bankruptcy. The bankruptcy is public record and will be revealed in a background check.

Worker's Compensation Claim
Even though most states make it illegal to fire you for making a worker's comp claim, few states prohibit hiring discrimination based on worker's compensation claims. Even in those states that bar worker's compensation discrimination, the claims are public record and the employer may find out about them. Worker's comp information may well reveal the existence of a disability, so employers who use this information against applicants do so at their peril.

More: Is Weight Discrimination At Work Illegal?

References And Job History
Do you list the supervisor whom you reported for sexual harassment? Do you list the job from which you were fired for blowing the whistle on securities violations? The legal answer is yes. Omitting employment history will give an employer an excuse to fire you later, and it will probably come up in a background check. Many companies have reference-checking phone numbers through which HR will only give neutral references -- dates of employment and job title. If the employer was a problem employer, list the neutral reference line. Or you may have a supervisor who will still say something positive. List them instead of the one you know will slam you.

Some sneaky employers are putting all kinds of contractual provisions into employment applications. They may ask you to waive trial by jury, or to waive your right to go to court and force you into arbitration, and the courts are allowing these provisions to stand in some states. Beware of the employer that puts these provisions in applications. Your employment with them will likely be a matter of the company constantly operating in defensive mode, treating employees as the enemy.

Lying On The Application
It's tempting to lie when you are asked a difficult question on the application. Think carefully before you do. The consequence of lying about anything, such as job history and terminations, is that if the employer finds out that you lied, even years later, they can fire you. It also can be used as a defense to a lawsuit in order to cut off your damages. The employer will say that they could have fired you because you lied, so your right to lost wages/back pay is gone.

Donna's Tips
  • Answer truthfully. That's the legal answer. Career advisers will tell you to carefully frame your answers or even omit information. They're not wrong, but I can't advise you to do anything but tell the truth.
  • You might want to hire a professional reference-checking company to find out what prospective employers will say about you so that you can tailor your application and interview accordingly.
  • Some employers (those with at least 100 employees or government contractors) are required to report race, gender and ethnic information of all employees to the government, and some do track this information for affirmative action purposes or other legitimate reasons. They may have to ask this information on a form separate from your application, such as on a "tear sheet." However, if this is asked pre-employment, you should make note of it and keep a copy if possible.

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I've just been hired by a company that wants me to waive right to go to court in case we have a disagreement. I really want the job, but I'm not confortable with signing that clause. What warranties do I have they will pay back wages if they forgot some overtime for example? What protections has the employee in arbitration procedures?

August 14 2014 at 4:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A clever response to the question of why wasn't I choosen for a particular position was "We had another applicant that was more qualified than you and more closely matched what we wanted for that position." You can't argue with that and there is no material for a law suit.

January 05 2013 at 12:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As an owner of a small business, I deal with this politically correct crap every day. There are many reasons that we may not hire a person. We may just not like the way they walk into the room, the clothes they wear, too many tattoos, too many piercings, too much makeup, the sound of their voice, the answers to the quesions during the interview. It's my business and I'll hire whom I choose. We don't discriminate on the basis of color or religion or national origin. But ours is a customer service driven industry and if we don't think you have the face or personality that we want representing us, then we don't hire you.

I loved the one where if we consider whether you have been convicted of a crime and don't hire you, then you may be the victim of discrimination. Too danged bad! Don't become a felon! No matter what color you are! We don't hire felons!

January 04 2013 at 11:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Thomas's comment

And why is that? All felons? No matter what the crime is? Wow - I know some very good and honest people who made horrible choices in their past, learned from them, did the time, paid the fines and moved on. People like you are making it hard for anyone to have a second chance at life. I don't get it. I own my own business too and as long as a crime of money isn't involved I have no problem hiring people with pasts.

May 24 2013 at 11:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

thank god I am self employed!!

January 04 2013 at 9:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In my day, they asked the following: Do you have children? Do you plan on having more children? Do you drive? Do you own your a car? If one called in sick, there was one supervisor who would call your home to see if you were there and insist that you get out of bed to answer the call! By the way, this was not a fly by night, it was a very large and well known company!

January 04 2013 at 7:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gmydogbud's comment

Sounds typical of the 60's and 70's right?

January 05 2013 at 12:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This article is complete BS.

Especially the stuff about, "well if you are not hired due to bad credit, but are a minority, you can file for discrimination"

If you're not hired for bad credit, you are not hired for bad credit. Race has no bearing on someone's credit, so to imply that a minority with bad credit can look into discrimination is STUPID.

I can tell you that you can be denied a job for bad credit too, because it happened to my dad. He was trying to get a job with the FBI and they told him that his credit is exactly why he didn't get the job.

I guess if he was black or Mexican he could have said they discriminated against him. LOL

January 04 2013 at 6:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Any smart business owner will never give you a reason that they didn't hire you - cuts down on the lawsuits. I don't have to tell you why you were not hired. I will tell you the position has been filled and I thank you for applying - have a nice day.

January 04 2013 at 5:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I heard it is illegal for any employer to ask an employee or potential employee where they live or reside.

January 04 2013 at 5:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to specttrain's comment

Why would it be? I see alot of ads that specify people live within 20 miles or whatever, of the business. They might want to have that person they hire to be able to come into the offices after hours at times, they would prefer someone 10 minutes away vs an hour away. In the Phoenix metro area it's not unusual to commute an hour or more to a job. Some of my clients from my firm are an hour or more away. I set appts up between 11 and 3 ONLY! I never take an appt that puts me into rush hour traffic. If an employee lives an hour away that increases the likelihood of traffic jams and accidents.

May 24 2013 at 11:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Interesting situation here. You say a company should not ask your age. But if they fly you in for an interview, they have to know your date of birth when they make the flight reservation, or to provide to their travel agency to book the flight. The DOB is now a TSA requirement. So, to comply with federal law, they must break federal and/or state laws.

January 04 2013 at 5:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dmasearch's comment

My resume shows on paper that I am in my early 40's since my college education was done later in life than most. I am in my mid 50s now and I own my own business but when I was still looking for regular work I lost track of the times I had literally 5 minute interviews. The second they saw me (I was 50 at the time I stopped looking for a job) they were like "Ok well thanks for coming in, we'll call you"

May 24 2013 at 11:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Part of this article is bullsh*t. I'm a former Marine, college student and because I pay child support to an ex-wife that left me; my credit is affected. Lowes turned me down for God's sake.

January 04 2013 at 3:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to timant2007's comment

Unfortunately, it's legal in most states to turn you down for a job due to bad credit. If you're a minority, you may have a discrimination claim. You might want to talk to an employment lawyer in your state.

January 04 2013 at 4:04 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to EmployeeAtty's comment

If you have to sue a company to get a job how long do you think your career will be with them and how comfortable will you be working there?

January 05 2013 at 12:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

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