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Business Law Issues and Trends

Monday, November 16, 2015

Legal Tips from the Shark Tank --

Lawyers (even me) are often mocked in pop culture as “sharks,” but a quick flip through the TV guide tells you the real sharks out there are in the business world. The ABC reality show “Shark Tank” has become a cultural phenomenon, inspiring tons of people to start their own businesses and invent new products.

If you are part of the wave of Shark Tank inspired entrepreneurs, here are some legal tips for you.

Don’t go into the Shark Tank, or into business, without a plan. On the show, the entrepreneurs that do the best are the ones that are the best prepared to answer all of the sharks’ questions. In the everyday business world the same is true. It’s just that it’s not sharks asking the questions - it’s investors, employees, and the other companies you are doing business with. 

Be prepared to take risks, but preferably not legal ones. Starting a business is a gamble, but it can be downright dangerous if you don’t fully comprehend the legal risks you are taking on. Several entrepreneurs have had their dreams crushed by the sharks because their business is just too big of a legal risk to invest in. In order to be successful in business you need to know what risks you face so you can plan around them.

Be prepared to negotiate. The sharks rarely buy into a business on the first terms offered to them by the entrepreneurs. In and outside the tank, the successful business owners and inventors are the ones prepared to negotiate to get a deal that is good for both parties. This often means giving up more equity than originally planned or revaluing assets to reflect market realities.

Patents are shark bait. The old saying “you’ve got to spend money to make money” is absolutely true in the innovation world. The sharks’ eyes light up when an inventor mentions that they have a patent on the idea or product they are pitching. That’s because patents are hard assets that you can buy, sell, license or build a business around. If you have a great idea, spend the money to patent it. 

Going head to head with the sharks is something only a few businesses do. But feeling like you have been thrown to the sharks is something all business owners and inventors can identify with. If you are looking for someone to help you navigate the legal issues your business is facing - from starting up, to scaling up, to selling out - consider contacting an experienced business law attorney today.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Stitch in Time … Strategies to Prevent Business Litigation ---

A lawsuit can damage more than just the bottom line of your business.  In addition to costing money that could be put to better use, a lawsuit is also an unwelcome distraction for the owner, managers and employees.  It can also do irreparable damage to business relationships and reputation.

It may not be possible to avoid any and all legal conflict during the life of your business, but by considering the following advice, you should be able to minimize the resources you have to devote to litigation – which means more time and money available for your business operations and investments.

  1. Don’t rely on a handshake.  Reduce all business agreements to writing, even if they are with your oldest and dearest friend.  Be clear about terms and expectations.
  2. Keep a written record of all communications.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open, especially when a business relationship starts to sour.  Aggressive communication may be able to cure the damage before a lawsuit becomes necessary.
  4. Don’t put your head in the sand.  If a threat appears that could lead to litigation, respond quickly, thoughtfully and thoroughly.
  5. Check your compliance with relevant government regulations.  Import/export? Check the laws.  Using hazardous materials? Check the regulations. Don’t allow shortcuts.
  6. Create a business culture that rewards employees for reporting violations of any laws or government regulations.  Your employees on the ground can be your best resource for uncovering potential hazards that could lead to litigation.
  7. Put cure provisions and mediation provisions into your contracts with vendors.
  8. Complete a business succession plan to minimize or eliminate disputes over exit strategies.
  9. Conduct regular safety checks of the physical premises, including vehicles used for company business.
  10. Conduct criminal background checks on prospective employees that comply with the law.
  11. Provide regular health and safety training for employees.
  12. Provide ongoing training for human resources personnel.
  13. Review whether your employees are properly classified as hourly or salaried workers to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  14. Review whether any independent contractors should be reclassified as employees to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  15. Respond promptly and thoroughly to complaints from employees, customers or vendors.
  16. Use email, the internet, your company website and social networking media with caution.  Assume that any information shared via these platforms will be publicly accessible until the end of time.
  17. Seek outside advice when necessary.  Don’t let your ego be your downfall.  If you don’t understand your legal obligations and rights in a particular circumstance, consult a qualified commercial law attorney.


 


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Legal Mistakes That Cost Entrepreneurs Time, Money and Headaches…

The economy is improving and it is a good time to consider going into business for yourself. However, entrepreneurs must navigate through a maze of legal issues and decisions when launching a new business. At the outset, you may think some seem inconsequential – but, tragically, that would likely be your first of many mistakes. The choices you make today will have lasting effects on the viability and profitability of your new business venture. Below are some of the most common mistakes made by first-time entrepreneurs, and what you can do to avoid making them yourself.

 

Choosing the Wrong Business Structure

The type of business entity you select will affect your liability exposure, income tax obligations and opportunities to raise capital throughout the duration of your venture. Sole proprietorships, C-corporations, S-corporations and limited liability companies (LLC) all have their advantages and drawbacks. Sole proprietorships are simple to start up, but leave your personal assets vulnerable and offer few tax advantages. C-corporations and S-corporations shield your personal assets, and each afford different tax advantages and disadvantages. Additionally, maintaining the protection afforded by the corporate business structure requires a certain amount of record-keeping and forms which must be filed with governmental agencies. LLCs offer you liability protection, but may not be the best choice depending on various factors, including taxes, ownership structure and, in some states, professional licensure. Often, the corporate structure is the most advantageous, but this decision really should be made in consultation with a business or tax attorney.


The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” – A Handshake and Your Word

Your word may be your honor, but a written contract is the only way to be sure all parties share a mutual understanding regarding their obligations. Whether it is your best client, that independent contractor you’ve been courting, or vendors you have known for years, do not assume everything will go according to plan. Putting your agreement in writing not only ensures that everyone’s expectations are clear, it is also valuable evidence in the courtroom, should things not proceed according to plan. Bottom line – get it in writing!

 

Adding Partners Without a Written Agreement

It’s easy to sweep this one aside when you are passionately focused on the work of getting your business off the ground. And those new partners likely share your same passion. However, until a detailed written Partnership Agreement is drafted and signed, you may be unclear about each other’s expectations in the short term, or, if your business is wildly successful, tied up in protracted, long-term litigation, to establish who owns what (Facebook comes to mind). Redirect some of that passion, and benefit from the goodwill it creates, to negotiate a Partnership Agreement early on that covers responsibilities, ownership structure, provisions for transferring ownership, and what happens when there’s a disagreement about the direction of the company.

 

Sharing Ownership 50/50

Establishing equal percentages of ownership in the company sounds like a fair and reasonable arrangement. However, this type of situation makes it difficult to bring on investors, and can bring the company to a standstill if the partners cannot agree on a decision. Instead, issue shares in the company in such a manner that investors can be added later; and make sure those shares are distributed to the founders with at least a 51/49 split, giving the majority shareholder the authority to make executive decisions even if there is a stalemate.

 

Doing It By Yourself

The internet contains a wealth of information on business formation; some good but most bad or inaccurate. In order to save some precious start-up capital, many entrepreneurs rely on pre-printed forms, general information, or "one size fits all" packages they find on-line. However, starting a business without the benefit of sound legal and accounting advice is like trying to do dentistry on yourself. The gain is definitely not worth the pain! A good business attorney, a business insurance expert, and professional accountant can save money in the long run by forming the company correctly, accounting for risk, and working to minimize legal and financial exposure and tax consequences. Many experts in business formation state that a successful business is like a sturdy piece of furniture: a solid idea supported by legs made of a sound business plan, competent legal advice, focused accounting, and realistic insurance coverage.

 

 


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bankruptcy and Your Small Business -

Recently, I was contacted by a former client and small business owner to help him reorganize his business to reduce his debt. After reviewing his financial statements and talking with his accountant, I had to give my client some bad news; that in my opinion, it would be very difficult to keep this business going. Unfortunately, even when the economic climate is good, a business can go bad.

Financial hardship is difficult for any individual but for business owners, it can be particularly stressful as the line between personal and business finances may become blurred.  You may have racked up a lot of personal credit card debt and may be considering filing for personal bankruptcy, but you are concerned about how bankruptcy will affect your small business. Or, your business could be struggling and you may wonder how a business bankruptcy will impact your personal finances.

First, you need to know about the three most common types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7, Chapter 11 and Chapter 13. Under a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is a liquidation, assets are used to pay debts, and any remaining debts are “wiped out”.  A Chapter 7 filing can be utilized for both individuals and businesses. A Chapter 11 or 13, which are also available for individuals and businesses, commonly referred to as reorganization, allows debtors with a regular income to set up a new timetable for paying off creditors, while keeping their assets.

The second thing to consider is how your business is set up. If you are a sole proprietorship, and are simply operating the business in your own name, then there is no way to separate your personal assets and liabilities from those of your business. Therefore, any business assets (in excess of the exemption you are allowed) could be surrendered as a part of the bankruptcy. Also, any receivables of the business or other potentially valuable business property could be claimed by creditors in a bankruptcy.

If your business is operated under a separate entity, such as an LLC (limited liability company), an LLP (limited liability partnership), or a corporation, the shares of your business that you own are assets. If partners are involved in the business, the bankruptcy trustee who represents the interest of the creditors could become a de facto substitute partner and force a liquidation of the business.

If your business is struggling, but you are personally doing fine financially, you may consider a business bankruptcy. If you aren’t interested in keeping your business open, you may consider filing a Chapter 7, which will simply liquidate the business. A Chapter 7 is probably best if the business is not going anywhere, does not have significant assets, or if the debts are so completely overwhelming that it’s not possible to restructure them. Keep in mind that vendors and other creditors may have obtained a personal guarantee from you, in which case, you may be personally on the hook for your business’s liabilities, even if you do file bankruptcy for your company.  Personal guarantee clauses are common on many credit applications and commercial leases.

If your business is fundamentally sound, but because of excessive debt, bad contracts, or other unfortunate circumstances faces significant liquidity issues, a Chapter 11 may be appropriate.  A corporate reorganization can be complex and requires a significant time investment from the owners and managers who have to work with creditors and attorneys. It can also be expensive. Unfortunately, most reorganizations ultimately fail.

If you are considering business or personal bankruptcy, it’s important to carefully assess your individual circumstance and consult with a business or bankruptcy attorney who can advise you of all your options and help you navigate the process.   


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Where to Incorporate Your Small Business.

Should you incorporate your business in your home state? What about Delaware or Nevada, long known as havens for corporate entities? This decision should not be taken lightly because incorporating your business in a particular state will determine, to a significant extent, the laws that will apply to your business. It will also have tax implications.

Often times, the best choice for corporate jurisdiction is the home state where your business is located.  There are several reasons for this. First, filing in a different state will not absolve you of the obligation to pay corporate taxes and comply with filing requirements in the state where your corporation has its operations. For example, if the corporation is located in New Jersey, it will be subject to New Jersey fees and taxes, either as a domestic New Jersey Corporation or as a “foreign corporation” doing business in New Jersey. Additionally, if you are incorporated in a state other than where you are physically located, you will likely incur another set of filing fees and expenses for a registered agent who is physically located in the state of incorporation. For example, if you are incorporated in Delaware but are physically located in New Jersey, you will be subject to the fees and taxes of both states.

Many companies opt to incorporate in the State of Delaware, even though very few of them are actually based there. Approximately 60% of Fortune 500 companies are incorporated in Delaware. These major companies do so because Delaware’s corporate laws are generally favorable to business and management.  Delaware also has a special Court of Chancery that hears only business law cases. These courts afford companies a degree of consistency and predictability in rulings, which may or may not be found in other states.

Many entrepreneurs also consider the State of Nevada. Many companies are attracted to Nevada’s pro-business laws and favorable tax policy. Nevada also has a special business court, similar to Delaware’s Court of Chancery, although it is not as well established and lacks the breadth of case law that Delaware has.

If your company is engaged in risky or litigious business, then Delaware, Nevada or Wyoming may provide some additional liability protection.  For businesses that are essentially holding companies or otherwise lack operations as a traditional business would, forming a company in these states can also make a lot of sense since the business would not be subject to the laws of multiple states. As in all business-related matters, you should spend some quality time with your attorney and accountant before you decide where to incorporate your small business.

This will be the last blog posting for the summer as I give my keyboard a rest for a few weeks. Have a great rest of the summer and see you in September.
 


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Limited Liability Company (LLC): An Overview

The limited liability company (LLC) is a hybrid type of business structure, offering business owners the best of both worlds: the simplicity of a sole proprietorship or partnership, with the liability protection of a corporation. A limited liability company consists of one or more owners (called “members”) who actively manage the company’s business affairs. LLCs are relatively simple to establish and operate, with minimal annual filing requirements in most jurisdictions.


The best form of business structure depends on many factors, and must be determined according to your particular business and overall goals:

Advantages

  • LLC members enjoy a limited liability, similar to that of a shareholder in a corporation. In general, your risk is limited to the amount of your investment in the limited liability company. Since none of the members will have personal liability and may not necessarily be required to personally perform any tasks of management, it is easier to attract investors to the limited liability company form of business than to a general partnership.

  • LLC members share in the profits and in the tax deductions of the limited liability company while limiting the potential financial risks.

  • LLCs offer a relatively flexible management structure. The business may be managed either by members or by managers. Thus, depending on needs or desires, the limited liability company can be a hands-on, owner-managed company, or a relatively hands-off operation for its members where hired managers actually operate the company.

  • Because the IRS treats the limited liability company as a pass-through entity, the profits and losses of the company pass directly to each member and are taxed only at the individual level (which may or may not be an advantage to you, depending on the profitability of the LLC and your personal income tax bracket).

  • Members of an LLC have flexibility in dividing the profits and losses. In a corporation or partnership, profits must be divided according to percentage of ownership. However, with an LLC, special allocations are permitted, so long as they have a “substantial economic effect” (e.g. they must be based upon legitimate economic circumstances, and may not be used to simply reduce one member’s tax liability).


Disadvantages

  • Limited liability companies are, generally, a more complex form of business operation than either the sole proprietorship or the general partnership. They are subject to more paperwork requirements than a simple partnership but less than a corporation. Annual filings typically include statement and nominal filing fee payable to the Secretary of State, informational returns to the IRS, and filing of a state tax return.

  • In certain jurisdictions, single member LLCs may not be afforded the same level of limited liability protection as that of an incorporated entity.

Also note that in many states, an LLC is prohibited from rendering “professional services” which can include companies providing services that require a license, registration or certification.   Such professionals typically have to establish a Professional LLC which does not offer limited liability for professional malpractice.
 


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Purchasing a Business: Should You Consider Buying Assets as Opposed to Shares?

Of the two common methods used when buying a business, the purchase of shares and the purchase of assets – the asset-purchase option is perhaps the least understood but in many cases the most advantageous. They offer the following benefits:  

 

  • In some states, the sale of all or most of a business’s assets requires the majority vote of the business’s shareholders, but the transaction is not subject to the appraisal rights of shareholders who did not vote in favor of the sale.
  • When buying a business’s assets, a buyer can elect to purchase only selected assets. In doing so, he or she avoids exposure to liabilities and minimizes risk.
  • When a buyer purchases a business’s assets he or she can allocate the purchase price among the assets to reflect the fair market value of each asset. This legal right offers two opportunities: 1) a step-up of the tax basis, 2) higher depreciation and amortization deductions, both of which lead to future tax savings.
  • The avoidance of double taxation in the event the target business is an S-corporation, LLC or partnership.

The above advantages are significant but must be balanced against potential disadvantages. These include:

  • Asset sales can be complex in that they typically require the consent of third parties regarding, for example, office space leasing, contract assignments and permit transfers. Since third parties may use the transaction to renegotiate contracts, delays and cost increases are often experienced.
  • When buying a business or a percentage of a business, it’s often not necessary to delineate exactly what you are buying. This isn’t usually the case when purchasing a portion of assets. Instead, the buyer will likely need to define the specific assets he or she wishes to acquire. If the buyer is acquiring a subsidiary or a division, he or she typically acquires the assets that are used exclusively or primarily by that business unit. However, “shared assets” can cause legal confusion, and it’s usually necessary to negotiate their cost and transfer and/or licensure.
  • If the target business is a C-corporation, it is subject to double taxation in the event of an asset sale.
  • If there are any disclosed or undisclosed liabilities that the buyer is not including in the purchase, there is a risk that the transaction will violate fraudulent conveyance laws on the part of the target business, which may ultimately impact the purchaser who might be compelled to reverse the transaction.

Perhaps it’s because of these serious disadvantages that less than a fifth of all acquisitions are structured as asset purchases. Nonetheless, it makes sense to consider all options when deciding how best to structure any acquisition.       


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Negotiating a Commercial Lease? Be Sure to Address These Issues

The economy is improving and businesses are reviewing their space needs and location. When it comes time for your business to move into a new commercial space, make sure you consider the terms of your lease agreement from both business and legal perspectives.  While there are some common terms and clauses in many commercial leases, many landlords and property managers incorporate complicated and sometimes unusual terms and conditions.   As you review your commercial lease, pay special attention to the following issues which can greatly affect your legal rights and obligations.

The Lease Commencement Date
Commercial leases typically will provide a rent commencement date, which may be the same as the lease commencement date. Or not. If the landlord is performing improvements to ready the space for your arrival, a specific date for the commencement of rent payments could become a problem if that date arrives and you do not yet have possession of the premises because the landlord’s contractors are still working in your space. Nobody wants to be on the hook for rent payments for a space that cannot yet be occupied. A better approach is to avoid including in the lease a specific date for commencement, and instead state that the commencement date will be the date the landlord actually delivers possession of the premises to you. Alternatively, you can negotiate a provision that triggers penalties for the landlord or additional benefits for you, should the property not be available to you on the rent commencement date.

Lease Renewals
Your initial lease term will likely be a period of three to five years, or perhaps longer. Locking in long terms benefits the landlord, but can be off-putting for a tenant. Instead, you may be able to negotiate a shorter initial term, with the option to extend at a later date.  This will afford you the right, but not the obligation to continue with the lease for an additional period of years.   Be sure that any notice required to terminate the lease or exercise your option to extend at the end of the initial lease term is clear and not subject to an unfavorable interpretation.

Subletting and Assignment
If you are locked into a long-term lease, you will likely want to preserve some flexibility in the event you outgrow the space or need to vacate the premises for other reasons. An assignment transfers all rights and responsibilities to the new tenant, whereas a sublease leaves you, the original tenant, ultimately responsible for the payments due under the original lease agreement. Tenants generally want to negotiate the right to assign the lease to another business, while landlords typically prefer a provision allowing for a sublease agreement.

Subordination and Non-disturbance Rights
What if the landlord fails to comply with the terms of the lease? If a lender forecloses on your landlord, your commercial lease agreement could be at risk because the landlord’s mortgage agreement can supersede your lease. If the property you are negotiating to rent is subject to claims that will be superior to your lease agreement, consider negotiating a “nondisturbance agreement” stating that if a superior rights holder forecloses the property, your lease agreement will be recognized and honored as long as you fulfill your obligations according to the lease.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Financing and Growing Your Small Business Through Crowdfunding

What is crowdfunding? Part social networking and part capital accumulation, crowdfunding is simply the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their financial resources together to support efforts initiated by others.

Inspired by crowdsourcing, this innovative approach to raising capital has long been used to solicit donations or support political causes. This method has also been successfully implemented to raise capital for many different types of projects, including art, fashion, music and film.

Entrepreneurs can also tap the internet as a way to raise financing from a broad base of investors without turning to venture capitalists. With crowdfunding, you can raise small amounts of capital from many different sources, while retaining control over your business venture. Crowdfunding for business ventures, however, is not without its risks, and likely requires advice of an attorney.

In the traditional crowdfunding model, donations are pledged over the internet to fund a particular project or cause. The contributors are supporting the project, but receive no ownership interest in return for their monetary donation. This type of arrangement can exist with non-profit ventures and political campaigns, as well as start-up businesses. The person or entity soliciting the funding utilizes existing social networks to leverage the crowd and raise contributions in exchange for a reward, which is typically directly related to the project being funded, such as a credit at the end of a movie. With this type of arrangement, the contributor does not receive any ownership interest in the venture in exchange for the donation.

However, when for-profit companies solicit funds from a large number of individuals to raise capital in exchange for shares of ownership in the company, care must be taken to ensure the arrangement does not run afoul of federal and state securities laws.

Various companies and websites have popped up to assist entrepreneurs in raising capital through crowdfunding. Some operate on a flat fee, others charge a percentage of funds raised.  Keep in mind that any securities in a company sold to the public at large must be registered with regulatory authorities, unless they qualify for a specific exemption from the registration requirement. Selling shares of ownership to low-net-worth individuals (“unaccredited investors”) can trigger numerous registration and disclosure obligations. Additionally, state laws may also affect the transaction. As the number of investors and states involved increases, so do the cost and complexity of obtaining this type of capital financing. The various rules can be difficult to navigate, and missteps can result in significant penalties.
 


Monday, February 9, 2015

To Incorporate or Not...That Is The Question

Should I Incorporate My Business?

The primary advantages of operating as a corporation are liability protection and potential tax savings. Like any important decision, choosing whether to incorporate involves weighing the pros and cons of the various business structures and should only be done after careful research.

Once incorporated, the business becomes a separate legal entity, and assets of the corporation are separated from the owner’s personal finances. As a result, the owner’s personal assets generally can be shielded from creditors of the business.

To maintain this legal separation and avoid “piercing the corporate veil,” the corporation must observe certain formalities, including:

  • Keeping corporate assets and personal assets separate (no commingling of funds)
  • Holding shareholder and director meetings at least annually
  • Maintaining a corporate record book including bylaws, minutes of shareholder and director meetings, and shareholder records
  • Filing annual information statements with the Secretary of State
  • Filing a separate tax return for the corporation

Many business owners are concerned about “double taxation” of income that affects certain types of corporations known as “C-Corporations”.   Double taxation results when the C-corporation has profit at the end of the year that is distributed to the shareholders. That profit is taxed to the corporation, at the corporate tax rate, and then the dividends are taxable income to the shareholders on their personal tax returns. However, the corporate tax and dividend rates can be lower than the individual tax rate that a sole-proprietor would pay on a 1040 Schedule C, and a knowledgeable accountant or tax attorney may be able to advise on how to minimize the burden of double-taxation and indeed pay an effective tax rate which is lower than what a sole proprietor would pay.

For example, a small C-Corporation will likely have a shareholder who is also an employee. Paychecks to the shareholder/employee are, of course, tax deductible to the business. To the shareholder/employee, they are taxable income (as would be the case with a paycheck from any employer). A bonus could be paid to the shareholder/employee in order to lower the corporation’s taxable profit, eliminating the double-taxation. These calculations should be performed by a tax advisor, but shifting income from the corporation to the shareholder/employee (or not, depending on which has the lower tax rate) can be an effective way to lower your overall tax liability. In addition, there are certain advantages that are only available with a C-Corporation, such as full tax-deductibility of medical benefits for a shareholder/employee.

The S-Corporation avoids the double-taxation by offering a tax structure similar to the Limited Liability Company. A corporation with 100 or fewer shareholders can elect to be treated as an S-Corporation. If the corporation is profitable, the shareholder/employee must draw a reasonable salary (and pay employment tax on it), but then all remaining corporate profits flow through to the shareholder’s personal tax return (thereby avoiding the FICA tax on the portion of profits that is taken as a dividend).

An experienced attorney can help you decide which form of ownership is best for your business, help you establish the entity, and ensure the required formalities are observed.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Questions You Shouldn't Ask or Answer During an Interview

Job-seekers have to be ready to respond to any interview question asked of them, but not every question has to be answered. 

To ensure that employers do not discriminate against candidates based on age, gender, race, health and family arrangements, there are certain regulations which restrict the type of questions which are permissible during an interview. Below, we explore several topics that may be problematic and should not be asked of potential employees: 

Questionable Questions

Let’s take a look at a few topics that may be problematic. 

  • Age: Does anyone like to be asked their age unless just turning 21? Probably not. While an interviewer may ask whether a candidate is over the age of 18 or 21, he or she may not ask for a specific age.  
  • Nationality: An interviewer can ask whether a candidate is legally allowed to work in the U.S., but he or she can’t ask about the applicant’s nationality or status as a citizen. 
  • Religious beliefs: Same goes for questions that ask about religious beliefs. The interviewer may be in the right if he or she needs to know if the interviewee can work on certain holidays, but otherwise, this topic should be off limits.
  • Health: While in many states an interviewer cannot ask if a candidate smokes, he or she may inquire as to whether the applicant has ever violated any corporate policies on alcohol or tobacco. Furthermore, an employer may ask whether the person being interviewed uses illegal drugs, is able to lift a given weight, or can reach items at a specific height. They also can ask if the individual is capable of completing certain tasks associated with the job and if any reasonable accommodations might be needed.
  • Family status: Employers want to know about an applicant’s availability which may sound like a legitimate concern.   They cross the red line, however, when they try to determine if a candidate has children or plans to have children in the future. An interviewer also cannot ask about an applicant’s maiden name or marital status.
  • Criminal record: A prospective employer is allowed to ask the applicant whether or not he or she has ever been convicted of a crime that relates to the job, but may be restricted from asking whether the candidate has ever been arrested.
  • Military service: An interviewer cannot discriminate against a member of the National Guard or Reserves. He or she can, however, ask if a candidate will anticipate any extended time away from work. 

Acing the Interview Process

The interview process can be a stressful time for employers and employees alike, but it will be a smoother process if you have a basic understanding of what can and can’t be asked during these initial meetings. 

As a candidate being interviewed, remember that if you’re asked a question which you’re not comfortable answering, or you think may be illegal, be sure to keep a positive attitude and try not to focus on the negative and instead deliver an answer which showcases your ability to fulfill the requirements of the job. For example, you may be asked if you can have a babysitter in a moment’s notice if an unexpected work emergency pops up. In answering this question, you may be concerned that you will be divulging too much information about your family life and, like many mothers, you may fear that they may not hire you because of the responsibilities that come along with motherhood. Rather than answering the specific question about a babysitter, you may instead wish to say “I am very flexible and am able to travel or work late when the need arises.” This answer addresses the interviewer’s question while preserving your privacy and also keeps the conversation going in a positive direction-one which showcases why you are the best candidate for the job. 

As an employer looking to hire a new employee, it’s important that everyone in your organization from the receptionist to the hiring manager who might come in contact with the candidates have a basic understanding of what topics and questions are off limits. You might even consider having a list of approved questions and a list of questions which are prohibited, regardless of the position being filled. These procedures should be a matter of strict company policy and should be reviewed each year to ensure compliance with all discrimination laws. 


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