I am new to management and recently had my first job interview from the hiring side of the desk. I interviewed a woman who looked to be in her twenties, and at one point during the interview I asked her: "Are you planning to have children?" She looked shocked and stammered a bit and then said, "I don't think that's an appropriate interview question." Then it was my turn to be shocked.
Did I totally blow it? I figured if she's planning to have kids, it would be good for us to know since we're considering hiring her. How should I have handled this?
You shouldn't blame yourself, but I will blame your employer for allowing you to interview candidates without sending you to training in advance. And I think it's great that you are seeking out information and guidance on your own. You are correct that you asked a less-than-sensational interview question. Let me next fill you in on why the question is a problem, and how to handle future interviews more effectively and without shocking anyone involved.
There are a set of categories that job-seekers and job-holders fall into that are called "protected classes." Contrary to popular belief, every adult falls into at least one protected class—even Caucasian men under the age of 40. That's because religion, race, and gender are among the designations that place someone in the protected-classes list. It is unlawful to discriminate in any employment decision, including a hiring decision, on the basis of a job-seeker's inclusion in any of these protected classes. So, for instance, you couldn't legally refuse to hire a woman because she is Latina or a man because he is Presbyterian.
Pregnancy discrimination in employment situations is outlawed in the U.S. (learn more at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) Web site). When you asked the job-seeker about her motherhood-related plans, you were in effect asking her: "Are you pregnant now, or do you plan to become pregnant?" That information isn't relevant to whether the employee should be hired. Do you think she can do the job and that she would be an asset to the company? That's what matters.
You don't want to ask job-seekers about their baby plans, and you don't want to ask them how old they are, what country they come from, or what faith tradition they follow. There are no illegal questions per se, but if you ask one of these questions and then don't hire someone, the applicant could theoretically file an EEOC charge. You can absolutely ask a candidate whether he or she is authorized to work in the U.S., but you might want to let your HR folks handle this one, just to be safe.
Bottom Line: Hire for Performance
So yes, sorry to say, Chandra, you goofed up. Live and learn. To circle back to your point, that it "would be good for us to know," remember that your company needs to make hiring decisions based on a candidate's background and ability to do the job now. Apart from the fact that millions of women (and men!) do their jobs perfectly well after having kids, it's not relevant to the hiring decision to know whether a woman might be planning to have kids 2 years or 10 years down the line.
And let's say the woman comes on board with your company, and immediately gets pregnant and has triplets, then twins a year later. The central question remains: "Is she performing her job?" If she is, it won't matter how many kids she has. If she isn't, that will be a problem worth tackling; the problem won't be the presence or absence of kids in her life, but rather, the degree to which she performs her job duties. And that's how any employee should be evaluated.