Imagine you’re interviewing candidates for a marketing position where the Key Performance Indicator is leads generated on social media sites. You’ve got two good candidates. One is 25, the other 45.

If that doesn’t feel like a potential age-discrimination lawsuit, it should. Especially if the younger candidate is a digital native who lives and breathes social media and the older candidate is knowledgeable but not nearly so plugged in. Let me count the ways you could trigger a lawsuit if you asked the older candidate the wrong questions. For example:

  • “You’ve got a wife and kids. Do you really have time to surf the net?” or
  • “Help me understand how someone in your generation learned about social media”

A jury might easily conclude that both of these comments are evidence of bias against over-40 employees. The problem is that they make reference to age.

Here’s a rule of thumb for asking questions in a job interview. Always frame your questions in terms of an applicant’s behavior, knowledge and ability to perform. Never allude to age, gender, disability, race or anything else that refers to a candidate’s “protected” status.

In the social media job example, a recruiter might ask, “How many people have you friended on your Facebook site?” and “How would you get around the fact that YouTube gets blocked by corporate servers?” These questions are digging for information related only to behavior, knowledge and ability to perform. The older candidate might have great answers for these questions. But he might not, which would suggest that he does not live and breathe social media. Since that’s a requirement for the job, you could most likely choose the younger candidate without fear of a lawsuit.

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