We’ve all heard stories of job interviews gone bad — from awkward, cringe-worthy encounters to sensitive situations where hiring managers overstepped their legal bounds.

Yet interviewing isn’t the only hiring activity fraught with danger. If you’re using a “do it yourself” job application you created on the fly (or a generic one you downloaded online), you may be working with an inappropriate, if not downright illegal, document.

Beyond federal nondiscriminatory guidelines, there are specific rules and state laws regarding what you can and cannot ask. If you overlook any of the mandatory disclosures — or ask questions that cross into illegal territory — you’re only inviting trouble.

Here are the biggest no-nos with self-created or blank job applications — and the types of questions that should never appear on a legally compliant application:

  • Age — Age shouldn’t be a factor when hiring, unless you’re trying to determine whether a candidate is a minor. (In that case, asking “Are you at least 18?” is OK.) Plus, requesting a person’s age (or date of birth, which reveals age) could be considered age discrimination.
  • Date of high school graduation — This is a sneakier way to find out a person’s age — and is still off limits.
  • Criminal record — Due to the emergence of “ban the box” laws in many states and cities, you can’t inquire about criminal convictions. (You’ll have the opportunity to conduct background screenings later, if necessary).
  • Salary history — More and more states are passing laws restricting employers from asking for a candidate’s salary history, which can contribute to discriminatory pay practices.
  • Gender — Asking a person’s gender opens the door to sexual discrimination, so strike this question from your job application. Similarly, marital status can be a protected classification, so don’t ask for an applicant’s maiden name.
  • Race, national origin and religionTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from asking about ethnicity, race and national origin. It’s also illegal to include questions about religion or the observance of religious holidays. Although you may need to make reasonable accommodations down the road for a new employee’s religious practices, it’s up to the employee to make the request.
  • Citizenship — The Immigration Reform and Control Act contains anti-discrimination provisions regarding citizenship. The mandatory Form I-9 mandatory Form I-9 is the method for determining U.S. work eligibility — not the job application.
  • Affiliations/organizations — It’s not acceptable to ask what clubs or social organizations an applicant belongs to. The same goes for any question about off-the-job activities. (What is permissible, however, is a question about professional or trade groups related to the position.)
  • Physical condition — The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking about mental or physical disabilities, medical issues or addictions. (Instead, you may ask “Can you perform the essential duties required by this job with or without a reasonable accommodation?”)

Other questions to avoid:

  • Are you a member of a union?
  • Do you have friends or relatives working for the company?
  • If discharged from the military, what type of discharge was it?
  • Do you rent an apartment? Own a home?

An application should focus on the job, its requirements and the candidate’s skills and qualifications. If should not include questions that violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws regarding:

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Marital status
  • Financial status
  • Criminal record

Be Certain Your Job Application Is Fully Compliant

With the help of a web-based resource like the Job Application Smart App, you can avoid these and other legal landmines. It’s easier than ever to gather the job-related information you need from candidates, while ensuring you’re in complete compliance with federal and state requirements (and restrictions). You’ll have a stronger foothold on effective, legal hiring, without opening the door to potential lawsuits.

Key Takeaways:
  • As with interviews, you can’t ask certain questions on the job application.
  • Inappropriate inquiries could appear discriminatory under federal and state laws.
  • Age, gender, religion, race and criminal history are some of the prohibited topics.
  • Obtaining generic applications online (or creating them yourself) is risky because they may not be compliant with your state or private company.
  • Instead, get state-specific, attorney-approved applications (hard copy or electronic) from a reputable source with HR compliance expertise.