Illegal Interview Questions and What You Need to Know...

Questions You Should and Shouldn't Ask in a Job Interview

When you interview a candidate, make sure that you don't ask interview questions that are illegal.
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The job interview is an important factor in the employee selection process. You can use behavioral-based job interview questions to help you select superior candidates. Ask interview questions that help you identify whether the candidate has the behaviors, skills, and experience needed for the job you are filling.

When you ask appropriate interview questions, you can ascertain whether your candidate is a good cultural fit and an excellent job fit for the position you are filling. This emphasis on candidate fit heightens the probability that the candidate will succeed in your organization.

Ask legal interview questions that illuminate the candidate's strengths, weaknesses, experience, and skills to determine job fit. Avoid illegal interview questions and interview practices that could make your company the target of a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit. You'll want to avoid asking any job interview questions that focus on any aspect of the candidate's personal life.

Illegal Job Interview Question Topics

In order to protect job applicants from discrimination, several topics are considered illegal during job interviews in the U.S., and should be carefully avoided.

Illegal interview questions, while not illegal in the strictest sense of the word, have so much potential to make your company liable in a discrimination lawsuit, that they might as well be illegal. In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) resolved 90,558 charges of discrimination in 2018 and secured $505 million for victims in private, state, and federal workplaces.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (among others) forbid employers to ask interview questions that are related to a candidate’s:

  • Age (EEOC)
  • Medical information
  • Height and weight
  • Race, ethnicity, or color
  • Gender or Sex
  • U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
  • Citizenship
  • Religion (EEOC)
  • Disability (EEOC)
  • Marital or family status or pregnancy
© The Balance 2018

Especially in the course of a comfortable, informal interview during which participants are relaxed, don’t let the interview turn into a chat session that might encourage the candidate to reveal personal information. This easily happens especially when you take candidates out for lunch or dinner. For example, avoid conversations that start out with you sharing the challenges of helping your kids with their homework after dinner.

Seemingly innocuous interview questions, such as the following are illegal, or might as well be illegal:

What Are Illegal Questions to Ask in an Interview?

  • What arrangements are you able to make for child care while you work?
  • How old are your children?
  • When did you graduate from high school?
  • Are you a U.S. citizen?
  • What does your wife do for a living?
  • Where did you live while you were growing up?
  • Will you need personal time off for particular religious holidays?
  • Are you comfortable working for a female boss?
  • There is a large disparity between your age and that of the position’s coworkers. Is this a problem for you?
  • How long do you plan to work until you retire?
  • Have you experienced any serious illnesses in the past year?

During an interview, you must take care to keep your interview questions focused on the behaviors, skills, and experience needed to perform the job.

If you find your discussion straying off course or eliciting any information that you don’t want about potential job discrimination topics, bring the discussion quickly back on topic by asking another job-related interview question.

What to Do When Candidates Offer Answers to Questions You Want to Avoid

If a candidate offers information, such as, “I will need a flexible schedule because I have four children in elementary school,” you can answer the question about whether your company offers flexible hours and any qualifications that your policy requires for eligibility.

Do not, however, pursue that topic further. Another candidate told his interviewer that his favorite spare-time activity was reading the Bible. In the next question, he was asked to discuss why he left his most recent job. The interviewer wisely steered the conversation away from the potentially illegal topic.

Another candidate leaned closer across the table and said, “The reason I am leaving my current job is that I just had a baby two weeks ago and I need a regular schedule for my child care provider.” Another candidate told the interviewer that he was a native Polish speaker and that he spent his childhood in an area of the city called Pole Town.

Running late at the interview, a female candidate informed the plant manager she had to run because she was late for football practice. His response, "Oh, you play football?" brings on a chuckle every time the story is shared. (It was actually her son's practice.)

Again, do not pursue discussions such as these that potentially reveal information that is not legal for you to obtain about your candidate. Legally, you may not use such information (even if obtained accidentally) to make your hiring decision.

(As an aside, each of these individuals used to illustrate potentially illegally obtained information was hired for the position.)

Sample Legal Job Interview Questions

The following sample legal interview questions will guide you in asking legal questions during your candidate interviews. Don't forget to read the accompanying guidance on what you are listening for in the responses:

Using a prepared list of interview questions will help you ensure you select the most qualified candidates for the job. You will want to prepare questions that explore the actual job skills and experience you have identified as essential for the position. Prioritize these skills and experiences and explore five to 10 of them with the candidate.

Your reference checks will also provide insight into the knowledge and skills of your candidates. If you already have a working knowledge of the job and the types of qualifications and employees that are successful in the job, start looking for these things:

Sample Interview Question Answers for Employers

Use these suggested interview question answers to assess your candidate's actual answers:

Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and ​employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "EEOC Releases Fiscal Year 2018 Enforcement and Litigation Data." Accessed June 10, 2020.

  2. U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries (General)." Accessed on Jan. 29, 2020.

  3. U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Medical Questions & Examinations." Accessed on Jan. 29, 2020.

  4. U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Height & Weight." Accessed on Jan. 29, 2020.

  5. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Race." Accessed Jan. 29, 2020.

  6. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Gender." Accessed Jan. 29, 2020.

  7. U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries (General)." Accessed on Jan. 29, 2020.

  8. U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Citizenship." Accessed on Jan. 29, 2020.

  9. U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Religious Affiliation or Beliefs." Accessed on Jan. 29, 2020.

  10. U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Disability." Accessed on Jan. 29, 2020.

  11. U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Marital Status or Number of Children." Accessed on Jan. 29, 2020.