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Updated Oct 23, 2023

Illegal Job Interview Questions to Avoid

Learn which questions are off-limits to employers.

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Marci Martin, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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Employment interviews are stressful for everyone; you want to select the most talented candidate, and the person you’re interviewing hopes to make a good impression. In your enthusiasm to find the right new team member, however, you may not evaluate your interview questions properly, especially if you’ve quickly developed an easy rapport with the interviewee.

We’ll outline interview questions that are illegal, unwise, rude or otherwise unacceptable. 

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Illegal job interview questions to never ask candidates

The EEOA prohibits employers from asking questions that might lead to discrimination or the appearance of discrimination, even if you think they’re common hiring manager interview questions. To ensure you’re EEO compliant, it’s crucial to understand what you can and can’t ask. Consider the following question categories that can prove problematic. 

TipTip
Looking to outsource your hiring process? Working with a staffing agency can streamline hiring and ensure candidates are properly vetted.

Geography

You may not think that asking someone where they’re from is problematic. You may have noticed a unique accent or observed that a candidate worked in other countries and asked something like the following: 

  • What is your national origin?
  • Where are you from? 

Unfortunately, this isn’t harmless small talk fueled by curiosity. In fact, it’s illegal and may open you to discrimination charges. 

“Hold back the urge to ask where they are from,” advised Shobi Zietlow, president of Referral Staffing Solutions. “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of national origin. If you ask, you could be accused of discriminating against them.”

FYIDid you know
You can ask if a candidate is eligible to work in the United States and if they can provide documentation of that. Companies now require all employees to fill out an I-9 form as part of the onboarding checklist to confirm that new hires are legally eligible for work in the U.S.

Marriage

These may seem like innocuous questions:

  • What is your maiden name?
  • Are you married?

In fact, these questions are not permissible, even when asked innocently, because employers are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender or marital status.

Instead, you can ask this:

  • Have you ever worked under another name? 

This question can provide important information, such as whether the candidate has published works or received accolades under another name. 

TipTip
You should ask the same questions of all candidates being considered for a position. Uniform questions can help you avoid subconscious hiring biases and ensure an even playing field.

Age

Other seemingly innocent questions include the following: 

  • How old are you?
  • What year did you graduate from high school?
  • When did you first start working?

Unfortunately, these questions may be construed as age bias. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects people 40 and older from age-based discrimination.

You may have a minimum age requirement for a position and must ensure a candidate is eligible. For example, if anyone you hire must be over 18, you can ask this: 

  • Are you over the age of 18?

For example, if you’re hiring a bartender or server who will serve alcohol, 37 states and Washington, D.C., require them to be at least 18 years old. Three other states require an employee to be over 21 to serve alcohol, and one state has an age requirement of 17.

Family planning

Family planning questions are also problematic. Avoid questions like these: 

  • Do you have children?
  • Do you plan to have a family?

These questions have historically been used to maintain a gender imbalance in the workforce; some employers won’t hire women because they assume they’ll take parental leave at some point or need time off to care for a sick child. Either way, this discriminatory practice and these questions are illegal. 

“You cannot ask a candidate if they are planning a family, if they are pregnant or about their child care arrangements,” cautioned Jackie Burkhardt, a human resources manager at Spartek Inc. “This is an illegal interview question because it reveals personal information that is not allowed to be used by employers to make hiring decisions.”

Burkhardt noted that questions relevant to the job description and requirements are acceptable.

TipTip
It's illegal for businesses to refuse to hire employees based on pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions.

Health

Health and medical information is confidential. For example, you can’t ask the following questions: 

“It’s illegal for employers to ask an applicant if they are in good health or if they have had any past illnesses or operations,” Burkhardt said. “You are not allowed to ask about their height, weight or any details regarding any physical or mental limitations.”

However, some positions may have lifting or other physical ability requirements, and the employer must ascertain that the candidate can perform the job’s required functions. In these cases, you should describe the job’s physical requirements even if they were listed in the ad or job descriptions. 

You can legally ask the following reasonable question: 

  • Are you able to execute the necessary job requirements of this position and perform them well and safely?

Additionally, you can’t ask if a candidate drinks socially or has ever used illegal drugs. If a person is recovering from alcoholism or substance abuse, their treatment is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If they avoid alcohol for religious reasons, you could face a charge of religious discrimination.

Salary history

According to the Pew Research Center, women are paid 92 cents for every dollar men make. Black and Hispanic women earn even less than that. Federal law already prohibits gender-based pay discrimination, but it’s difficult to prove. For this reason, some states have taken measures to stop this discrimination at the job interview level.

Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Washington all have salary history bans. 

Even if your state does not ban salary history considerations, it’s safer to avoid questions like this: 

  • What is your current salary?

Instead, determine the salary for any given position beforehand. During the interview, make that salary range known and confirm that the candidate is still interested in the position given its compensation parameters. This practice ensures cycles of underpayment don’t continue. 

TipTip
When determining a new employee's salary, research the role's salary range in your industry by reviewing job listings and career boards.

Other potentially problematic questions

You should also avoid the following questions when interviewing job candidates, to prevent legal complications and maintain a respectful tone:

  • Have you ever been arrested? This information is relevant only if a candidate has been convicted of a crime and the arrest and conviction would affect their role. Questions like these may be precursors to discrimination. Additionally, being arrested doesn’t necessarily mean the person is guilty of anything.
  • Can you work weekends or nights? This question is problematic because it may be seen as related to a candidate’s religious observance. It can also be a backdoor way to ask about their family status.
  • Do you have a bank account? This question is fair to ask only if you’re sure it’s permitted under the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 and the Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act of 1996.
  • Do you own your own home? You are not permitted to ask if a candidate owns or rents their home, who they live with, or how they know the people they live with.
  • Is English your first language? Employers cannot ask if English is a candidate’s first language. You can ask what other languages a candidate can read, speak or write fluently if these skills are relevant to the position. 

General job interview tips

Hiring for cultural fit is ideal. You want your new team member to possess the right skills and knowledge and have a personality that meshes with those of other employees. At the same time, you want to avoid a potential minefield of inappropriate and illegal questions during the interview process. 

Consider the following guidelines to protect your company and applicants when you’re conducting job interviews:

  • Focus on the position. Focus on interview questions that are relevant to the job’s requirements, and determine if the candidate meets the position’s specific criteria. Don’t ask anything too personal.
  • Be consistent with the interview process. Create a set list of questions before the first interview, and stick to the script. Ask all candidates for the role the same questions.
  • Know the law. Research labor and employment laws, and gain a thorough understanding of what is legal and illegal to ask in an interview.
  • Respect applicants’ privacy. Respect your candidates’ privacy, especially if they communicate that they’re uncomfortable disclosing the information requested. Never force an interviewee to respond to a question that makes them uncomfortable.
  • Don’t be tone-deaf. Never ask questions that can be construed as discriminatory or disrespectful toward someone’s culture, religion, gender or background.

Prepping interview questions

When you’re preparing to interview candidates, do your due diligence to avoid illegal questions and protect your organization and applicants. When in doubt, keep your questions directly related to the job and its associated tasks and responsibilities. Eschew personal questions, and keep the conversation respectful and comfortable for both parties.

Sammi Caramela contributed to this article.

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Marci Martin, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Over the years, Marci Martin has mastered the art of proposals and business plans and risen to become president and CEO of a small company. She is a business management pro and skilled project manager who has spent more than 10 years overseeing business operations for a range of companies. She's had hands-on experience in such notable business areas as finance, human resources, logistics and safety. Martin, who has a degree in business management, is also passionate about leadership and public speaking. She enjoys conceiving business messaging and presentations, which she infuses with her real-life experiences and perspective.
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