10 Illegal Job Interview Questions

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‘‘Where do you see yourself in five years?” “What are your greatest strengths?” These are some routine interview questions most job seekers can anticipate and prepare for in advance. But if an interviewer starts probing into someone’s personal life by inquiring about marital status, dependents, age, national origin or religion, they are treading dangerous ground. It is illegal for a prospective employer to make hiring decisions based on personal details that are not directly job-related. The motivation behind illegal questioning varies. Some interviewers are ill trained and simply unaware of the law, while others may want to subtly (or not so subtly) weed out candidates who could become a financial burden, such as a pregnant woman needing maternity leave. Federal, state and local laws prohibit certain interview questions and job applicants are not obligated to answer them. Here are 10 illegal job interview questions, and what to do if you encounter one (or more) on a job interview.

10. Are You In The National Guard Or Reserves?

Some employers are reluctant to hire National Guard members, but it is illegal for an employer to ask an applicant if they are a member.

30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team of National Guardsmen prepares for deployment to Iraq, 2009.

Although some managers may find the prospect of an employee leaving for duty an inconvenience, they cannot ask this question or discriminate against someone for being in the National Guard or a reserve unit. Questions about experience or training received in the military are acceptable, as long as they are relevant to the job.


9. How Much Do You Weigh?

An employer may not ask a job applicant his or her weight.

Photo credit: Cindy Hughes/Shutterstock.com

Not only is this type of personal question embarrassing, it is also unacceptable. Interviewers cannot ask about weight or height unless there are minimum standards that are essential to the safe performance of the job, and these must be clearly explained during the interview process and the question directed to every applicant.


8. Are You A U.S. Citizen?

An employer cannot inquire about citizenship status.

Naturalization ceremony; Grand Canyon National Park Service

This may seem like a reasonable and innocuous inquiry to determine the legal work status of a prospective employee, but it is off limits in an interview. Questions regarding citizenship, nationality, country of birth and native language are illegal since they imply discrimination on the basis of national origin. Permanent residents and people with work permits can apply for any advertised job and should not be made to feel uncomfortable because they are not a citizen. They may have lived here longer than some young adults interviewing for the same position. A legal and more sensitive alternative phrasing would be: Are you authorized to work in the United States?


7. What Clubs Or Social Organizations Do You Belong To?

An employee may not ask about clubs or social organizations a prospective employee belongs to.

Photo credit: Alexander Raths/Shutterstock.com

Discussing affiliations with groups and organizations could work for or against an applicant. The interviewer may have a connection or an aversion to certain groups, which could cloud his or her judgment. An answer may also reveal political, personal and religious views. Either way it is not only unfair but also unlawful. Candidates are not required to share such information with a prospective employer. An interviewer is only allowed to ask a candidate whether he or she belongs to any professional or trade groups relevant to their particular industry.


6. Do You Smoke Or Use Alcohol?

An employer may not ask if you use alcohol or if you smoke.

Photo credit: Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock.com

A job applicant cannot be penalized for consuming a legal product outside the workplace and in their private time. An applicant should avoid this area altogether and never mention drinking and smoking, even during small talk. It is not the manager’s business how a person spends their personal time. Job seekers should avoid asking about smoke breaks, if a company has a designated smoking area, or at which bars employees socialize after work.


5. What Religion Do You Practice?

It is illegal for an employer to ask about religious affiliation during an interview.

Photo credit: Judy Baxter

Hiring managers cannot inquire about a job applicant’s religious affiliations or beliefs, what church they attend and which religious holidays they observe. Some employers may be concerned over weekend scheduling and want to determine whether a candidate’s religious commitments could interfere. In this case, they may simply ask what days a candidate is available to work without mentioning religion. A person’s spiritual life is of no concern to the interviewer, and the job applicant should avoid bringing religion up in conversation. The only exception is if the employer is a legally organized church.


4. Do You Have A Disability Or Chronic Illness?

It is illegal for an employer to ask an applicant if they are disabled.

Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

Questions about a candidate’s health, disability and the number of sick days taken in a previous position are unlawful. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits any pre-employment inquiry that would require an applicant to disclose a disability. If it is relevant to the position, an appropriate alternative is asking if the applicant can perform the essential functions of a particular job, with or without accommodations.


3. How Old Are You?

Photo credit: Henrik Winther Andersen

Complaints about age discrimination have increased by 17 percent since the start of the recession, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Older adults, especially those in their mid-50s, are finding themselves thrust into a highly competitive job market that seems to favor youth over age and experience. Federal laws make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee over the age of 40, but proving age discrimination can be difficult. Employers may want to avoid hiring older workers because of higher insurance costs and the possibility of more absences. They may attempt to fish for information with questions such as: “What year were you born?” or “What year did you graduate from high school or college?” However it is phrased, it is illegal for a job interviewer to inquire about a job candidate’s age. If the company does not hire minors, an interviewer may ask “Are you over 18?” And in the case of bartender jobs, by law, candidates must be over the age of 21. Everything else is off limits.


2. Are You Married?

Marital status is a question that is often asked during interviews, but it is illegal to do so.

Photo credit: Alexander Raths/Shutterstock.com

It is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of marital status, yet this question is surprisingly common. An interviewer cannot ask if you’re married, living with someone, widowed, divorced, intend to be married or in a committed relationship. Typically questions regarding home and family life have been targeted at women, because it is presumed that they are the primary care givers. But they can also allude to sexual orientation, which is also off limits in an interview. In some cases married men could find themselves at a disadvantage because it may be assumed single people can work more hours. Either way, these questions are unacceptable. If they’re worried about work commitment and availability, an interviewer may ask if an applicant could relocate if necessary, or ask if they can travel, if these are essential job requirements.


1. Do You Have Or Plan To Have Children?

It is illegal for an interviewer to ask a prospective employee whether or not they have children.

Photo credit: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock.com

The underlying concern for an employer asking these questions is whether an applicant’s domestic responsibilities will clash with work obligations and affect job performance. They may assume a candidate with a family will take time off to care for sick children, or fear having to pay maternity leave for an applicant who is currently pregnant or plans to become pregnant. Regardless of the intention, these types of questions are unlawful in an interview and clearly discriminatory. It is reasonable for an employer to ask if a candidate is available for overtime work and travel, if these are among the job requirements and asked of each candidate. But it is illegal for an interviewer to ask a woman if she’s pregnant or intends to work after a pregnancy, and asking a parent (male or female) if they have adequate child-care arrangements.


How To Respond To Illegal Interview Questions

Job applicants should avoid volunteering personal information, especially when responding to the often asked question, “Tell me about yourself” and during pre or post interview small talk. Conversations should be confined to a person’s professional life and job related issues. If confronted with an illegal question, applicants are advised to stay calm and never react in a hostile manner. Experts propose the following options on how to respond:

1. Answer the question and don’t mention the fact it is improper or illegal. Determine whether the interviewer is knowingly asking an illegal question or is simply ignorant of the law. There may not be any malicious intent behind the question. In choosing this option, however, an applicant is giving information that is not job-related, and it could harm their candidacy.

2. Refuse to answer the question. An applicant is well within their rights by choosing not to answer, but could risk appearing confrontational and uncooperative, traits that could lose them a job offer.

3. A good alternative is redirecting the question with an answer such as “I’d prefer to discuss my skills and qualifications, which include …” This way an applicant appears professional and well prepared.

4. The fourth and best option is to answer the “intent” or underlying concern behind the question as it applies to the job. For example if asked, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” a candidate can respond with, “I am authorized to work in the United States.” Or if the question involves home life such as “Do you have children?” an assertive response would be, “I can meet the demands of the job.”

5. Take legal action. Contact a labor attorney or file a claim of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace.


Written by

Alison Hill is an Emmy-nominated producer, an accomplished journalist, and a regular guest commentator on BBC Radio news shows. She is the founder of Seren Media, and serves as a producer, writer, editor, and workshop leader. Originally from Wales in the UK, Alison now lives in Durham, North Carolina. She is also the creator of the website Ms.Horror.com.