Each year, thousands of companies hire millions of new employees to grow their businesses and fill key roles. But while the majority of organizations follow the law when going through the hiring process, some may be violating it, whether they know it or not. According to a 2015 survey by Career Builder, at least 1 in 5 employers has asked an illegal question during an interview in the past, while approximately 1 in 3 employers don’t know whether it’s legal to ask those questions. According to laws established through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it is illegal to “discriminate against someone (applicant or employee) because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”
Even though these rules have existed for some time, companies don’t always follow them. Because of this, job candidates must educate themselves on questions they can and can’t be asked. This guide highlights some of the most common illegal interview questions and provides expert advice on navigating such situations.
The sad reality is that some employers use illegal questions to discriminate against potential employers and find reasons to deny them jobs. Regardless of whether any employer knows the questions he or she is asking are illegal, it’s in the best interest of candidates to become well-versed in these and find ways to let hiring managers know they are asking illegal questions. According to career specialist Lori Cleymans, “The illegal questions to avoid are in the areas of nationality/race, marital status, religious affiliations, disability or medical history, pregnancy/child care, sex, gender, birthplace or age.”
Here are some common interview questions and why employers might try to ask them.
“This question may be asked to find out if the applicant has family commitments that may prevent him or her from being at work for long hours. This often occurs with women since women traditionally care for the family,” Cleymans says. “The employer may be trying to find out if this is a single parent who may need to leave work often to care for children.” While this question often focuses on family obligations, Cleymans says that students and recent graduates should also be wary. “If the student is single, the employer may think it’s okay to keep the employee at work for long periods of time since that person doesn’t have family commitments, or to give a lower salary than what the position is worth,” she notes.
Age discrimination exists in many forms and may be packaged in different ways. An employer who is trying to figure out a candidate’s age may also ask when he or she graduated high school or college. “Age discrimination typically affects those who are 45 years or older in terms of not being offered a job for fear that the applicant is too old to learn a new technology or new skills,” Cleymans says. “If the applicant is younger, the employer may think it is acceptable to offer a much lower salary than the position deserves.”
No employer may ask any questions regarding religion, as they are nearly always discriminatory. In some cases, employers may be biased against certain faith traditions; in others, they may want to ascertain work limitations. “Some employers may ask if you can work on certain days in order to find out about your religion, which is also illegal,” notes Cleymans. “Some questions employers may try to ask include those surrounding your denomination, whether you can work on Sundays, and if your religion prevents you from working on or around holidays.”
This is another question that is overwhelmingly asked of women. Employers who try to go down this path want to know if they will need to provide maternity leave or hire temporary workers to cover while you are on leave. “This can be used against you if the employer is worried you will have other commitments that interfere with work,” says Cleymans. “It can also be used to ascertain whether you will want a higher salary in order to care for children.”
“This question is trying to find out your marital status,” states Cleymans. “It may appear harmless at first, but the employer could use it against you later on.”
This question isn’t yet illegal nationwide, but some states, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York, have already outlawed it. Though it may seem benign at first glance, some employers ask this question to get a sense of whether they need to pay as much as the job is worth. This is especially true for women, as many experience a pay gap between men and women doing the same jobs.
This question could initially come as an extension of conversations surrounding the annual office Christmas party, but a dishonest HR manager has other reasons for introducing the topic. Individuals recovering from alcoholism or receiving treatment don’t have to disclose any information related to this disability before receiving offer letters, as stated in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The same is true of drug usage.
While it’s legal for hiring managers to enquire about what you learned during your time in the service or what type of education or training you received, no employer can ask about the specifics surrounding why you left the armed forces.
Many individuals from other countries working in America may think nothing of answering this question, as they may assume interviewers find their accents intriguing. While that may be the case, the question itself is illegal. Employers can’t ask questions about country of origin, but they can ask whether you are legally authorized to work in the country.
Unless the employer specifically asks to complete a credit check and receives your consent to do so, companies cannot ask questions that delve into your financial history, as they can use this information to unfairly assess your ability to perform the job responsibilities.
In the following section, career specialist Lori Cleymans shares her expertise regarding some of the issues surrounding illegal interview questions.
A: An illegal question is one that could be used to deny someone a job or promotion that is not based on the applicant’s job qualifications, such as education, skills, certifications or licenses. Is the question relevant to your ability to perform the skills/tasks needed on the job? If not, be cautious regarding your responses.
A: It’s important to keep in mind that the interview is a two-way conversation. Not only is the employer trying to assess whether a person is the right fit for their company, but the applicant is trying to find out if the company is where he/she would like to spend 40-plus hours a week.
If you find that an employer is asking illegal questions, or if you find you’re uneasy with how the interview is being conducted, trust your gut instinct. Ask yourself, “Is this the kind of company/organization I want to work for if this is how they’re treating me during the interview? Would I be happy to interact with this manager on a daily basis if he/she is already asking personal questions that make me feel uneasy?”
Often, the interviewer may not know the law or recognize that he or she has asked an illegal question. The interviewer may think it’s just polite small talk and not realize that he or she has offended you.
A: Students have a number of steps they can take in these situations. My best recommendations include:
1. You can answer the question.
2. You can avoid answering directly, but instead address the intent of the question. For example, if the employer asks, “Does your religion prevent you from working on holidays?” you can say that you do not have any problems with working when you’re scheduled. You have not revealed your religious affiliation and you have addressed the employer’s concerns about when you’re available to work.
3. You can say, “I don’t mind answering that question if you can please tell me how that relates to the position.” This may alert the employer that he or she has asked an inappropriate or illegal question, and it gives that person the opportunity to correct the mistake without causing bad feelings.
4. You always have the right to end the interview. If you find the interviewer is making you uncomfortable, you can simply state that you appreciate that person’s time and consideration, but that this company may not be the right fit for you. Not everyone is comfortable with this tactic, but you’re certainly allowed to walk out if the interview is going down a bad road.
A: If you believe you were denied a job or promotion due to discrimination, you can file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
A: The interview is a great opportunity for you to discover more about the employer than what you could learn online or through your network. This is your chance to check out the facility or office, meet the employees, ask the interviewer questions and learn more about the personalities in the department or company. Use this time to think about whether this is a good fit for your personality, life situation and career priorities.
If the employer is abrasive or rude, or you just don’t like the environment, do not feel pressured to take the job. If you do, you just might find yourself looking for another job in a short period of time, and there is no need for you to endure a negative work environment.
Check out our guide on the dos and don’ts of job interviews to ensure you walk away feeling confident after your next interview.
Forbes provides a list of steps job applicants can take to follow up professionally after an interview, including sending a thank-you note.
Still looking for more information on this topic? Joan K. Ustin & Associates consultancy firm provides an extensive list of illegal questions and legal alternatives, organized by topic, so individuals can educate themselves.
Michigan State University offers tips for both men and women who want to put their best foot forward in appearance but don’t know where to start.
The Muse provides a list of unique and out-of-left-field questions that students might encounter in certain job interviews.
This article by Glassdoor helps interviewees ensure they haven’t forgotten any steps before going into interviews.
In this piece, Time magazine reminds applicants of answers they should be ready to provide in any interview.
U.S. News & World Report highlights some of the common errors applicants make in the interview process and how to avoid them in this insightful guide.
The Muse lists all the questions hiring managers most frequently use and provides great answers to each in this fascinating piece.
Students looking for ideas on acing the interview can find all this and more in Indeed’s Career Guide. The article offers actionable tips for ensuring the hiring panel loves your interview.
Even if you feel confident in your interview skills, chances are there’s still room for improvement. Monster offers tips for delivering a nearly perfect interview.
The Balance’s career page offers tips from start to finish to ensure applicants don’t make any mistakes throughout the process.
Princeton University’s Career Services walks students through a step-by-step guide on how to stand out from their competition.