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Six Illegal Interview Questions to Avoid

Wondering which questions you’ll be asked during your job interview? You should expect the usual ones, such as “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “What’s your greatest weakness?”

But then there are more colorful questions, such as “What animal best describes you?” and “If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?” that you should brace yourself for.

Regardless of what questions are thrown your way, there are a handful of interview questions you should never be asked. Be aware—questions about subjects in these categories violate your rights:

  • Age
  • Birthplace
  • Color
  • Disability
  • Marital/family status
  • National origin
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex

However, don’t assume an employer’s prying questions are suggestive of discriminatory intentions. Often, a hiring manager is just trying to assess your fit for the job, not trying to illegally discriminate. While you can’t be asked directly about any of these topics, don’t be surprised if you find yourself discussing your family or religion with a potential employer either. It all depends on how the question is phrased.

While it’s important to protect yourself from illegal interview questions, there are legal alternatives to get the same information out of you. Be prepared and know your options by checking out these six examples of illegal interview questions, and how they can be rephrased to pass the law.

ILLEGAL: “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
LEGAL: “Are you authorized to work in the United States?”

Employers aren’t allowed to ask about your national origin, and that includes inquiring about your citizenship status. Touchy immigration issues aside, this question makes unnecessary assumptions based on your looks and based on racial stereotypes. On the flip side, employers can ask if you’re allowed to work in the United States. By rephrasing the question, they’re avoiding directly asking if you’re a citizen, green card holder, or on a visa.

ILLEGAL: “How old are you? When did you graduate from college?”
LEGAL: “Are you over the age of eighteen?”

Whether you’re eighteen or sixty, employers are not allowed to discriminate against you based on your age (which is what the first question implies). However, when asked differently, the question becomes legal; the legal phrasing implies an age range, not a specific number. After all, employers need to know their employees are over eighteen years of age to work legally in the United States.

ILLEGAL: “Are you married? How many children do you have? Whom do you live with?
LEGAL: “Can you relocate if necessary? Are you willing to travel as a part of this job? Can you work overtime as necessary?”

Your marital and family status is not being interviewed here—you are. Anything about your living situation, roommates, fiancés, spouses, children, etc., is off-limits. While employers might simply be trying to gauge how busy you are in your personal life to see if it clashes with work responsibilities, it’s illegal to make a hiring decision based on this factor. As a potential employee, if you can commit to the necessary work hours and agree to the job requirements, your other responsibilities shouldn’t matter. Women especially should be wary of being asked for their maiden name—not required by employers if it isn’t legally your name. (But you can be asked if you’ve ever worked under another name.)

ILLEGAL: “How much do you weigh?”
LEGAL: “Are you comfortable with lifting heavy objects?”

While employers may want to make sure you’re physically able to do the job, asking directly about your weight/height and general health is a major HR no-no. Not to mention potentially embarrassing for you! But rephrasing the question to ask about your ability to perform a specific task is fair game.

ILLEGAL: “Do you have any disabilities? Any recent illnesses or operations?”
LEGAL: “Are you able to perform the essential job functions?”

Discriminating against the disabled, whether they are wheelchair-bound or clinically depressed, is a classic example of illegal hiring practices. But the employer still has a right to make sure you can do the job you’re hired for, and their rephrasing the question accordingly is within their rights.

ILLEGAL: “Ever been arrested?”
LEGAL: “Ever been convicted of ___?”

A general question about your (criminal) past is off topic, but a more targeted question regarding questionable behavior—as it relates to your job—is OK. For example, if you were applying for a job as a magician, it’s appropriate for the employer to ask if you’ve ever been convicted of fraud in your line of work.

It’s not so much what the question is asking, but how the question is asked. Federal and state laws prevent employers from asking interviewees about subjects unrelated to the job. However, if you feel you have been asked a question that’s off-limits, you should seek legal counsel. Before you take serious action, take into consideration the nature of the job, the context of the situation, the interviewer’s intent, and of course, the phrasing of the question. Good luck and happy interviewing!

By Hamsa Ramesha for Excelle