Hiring a new employee may seem like a straightforward endeavor, but it can be filled with challenges and potential risks. One such risk is that a job candidate could claim your decision not to hire him or her was based on illegal discrimination.

Whether or not it’s true, the mere appearance of discrimination based on a protected characteristic (such as race, gender, pregnancy, religion, age, national origin or disability) can result in an EOOC investigation or costly lawsuit.

To avoid the costly mistakes that can lead to accidental discrimination when hiring, consider these five tips:

1. Write a thorough job description

A detailed, well-written job description is an important document in any defense against possible discrimination complaints. It serves to objectively outline the responsibilities, duties and specific requirements for the position, and can guide you in conducting fair assessments of job applicants. Be certain your job description includes a gender-neutral job title (for example, “salesperson” instead of “salesman” or “server” instead of “waitress”) and doesn’t exclude any legally protected group or class. And always include the statement, “We are an equal opportunity employer.”

2. Use a legally sound job application

A job application created with federal and state laws in mind allows you to pose specific questions without violating an applicant’s privacy and employment rights. You may not see the harm in asking what year a candidate graduated from high school or college, but this could be viewed as an indirect way of finding out a person’s age. A legally sound application also covers questions about criminal history in compliance with any state or local “ban the box” laws, which prohibit asking about an applicant’s criminal history too early in the hiring process.

3. Ask consistent interview questions based on the job description

You can conduct solid interviews by asking each candidate the same questions -- and ensuring that these questions relate directly to the responsibilities, duties and requirements of the position. Probing each candidate based on the answers they provide is okay, but straying from the job description and subjecting just one candidate to a line of questioning that is different from the others can invite unwanted legal issues.

4.  Minimize small talk during interviews

Be careful: Polite and friendly conversation during interviews on topics unrelated to the job can lead to unintentional discrimination. Once you go off course, it’s easy for the conversation or questions to slip into inappropriate areas such as family life, ethnicity or religion. Your company’s interests are best served by keeping the small talk to an absolute minimum.

5. Train everyone who interviews/hires job applicants

Effectively training your employees in understanding, recognizing and preventing discrimination can reduce your legal risk during the hiring process. This training should be required for anyone who interviews or hires candidates.

For more information on the steps you can take to avoid accidental discrimination when screening job applicants, download the free ComplyRight tip sheet, Interview Questions You Can Never Ask Applicants - and What to Ask Instead, or watch the free on-demand webinar, 5 Easy Steps to Prevent Accidental Discrimination When Hiring.

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