Last week, Katie Morrell offered a piece entitled “The 5 Worst Things You Can Do in an Interview” on AMEX’s Open Forum small business site.  Of course, #1 was “getting too personal” in which she explained that it is illegal to ask about race, sex, marital status, etc.  This myth has persisted too long.  It is not illegal to ask any question in an interview!  Want to know if they are a millionaire trust fund baby?  Go for it.  Want to know if they they are a trans-sexual.  Fire at will.  I swear that the police will not come in after the interview to take you off to prison.

I hear you loud and clear:  “This flies in the face of everything I’ve ever heard!”  Well, only sort of.  While it is not illegal, it can still get you in trouble.  See, like most things in life, it is really about managing risk and not so much about legality.  It may be a subtle distinction, but I think it is important for employers to understand.  If you ask an inteviewee if they are pregnant and you don’t give them the job (or even if you do give them the job) they might equate that with the reason you don’t hire them or a reason you deny them a promotion later.  If they do, the person might use that to boot strap a claim for discrimination based on pregnancy status.

In the end, you treat an inteviewee just like an employee.  You should avoid topics that might offend with a person who might bring a claim against you.  Of course, you hardly know interviewees, so understanding what questions are taboo with that person will be more difficult.  Manage the risk based on the circumstances and understand what is and is not really protected.

Last week someone told me that you can’t ask if the person is independently wealthy.  Since when is that protected?  Uhhh, no.  When someone tells you it’s illegal to do something, be sure to understand why and how.  The topics you generally should avoid to minimize risk are the same things you have to watch out for with your existing employees –  characteristics that are protected against discrimination such as: age, sex, disability, military status, origin, color, etc.

See, family money isn’t on the list.