Job Interview Questions That are Off-Limits

job interview questions off-limitsDid you know that some job interview questions are none of your new potential employer’s business? With the unemployment rate hovering right around 4% in California, looking for a job is a pretty competitive business. As employers vie to capture the most qualified and able applicants for their companies, they all too frequently delve into interview topics that are, frankly, none of their business. In fact, certain issues are so far out of the realm of acceptable inquiry that they can land the company in court. If you have suffered enquiries that are legally off-limits, a local employment lawyer can assist with next steps.

What Job Interview Questions are Off-Limits?

A number of topics should never be broached during a job interview here in California. Among some of these job interview questions are the following:

  • What is Your Marital Status? How many kids do you have? Potential employers are not allowed to ask about your family status, whether or not you are pregnant or intend to be, or in any other ways fish around into your family status.
  • What year did you graduate from high school? This question gets at a person’s age, which is not allowed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Federal Employment and Housing Act. The only exception is when an employer is confirming that minimum age requirements are being met.
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime? It has been illegal to ask about one’s criminal history since the legislature passed AB 1008 in 2017. The law applies to any company that employs six or more employees. Specifically, employers may not:
    • Ask any questions related to criminal convictions on the application;
    • Put any weight on an applicant’s criminal history until after a conditional job offer has been put forward;
    • Consider or share any information discovered during a criminal background check relates to specific criminal activities or convictions.
  • What are you earning at your current job? In 2018, AB 168 became effective, requiring potential employers to steer clear of questions related to an applicant’s previous earnings.  Knowledge of one’s salary history may not be allowed to influence whether or not an applicant is hired or the amount of pay that is offered. The exception to this rule is when the applicant offers unsolicited information related to previous earnings, and other factors are also weighed in determining future salary.
  • Are you a citizen of the United States? Where are you from? Although seemingly innocuous, questions related to one’s background may be a way for an employer to determine an applicant’s culture or national origin. While it is acceptable to ensure that an applicant is legally entitled to work in this county, asking questions that narrow down an applicant’s background is not allowed.

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Employment Discrimination Case Davis v. Farmers Insurance Exchange

Employment Discrimination CaseWhat happens in an employment discrimination case, if a jury finds that the employer had a discriminatory motive for firing an employee, but also finds that the employer had legitimate reasons and would have fired the employee even without the discriminatory motive?

Courts have long struggled with how to properly resolve these types of cases. The Supreme Court of California laid out its standard in 2013, in the case of Harris v. City of Santa Monica, in which Wynona Harris, a bus driver, alleged that the city improperly fired her because of her pregnancy. The Court ruled that if illegal discrimination is a substantial factor motivating an employee’s firing, but the employer can prove that it would have made the same decision without that motive, then it is improper for a court to award the employee with damages or back pay – or to require the employee’s reinstatement.

However, the Court also held that employers in such cases may still be on the hook for their employees’ attorneys fees and costs. Also, it may be appropriate for a court to take action against the employer to prevent further discrimination in the future by issuing an injunction or declaratory relief.

Employment Discrimination Case – The Davis Ruling

While some forms of relief are available for plaintiffs like Harris, they are not guaranteed. This was reinforced in the 2016 case of Davis v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, in which a California appeals court has applied the rules of the Harris decision.

William A. Davis filed a complaint against Farmers after being terminated from a district manager position. He alleged that Farmers had discriminated against him on the basis of his age, in violation of public policy. When his case was pending, the Harris decision was issued, which led the trial court to instruct the jury that Farmers is not liable for damages if Davis would have been fired even without the presence of age discrimination.

The jury found that age discrimination was a substantial motivating factor in his firing, but also found that Farmers would have fired him anyway for legally permissible reasons. Accordingly, the trial court dismissed the case without awarding Davis any damages. The court also ruled against Davis’s requests for declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and attorney’s fees.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of California ruled that the jury instructions were proper under Harris. Davis had argued that Harris only applied to cases under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), but the Court held that the jury instructions related to causation and motivation apply to both FEHA cases, and cases involving wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

The Court held that Davis was ineligible for declaratory or injunctive relief because he failed to seek these forms of relief in his complaint, and there was no threat that the wrongful conduct would continue to harm Davis in the future. The Court held that Davis was not entitled to attorney fees, either, because the jury’s verdict did not “result in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest,” and it did not provide a significant benefit to others. (The case was remanded for retrial, however, on a separate wage claim.)
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