Civil rights in employment decisions

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.  

While many federal laws protecting equal employment opportunity exempt small businesses, Michigan laws do not. Michigan laws protect religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, marital status and disability. As long as the specific disability is unrelated to the individual’s ability to perform the duties of a particular job or position with or without reasonable accommodation. Whether an applicant is a union member or an applicant’s veteran status also are questions that should have no place in employment decisions.

Most laws apply to all employment decisions, including hiring, training, evaluation, promotion, compensation, discipline and termination. But questions on how to treat everybody fair and equally often come up during the selection process. As a general rule, all questions during the selection process should be relevant to the job to be filled. On an application form such questions may include name, address, phone number, the job the applicant is applying for and a summary of the applicant’s background (e.g., education and training, work history, special qualifications and skills). Citizenship and ethnicity are not typically relevant to agricultural jobs and therefore need to be avoided on application forms. An employer concerned about hiring applicants who will later fail to provide the required documentation for the I-9 form, may include a question in the application form such as “Are you legally eligible to work in the United States?” It is important to remember that many questions, which must be asked after a job candidate is hired, need to be avoided before the job has been offered.

Everybody who participates in the hiring process must be familiar with the relevant qualifications, skills and experience of the job or jobs to be filled. Often times, small differences in how a question is asked differentiate a legitimate question from a discriminatory one. For example, “When did you attend college? When did you graduate?” could be construed as discriminatory on the basis of age; “How long did you attend college? Did you graduate?” are legitimate questions, if education is a relevant job qualification. By writing up questions before an interview, discriminatory practices can be avoided.

In addition, interviewers should take notes during the interview in a neutral language. All interviewers must be trained how to ask legitimate questions and what topics to avoid with job applicants. If an applicant brings up any of these topics, such as family and children, disability or religion, it is best to not dwell on such information and to not ask any follow-up questions. The best practice is to follow the general rule to only ask job related questions and avoid all others, even if they legally can be asked in Michigan, such as sexual orientation. Also, interview questions should be similar for all job applicants.

This information serves educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. For more information go to, under “News” click on “Civil Rights and the Hiring Process” or click on “Agricultural Labor Issues in Michigan” for a list of available newsletters.

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