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HR

7 dicey questions you should never ask employees

Posted by Kanika Sinha

March 1, 2022    |     6-minute read (1047 words)

Having good relationships with your direct reports can help strengthen the workplace by improving collaboration and engagement. But as a manager, there are some things you should avoid asking as you try to build strong relationships.

For example, in an attempt to develop rapport and learn what’s important to employees, you may inquire about personal topics such as marital status, race and health. Or, you may ask team members to do things off-the-clock that you consider professionally necessary but that are actually inappropriate.

Such questions, although you may consider them harmless, can make you come across as impolite or even creepy, which can hurt productivity and engagement. Further, some questions relating to personal topics are downright illegal. 

In short, as the boss you not only need to know what motivates your team, but also what questions you shouldn’t pose to employees. Here are seven questions that you should think twice before asking at the workplace.

1. Can you keep your raise to yourself?

While you may discourage employees from sharing pay-related information or even have pay confidentiality rules in place, in most instances you cannot forbid employees from discussing their compensation among themselves.

The National Labor Relations Act protects most employees’ right to discuss their salary, deeming discussions of wages as a preliminary to organizing or other actions for mutual aid or protection and giving employees the right to communicate with other employees about their wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.  

What you should do: Ensure that your employees are paid fairly in the first place. Additionally, help your employees understand their salary ranges and job potential. Further, inform them how having additional skills, training or certifications could possibly affect their growth within your organization.

2. Are you married? (and other personal questions)

While you want to get to know employees, some questions encroach into overstepping. Questions about personal topics, such as marital and family status, religious practices, race, health and age, can be illegal under federal and some state and local laws.

For example, federal and many state laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on pregnancy. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects people 40 or older from being discriminated against in the workplace in favor of younger workers. Some states have explicitly forbid any discrimination based on marital and/or family status. 

What you should do: To learn about your employees without getting too personal, ask open-ended questions. Let them know you care, and ask if they need anything from you. And if they come to you for discussion, allow them to say as much or as little as they want.

3. Can you start working longer hours?

It may be acceptable to occasionally ask employees to work longer hours to meet a specific deadline, but regularly demanding longer working hours or off-the-clock work should not be a standard workplace practice. 

Note that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay nonexempt employees for all time they spend working. Nonexempt workers are entitled to earn the federal minimum wage and qualify for overtime pay, which is calculated as one-and-a-half times their hourly rate for every hour they work above and beyond a standard 40-hour workweek.

What you should do: If you find yourself in an all-hands-on-deck moment, make sure to provide food or snacks for your employees, and don’t forget to show your gratitude. Acknowledge that you’re asking a lot and recognize their efforts.

4. Can you use paid time off instead of sick days? 

While some organizations combine paid time off with sick days, this isn’t an option for businesses in states that mandate employers provide workers with a certain number of hours of paid sick leave each year, separate from their paid time off. If you fall in that category, never ask an employee who has exhausted all sick days to use paid time off.

What you should do: Review your paid time off policy and connect with someone in HR about next steps. Find out if the employee could be eligible for another type of medical leave, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act

5. Can I have the login information for your social media account? Can you add me as a friend on social media?

Many U.S. states prohibit employers from seeking the login information or contents of the employees’ personal social media accounts. Some also forbid employers/managers from asking to be added as a "friend" or contact on social media. 

Even if these requirements do not apply to your organization, it's best to avoid checking the social media profiles of your employees, since it may reveal information that could lead to discrimination in the workplace.

What you should do: To connect with your employees on social media, stick to professional networking platforms such as LinkedIn, particularly when you’re the one sending invites.

6. John’s background noise is distracting me. Can we cut this Zoom meeting short?

When managing a distributed team that collaborates remotely, you are likely to encounter disruptions during team calls. But managers shouldn’t ask to cut a team meeting short when a participant’s work environment gets distracting.

What you should do: Model resiliency in the face of interruptions. Proactively recognize the need for boundaries between work and home during work calls by laying out a simple plan of action in the event of disruptions. For example, the plan could say that if a child/family member comes on screen, that participant should turn off their cameras. And if there’s a distracting noise, like a barking dog, that participant should mute themselves unless they’re speaking.

7. Can you talk later?

If you need to speak with your employee about a performance-related issue, recent workplace disruption or simply to review a project, avoid starting the conversation with the question, “Can you talk later?” This open-ended question, even if the pending conversation is one of a positive nature, is likely to leave the employee feeling anxious and stressed. Your direct report may not be productive while waiting to find out what exactly you want to talk about.

What you should do: Plan the timing of your conversation in advance. Also, share what the discussion will include. 

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