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Illegal Interview Questions an Employer Cannot Ask [So Don't Answer!]

Tom Gerencer
Career Writer
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They can’t ask that.

 

Can they?

 

Find out in this guide to illegal interview questions. It shows the illegal job interview questions.

 

Those are the questions barred by the US EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

 

Not sure what questions not to ask in an interview? Don’t know the illegal employment questions from the legal questions?

 

The last thing you want in an interview is to feel uncomfortable. If you know the inappropriate interview questions, you’ll answer legal ones with confidence.

 

This guide will show you:

 

  • Legal vs illegal interview questions forbidden by the EEOC.
  • Off-limits topics that spawn inappropriate interview questions.
  • Hidden illegal questions an employer cannot ask that may seem harmless.
  • What to do if an employer doesn’t know what not to ask in an interview.

 

 

1

Illegal Interview Questions and Topics

 

Ready for the short list of illegal interview questions?

 

We’ve got all the no-no topics here, including race, age, disability, and religion.

 

Want more detail? The next section shows specific questions not to ask in an interview.

 

Illegal Interview Questions

 

In an interview, an employer usually can’t ask about:

 

  • Age
  • Birthplace or country of origin
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Marital status, family, or pregnancy
  • Race, color, or ethnicity
  • Religion

 

There are exceptions. Sometimes the US government requires employers to ask about race, age, and other details. That can be for census data or affirmative action programs.

 

Grey Areas for Illegal Job Interview Questions

 

Height, weight, citizenship, and similar concerns may count as inappropriate interview questions. It depends why the employer asks and how they use the info.

 

  • Height/Weight
  • Financial Information
  • Unemployed Status
  • Background Checks
  • Citizenship
  • Medical Questions & Examinations

 

That covers all the topics for illegal questions to ask in an interview. For specific questions you can’t ask in an interview, scroll down.

 

Pro Tip: Which of the following is inappropriate to ask on an employment application: (1) How old are you? (2) Do you have a disability? (3) What’s your race? Those are illegal employment questions under most conditions. But for affirmative action use, all of them are allowed.

 

Want more interview tips to get hired faster? See our guide: 50+ Successful Interview Tips, Advice & Guidelines

 

2

58 Illegal Job Interview Questions in 2018

 

It’s a fine line.

 

There are dozens of questions you can’t ask in an interview, and hundreds more you can.

 

Which is which? As a job seeker, how do you know when to talk, and when to zip it?

 

The US EEOC lays ground rules for illegal questions an employer cannot ask.

 

Generally it comes down to intent. If the question could be a discrimination tool, it’s out.

 

Here are 58 illegal questions to ask in an interview.

 

Age

 

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects job seekers over 40. Age questions not to ask in an interview include:

 

Illegal Interview Questions:

 

  • When were you born?
  • How old are you?
  • What’s your birth date?
  • What year did you graduate high school?

 

Why does high school graduation date make the list of questions you can’t ask in an interview? It can show your age.

 

Can Ask:

 

However, How old are you? And What’s your birth date? are fine if it’s a legal requirement for the job. For example, if you may be under 18 or if you’ll work in a bar.

 

Country of Origin / Citizenship

 

For most employers, citizenship makes the list of illegal questions to ask in an interview. As long as the applicant’s paperwork is legal, hiring managers aren’t entitled to this info.

 

Illegal

 

  • Are you a U.S. citizen?
  • Where were you born?
  • What’s your background?
  • Can you send your birth certificate?
  • How did you learn Spanish?
  • Are your parents from the US?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Are you legally allowed to work in the US?
  • Can you read, write, and speak in English?
  • Do you have any other names?
  • If we hire you, can you show proof of citizenship?

 

Pro Tip: Employers can ask about other languages if it’s a job requirement. (For example, translators or people who work with Spanish-speaking clients.)

 

Disability

 

Most inquiries about disabilities and medical conditions count as illegal interview questions. Employers are only allowed to ask, “Can you do the job?”

 

Illegal

 

  • Are you disabled?
  • Have you ever had a workplace injury?
  • Have you ever filed a claim for worker’s comp?
  • Do you have a medical condition that would prevent you from doing this job?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Can you perform all the duties in the job description?

 

Gender / Gender Identity / Orientation

 

If the applicant’s gender is a bona fide occupational qualification, it can be asked about. Otherwise, these are questions you cannot ask in an interview as an employer:

 

Illegal

 

  • What’s your gender?
  • What’s your sex?
  • M/F?
  • What’s your sexual orientation?
  • How do you identify?
  • Have you had transition surgery or treatments?

 

However, employers can ask What’s your gender?—If it’s a proven job requirement.

 

Marital or Family Status / Pregnancy

 

Questions about pregnancy, plans for family, children, and child care are illegal job interview questions. Can an employer ask about your family? Nope.

 

Illegal

 

  • Are you married?
  • Do you have children?
  • Are you single?
  • What’s your marital status?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Can you perform the duties in the job description?
  • Nothing else! Not even if an applicant is obviously pregnant.

 

Pro Tip: In some cases, even illegal interview questions can be legal. That’s if the question asks about a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ).

 

Race / Color / Ethnicity

 

An employer may need to ask about race for affirmative action programs. Otherwise, here are some examples of what not to ask in an interview:

 

Illegal

 

  • What’s your race?
  • What’s your color?
  • What’s your ethnic background?
  • What nationality are you?

 

However, What’s your race/ethnicity? Is okay for affirmative action programs, but never on the phone. If you’re an employer, get legal advice before you ask.

 

Religion

 

Religious organizations can discriminate based on religion. For all others, inquiries about religion are questions you can’t ask in an interview.

 

Illegal

 

  • Are you religious?
  • What religion are you?
  • What’s your denomination?
  • Who’s your pastor?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Nothing!

 

Height / Weight

 

Height and weight can tie into race. That’s why these are illegal interview questions.

 

Illegal

 

  • How much do you weigh?
  • How tall are you?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Can you do all job duties listed in the job description?

 

Pro Tip: In very rare cases, a certain height/weight may be a necessary job requirement. Otherwise, height/weight is off limits.

 

Financial Information

 

Some questions about financial status have been used to discriminate against minorities. However, if they don’t get at race, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, or genetic information, these aren’t inappropriate interview questions.

 

Illegal Interview Questions (if Used to Discriminate)

 

  • Do you own a car?
  • Do you own or rent your home?
  • Are you in debt?

 

Can Ask

 

  • If owning a car is part of the job, employers can ask: Do you own a car?

 

Unemployed Status

 

Employers can ask about unemployed status if they don’t use it against certain races, ages, or other groups.

 

Illegal

 

  • When did you enter the workforce? (This can hide age discrimination.)

 

Can Ask

 

  • What’s your current salary? (In some states)
  • How long have you been unemployed? (Okay if they reject all candidates based on unemployed status.)

 

Pro Tip: Can you ask a person why they left their last job? Yes.

 

Background Checks / Credit Checks

 

If background checks aren’t used against a protected group, they’re not inappropriate interview questions.

 

Illegal

 

  • Do you own or rent your home?
  • Do you have a bank account?
  • Have you declared bankruptcy?
  • Have your wages been garnished?
  • (Using background checks to discriminate by age, race, religion, medical condition, etc.)

 

Can Ask

 

 

Medical Questions & Examinations

 

Employers shouldn’t judge if someone with a medical condition can do a job. Medical queries are important questions not to ask in an interview.

 

Illegal

 

  • Do you have a disability?
  • How did you lose your leg/arm?

 

Can Ask/Say

 

  • How will you do the job functions?
  • The job is conditional on passing a medical exam. (If all other applicants take the same exam).

 

Address

 

Employers can ask about your address, but they have to be careful. If they uncover your finances or family situation, these are illegal interview questions:

 

Illegal

 

  • Do you rent or own your home?
  • Who do you live with?
  • What relation to you are the people you live with?

 

Can Ask

 

  • What’s your address?
  • How long have you lived at that address?
  • What’s your previous address?
  • How long did you live at your previous address?

 

Arrest Record

 

Asking about arrest records can constitute illegal interview questions in some states.

 

Illegal (In Some States)

 

  • Have you been arrested?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Have you been arrested? (In some states, or if applying to a law enforcement agency)
  • Have you been arrested? (If the arrest is directly related to the job title. For example if you were arrested for embezzling at your last CPA job and you’re applying to a CPA position.)

 

Convictions

 

Queries about convictions are usually illegal questions an employer cannot ask. Exceptions are if the conviction is related to the job, or if the job is sensitive.

 

Illegal

 

  • (Any questions about convictions not directly related to the job)

 

Can Ask

 

  • (Questions about convictions for sensitive or related job openings.)

 

Pro Tip: Custodial jobs can be “sensitive” because they allow access to a facility.

 

Availability

 

Availability questions aren’t illegal interview questions according to the EEOC. That said, they can be illegal questions if they could be used to discriminate.

 

Illegal

 

  • Can you work weekends? (Could be seen as asking about religion)
  • Can you work nights? (Illegal if the employer only asks women)

 

Can Ask

 

  • What days can you work?
  • Can you travel for work?
  • Do you have reliable transportation to work?

 

Education

 

The EEOC doesn’t mention education in their list of questions not to ask in a job interview. Still, some education questions can uncover an applicant’s age.

 

Illegal

 

  • When did you graduate? (Age discrimination)

 

Can Ask

 

  • Do you have a high school degree or GED?
  • What school did you go to?
  • What degree do you hold?

 

Emergency Contact

 

Emergency contact information isn’t on the list of illegal interview questions. Even so, employers shouldn’t ask it until after they hire.

 

Illegal

 

  • (Can’t ask until after the applicant is hired. May reveal sexual orientation or national origin.)

 

Can Ask

 

  • (Okay to ask after applicant is hired)

 

Military Service

 

Military service isn’t on the list of inappropriate interview questions. However, in most cases employers shouldn’t ask about the type of discharge.

 

Illegal

 

  • Why were you discharged from the military?
  • Were you in a foreign military service?

 

Can Ask

 

  • What training/experience did you receive that relates to this job?
  • Why were you discharged (if the job requires a security clearance.)

 

Organizations

 

Employers can’t ask about non-professional organizations. If they do, it can be seen as asking about race, gender, age, etc. Here are some interview questions not to ask:

 

Illegal

 

  • What fraternity were you in?
  • Are you in the local country club?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Are you in any professional associations/organizations?

 

Personal Info

 

There’s often nothing wrong with asking about other names. Some personal info can show family status, race, or other sensitive details. In those cases, these are illegal interview questions:

 

Illegal

 

  • What’s your maiden name?
  • Have you changed your name?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Have you worked for us before under a different name?

 

Relatives

 

Asking about family status isn’t legal except when it bears directly on the job. Inquiries about conflicts of interest aren’t illegal questions to ask in an interview.

 

Illegal

 

  • Can you give the names of any relatives who work for our competition?

 

Can Ask

 

  • Do you have relatives working for our competition?
  • Do you have relatives work for us? What are their names?

 

Pro Tip: Asking about family status can be a veil for age or race discrimination. Unless employers can prove a legitimate reason to ask, they shouldn’t.

 

Need to get ready for the toughest legal interview questions? See our guide: 20 Situational Interview Questions and Answers to Nail Your Interview

 

3

What if They Ask Illegal Interview Questions?

 

Ick.

 

The employer asked illegal interview questions. Now you want a shower or at least to wash your hands.

 

What do you do if the hiring manager asks illegal job interview questions?

 

In most cases, change the subject, then look for a different employer.

 

If you feel strongly about it you can report them. Before you reach for the phone, consider:

 

  • Most illegal interview questions are asked innocently.
  • Many employers are ignorant about inappropriate interview questions.

 

What Is the Most Effective Way to Handle an Illegal or Inappropriate Question During an Interview?

 

When an employer asks inappropriate interview questions, take the following steps:

 

  1. Decide whether you want to answer. You don’t have to answer illegal employment questions.
  2. Know that the employer can’t retaliate if you lie to answer illegal job application questions. (That violates your civil rights.)
  3. Get a written copy of the question. If you can’t, write it down and save it.
  4. If you decide to report the employer, contact the EEOC office near you.
  5. If you still want the job despite the red flags, dodge the question or answer it. Either way, move on.
  6. If they hire you, keep a copy of any discriminatory interview questions. If you’re fired later, you may have a legal claim.

 

Pro Tip: Still not sure how to respond to illegal interview questions? You can always answer, then decide later if the hiring manager crossed a line.

 

Need a job? Terrible at networking? Use informational interviews to strap on rocket boosters to your job search. See our guide: 15 Best Informational Interview Questions to Ask

 

4

Legal Interview Questions

 

The truth?

 

Can you handle it?

 

Employers can ask almost anything not in the list of illegal interview questions above.

 

Here’s a list of common legal interview questions you may face:

 

Legal Interview Questions List

 

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Why should we hire you?
  3. Describe what you do in your current position.
  4. Why did you leave your last job?
  5. What is your greatest strength?
  6. What is your greatest weakness?
  7. Why do you want this job?
  8. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  9. What is your management style?
  10. Do you have any questions for me?
  11. What are your salary requirements?

 

Pro Tip: If you get the interview, you’ll get most of the non-illegal interview questions above. Be ready. Come up with an answer for each, then rehearse.

 

Want to be ready to answer the most common legal interview questions and land your dream job? Let our guide shine up your interview skills: Common Job Interview Questions and Best Answers

 

5

How to Ace an Interview

 

Here’s a secret.

 

Focusing on illegal interview questions won’t get you hired.

 

Now that you know your rights, dive in and ace the interview.

 

Here are a few tips to make employers follow you like a World Cup ball.

 

  1. Research the company and use their products or services. Check them out in Glassdoor.
  2. Prep for their legal interview questions. Check the section above for the ones you’ll face.
  3. Bring your own interview questions to ask them. They’ll ask, “Do you have any questions for us?” Asking the right ones can get you hired.
  4. Check your online presence. One offensive joke on Twitter from ten years ago can wreck you. It happened to James Gunn.
  5. Use the STAR method for behavioral interview questions. Answer with a Situation, Task, Action, and Result.

 

Pro Tip: Before you sit for the interview, take the time to make a brag list of your best achievements.

 

They make the perfect answers to most legal interview questions.

 

Now that you know how to handle illegal interview questions, do you need some legal ones to ask them? See our guide: 65+ Best Questions to Ask an Interviewer & Land Top Jobs [Proven Tips]

 

Key Takeaway

 

Here’s a recap of our illegal interview questions guide:

 

  • You don’t have to answer illegal interview questions forbidden by the EEOC.
  • Use the general list of inappropriate interview questions topics above to know the questions you can’t ask in an interview
  • What not to ask in an interview comes down to intent. Generally, if it can be used to discriminate, it’s off limits.
  • If an employer asks illegal employment questions, you don’t have to answer. If you feel they discriminated, you can contact the EEOC.

 

Did we miss any questions not to ask during an interview?  Perhaps a hiring manager demanded an answer to an inappropriate interview question? Give us a shout in the comments! We’d be happy to reply.

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Author
Tom Gerencer
Tom Gerencer is a full-time writer in the fields of personal finance and careers. He's been sharing expert advice on all stages of the recruitment process at the Zety career website for more than two years.