Asking Applicants about Vehicle Ownership May Be Discriminatory

Asking Applicants about Vehicle Ownership May Be Discriminatory

We’ve experienced challenges with employees being unable to come to work due to car troubles. In job interviews, is it OK to ask an applicant whether they own a working vehicle, to ensure consistent attendance?

Generally, no — asking an applicant whether they own a working vehicle may be discriminatory unless driving a personal vehicle for work falls under the essential duties of the position for which the applicant is applying.

Legal Implications

Questions about vehicle ownership often are regarded as exploring an applicant’s financial information. Although employers generally are not prohibited from asking applicants about financial information, it’s essential to understand that the law prohibits employers from using an applicant’s financial information in ways that could create a disparate impact on the applicant.

“Disparate impact” refers to a situation where an employment practice appears neutral but disproportionately affects members of a protected class (for example, race, gender, physical disability, etc.), and cannot be justified by business necessity, thereby resulting in discrimination.

For example, requiring physical tests (such as lifting a certain weight) for positions where such physical strength is not a requirement could disproportionately affect women or individuals with disabilities, constituting a disparate impact if the requirement isn’t justified by the job’s nature.

Regarding the above question, imposing vehicle ownership as a requirement for employment could create a disparate impact on applicants from racial minorities who, due to systemic barriers, may have lower socioeconomic backgrounds and less access to personal transportation.

In addition, this requirement could adversely affect applicants with physical disabilities who may be unable to drive due to their impairments.

Vehicle Ownership and Job Relevance

Guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that financial requirements for a job, such as vehicle ownership or whether an applicant has access to a working vehicle, must be directly relevant to the job’s specific duties, particularly when evaluating an applicant’s reliability and responsibility.

Accordingly, if driving is not one of the position’s essential job duties, vehicle ownership or access should not be asked about during the interview process, nor should it influence the hiring decision. This means that it is crucial for employers to carefully assess the relevance of vehicle ownership or access in relation to the job duties for the position to determine the appropriateness of posing vehicle-related questions to applicants.

Framing Interview Questions

Although an applicant’s ability to show up on time to work is undoubtedly a job-related concern, the way an applicant commutes — whether by car, public transport or other means — does not automatically determine their ability to be punctual.

Therefore, employers should ask questions meant to obtain information about the applicant’s reliability and punctuality without delving into their personal means of transportation.

For example, asking “Do you have reliable transportation to and from work?” is a legally safer way to address attendance concerns.

Other useful questions might include inquiries about the applicant’s availability for specific shifts or overtime, their past attendance record and whether they anticipate any issues with working particular schedules.

It is crucial, however, that questions about an applicant’s availability or reliability do not inadvertently probe into areas protected under California regulations, such as religious observances or disability-related accommodations.

Accordingly, scheduling inquiries must communicate clearly that the applicant doesn’t need to disclose any restrictions based on legally protected grounds (for example, religious beliefs, medical disability, etc.).

To help avoid the appearance of discrimination, employers should consistently ask the same questions of every candidate interviewed for the position.

For additional guidance on this subject, employers and HR professionals can refer to the EEOC’s guidance on pre-employment inquiries and financial information and the Civil Rights Council’s Employment Regulations Regarding Religious Creed and Age Discrimination.

Vanessa M. Greene, J.D., Employment Law Subject Matter Expert, CalChamber

CalChamber members can use the Guide for Pre-Employment Inquiries, which outlines discriminatory and acceptable interview topics. Not a member? Learn how to power your business with a CalChamber membership.

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