Illegal interview questions are enough to throw off even the most well-prepared candidate. Whether or not the interviewer intended to ask an illegal question, you should never feel forced to respond during a job interview. Interviews allow you to prove your ability to think on your feet, but they should never give employers a reason to discriminate against you.
The interview process is one of the most nerve-racking parts of the job search. Being informed and ready to answer these types of questions is crucial. The six main types of illegal interview questions are about the following:
- Family life
- Living situation
In the majority of cases, asking questions about these categories violates state and/or federal law, unless the question has a strict basis in occupational qualifications. How you handle illegal interview questions depends on the perceived motivation. Inexperienced or untrained interviewers could have no idea certain questions are considered discriminatory. You don't have to be confrontational, but you should still be fully aware of what kinds of questions are considered unlawful in order to handle them. We decided to outline types of illegal interview questions to keep an eye out for in the U.S.
It's unlawful for an employer to base an employment decision on your age when making hiring decisions. Ageism is a persistent problem in hiring processes and workplaces across America. Even if the question is innocently phrased as, "what year did you graduate college?" you aren't required to answer it. Rather than bluntly stating, "I prefer not to say my age," give a vague answer and segue into a job-related anecdote to steer the conversation in another direction. There are very few roles where asking a candidate's age is legally required, such as working in a bar.
- How old are you?
- What year were you born?
- When did you graduate high school/college?
Convictions and Arrest Record
Employers can only ask about an arrest if it's directly related to the job. For example, law enforcement agencies can legally ask. However, in the vast majority of cases, rejecting applicants based on arrest records is unlawful. Employers should know not to ask about convictions that have no connection to the role.
- Have you ever been arrested?
- Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
- Have you ever been caught drunk driving?
Citizenship or National Origin
As long as you've proven that you're eligible to work in the U.S., you aren't required to disclose your citizenship. Even if the interviewer seems genuinely curious or makes an innocent comment about your family name or accent, it's technically unlawful to directly ask "where are you from originally" or "where were you born." It's best to circumvent the question and reiterate that you're authorized to work in the U.S.
- Are you an American citizen?
- How long has your family been in the U.S.?
Previous Employment and Salary
Employers can ask questions about your previous or current roles, but asking your previous salary is often illegal. So far, 21 states have state-wide bans for employers to ask questions about salary history. In states like Michigan and Wisconsin, it's still legal. Do your research so you're clear about which questions are still lawful or not. Also, be aware of questions such as, "When did you first start working?" This is another tactic interviewers use to figure out your age, which you have no lawful obligation to share with them.
- What was your previous salary?
- What is the salary of your current position?
- What year did you first start working?
Family and Marital Status
Two of the most common illegal interview questions are, "Do you have kids?" and "Are you married?" You might think an interviewer is just being friendly by commenting on your engagement ring or asking about your kids. However, interviewers usually ask these questions to find out how committed you can be to the job.
Employers tend to have concerns about parents constantly prioritizing kids' schedules or not being able to work overtime. Unfortunately, women are particularly discriminated against in this area. Instead of getting defensive, answer any questions in a way that reassures employers that you don't have any commitments that might prevent you from adhering to your work schedule. Also, any questions about whether or not you are pregnant or planning to start a family are strictly forbidden.
- Are you married? What does your spouse do for work?
- Do you have kids? How many? How old are they?
- Are you pregnant? What is your plan if you get pregnant?
- Are you planning on starting a family? What are your childcare arrangements?
Disabilities and Health
It's illegal for interviewers to ask if you have a disability. They're also not allowed to ask you about your medical history or if you have chronic health problems. They can ask about your ability to perform all job functions, but they're not allowed to ask in relation to a disability.
- Do you have any physical or mental disabilities we should know about?
- Do you experience any chronic health issues?
- Have you ever been treated for mental health issues?
- Are you on any medication?
Height or Weight
Any questions related to your height or weight are illegal. In the vast majority of cases, your physicality has nothing to do with your ability to perform a job, and it's unlawful for it to be used against you. In the rare circumstance that a certain height/weight is necessary for a task such as heavy lifting/manual labor or safety reasons, an employer can specify that it is required for the job.
- How tall are you exactly?
- Do you anticipate your height/weight becoming a problem?
Although employers can ask you your current address, they can't legally ask you for details about your living situation. This means they can't ask you if you own or rent your home. It's also illegal to ask who you live with. Employers usually ask these kinds of questions to rule out punctuality and attendance problems related to a commute. If you'd rather not answer the question, just assure them that you should not have any issue with getting to work on time.
- Do you rent or own your home?
- Are you a homeowner?
- Do you live with a partner?
- Do you still live with your parents?
- How many people do you live with?
Interviewers are not permitted to directly ask questions about military discharge or non-U.S. military service. They can ask how your military training could be applicable/beneficial to the job, but that is the extent of what is lawful. If you notice the interviewer's concern, you can reassure them that you've never encountered problems balancing your military service with your professional career.
- Did you receive honorable discharge from the military?
- How often are you deployed for military training?
- When will you be deployed again?
Involvement in Organizations
It's illegal for employers to ask about your involvement in non-professional organizations unrelated to the job. Inquiring about your involvement in a sorority, fraternity, country club, etc. could lead an employer to inadvertently make a hiring decision based on race, age or sex.
- What clubs or social organizations do you belong to?
- Are you a member of the local country club?
Questions related to birthplace, ancestry or national origin are unequivocally unlawful. Interviewers could ask questions like, "How long have you lived in the U.S.?" or "How did you learn to speak Spanish?" As long as you affirm that you have the legal authorization to work in the U.S. and that you're fully proficient at English, employers should know better not to prod for more details in an interview setting, as they can come across as discriminatory.
- Where were you/your parents born?
- What's your native language?
- You have an interesting last name…what's your ethnicity?
Gender or Sexual Orientation
Nothing related to your sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation should be asked in the interview process. You can answer any questions asked that seem to be gender specific without addressing that part of the question.
- As a woman, do you think you'd be able to manage a team of all men?
- The vast majority of our organization is women. Are you sure you'd be comfortable as one of the only men working here?
- Do you have a partner? What's his/her name?
Under no circumstances should employers reject an applicant due to their religious beliefs or practices. Inquiring about your work availability is appropriate, but employers should never tie it to religion. You can answer the questions, "Are you religious?" and "Do you attend services?" by reassuring the interviewer that you're completely capable of meeting the needs of the work schedule for the position.
- What religion do you practice?
- Do you attend religious services?
- Will you need paid time off for religious holidays?
It's important to take a variety of factors into consideration when deciding how to respond to an illegal or inappropriate interview question. Don't be afraid to pause for a moment before responding to gather your thoughts. Or, you can always politely ask them to repeat the question. Of course, if the interviewer is asking inappropriate questions or blatantly disrespecting you, excuse yourself right away and file a complaint.
It's up to you to decide the best response in the moment, depending on the intent of the question and how your answer might affect your ability to land the job. You should never feel like you need to disclose information against your better judgment. Also, your interview experience is a strong indicator of the rest of your experience with a company. If there are too many red flags during the interview, you should question if the position is truly the best choice for you, and consider resuming your job search.