Most Common Illegal Interview Questions to Look Out For

Interviewing a new job or promotion can be unnerving. You are trying to understand the company while trying to sell yourself, and you could potentially feel vulnerable. So when the interviewer starts asking about your personal information and background, it can be easy for him to freeze and just respond. But not all interview questions are kosher. In fact, there are some that you are legally protected from having to answer .

‘How old are you?’

The company always has the legal right to make sure you’re old enough to work for them, but other than that, they don’t have to ask your age (especially if you’re over 40). The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is designed to protect you from future ageism. Unfortunately, ADEA does not offer the same protection for people under the age of 40, but you should still check your state’s laws as some states have similar laws for people of all ages.

Watch out for questions that may indirectly indicate your age. They may ask, “How long have you been working?” or “when did you graduate from high school?” These queries may sound harmless, but they can be designed to determine your age. Likewise, they cannot ask when you are going to retire. This is just another roundabout way of determining how old you might be and how old they might get from you.

Have you ever been arrested?

If you are interviewing for a confidential position where a criminal record can be used to determine your reliability, employers may ask if you have ever been convicted of a crime. However, they cannot ask if you were arrested at all. That being said, Peter Stadner, author of Super Job Search IV: The Ultimate Guide for Job Seekers and Career Changers, suggests that in some circumstances this information may be useful for volunteering. Especially if you know they will do a thorough background check:

In such cases, when the prospective employer may disclose information about previous arrests, it is important to discuss the incident in advance and indicate that it is already in the past and will never happen again. The more serious the crime, the more convincing you must be.

Therefore, while they are forbidden to ask if you have been arrested, you may still have the opportunity to demonstrate honesty and show that you can learn from your mistakes. It all depends on the situation, so prepare ahead of time.

‘How is your health?’

Questions regarding your general health and physical ability can be a very complex topic. Employers cannot ask if you are healthy, how tall you are, how much you weigh, had any illness or surgery, or how many sick days you took in your last job. According to the Yale University Career Strategy Office, the interviewer is also prohibited from asking if you are taking any prescription medication, have a mental illness, have ever been alcoholics, or have been in rehab.

It is also illegal to ask directly if you have a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) explicitly states that employers cannot ask you about the existence, nature, or severity of any pre-existing disability.

However, employers may ask you about specific physical abilities associated with the tasks you will need to complete. For example, they may ask if you are capable of lifting up to 50 pounds, if you can stand on your feet for a certain amount of time, or if you can reach items on a shelf such and such a foot high. … They may also ask if you can do the job with or without reasonable accommodations, and if you have any conditions that prevent you from doing the job.

However, it is beneficial for everyone to be honest in answering these questions: it never hurts to be honest with yourself about what you can and what you can’t, and to find out what a potential employer expects of you.

‘Are you married?’ (or anything related to children)

This is one of the most pressing questions you might be asked, so it’s understandable why it’s illegal. By answering such a question, you can reveal much more information than you think, and this information can be easily used to discriminate. Hannah Keizer of Mental Floss explains how tricky this question can be:

Anything related to finding information about a candidate’s family plans (marriage, engagement and child planning) is technically illegal as it falls under pregnancy discrimination. It can often feel like a hiring manager is just striking up a nice conversation and trying to get to know you better, but job seekers are not required to disclose any personal information. It can also be a subtle way to ask someone about their sexual orientation – another protected class.

If you do decide to talk about your children – or plan to have – do so at your own risk and do not miss out on the opportunity to dig more information. Questions such as “who will take care of your children while you are at work?” or “could you find a nanny in no time?” are illegal. Remember that everything about your personal relationships, marital status, family or sexual orientation is protected.

‘What is your religion?’

This is a serious question, but employers may want to ask it to try to define a work schedule for weekends and holidays. HR attorney Charles A. Krugel suggests , however, that employers may try to work around the problem by using simple tricks to get information in a different way. They can show you the required work schedule and ask if you can work with their schedule, or directly ask which days you can work or not.

None of these questions are illegal and could potentially reveal this information whether you tell them or not. However, the religion you practice, the holidays you celebrate, and everything related to it are personally identifiable information that you should never disclose. This also includes if you are a member of any general organization not affiliated with the job or company for which you are interviewing. Yale University’s Career Strategy Office explains :

Questions about the applicant’s religion or belief (unless religion is a bona fide professional qualification) are generally considered non-work-related and problematic under federal law. Religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies are not subject to federal laws adopted by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when it comes to recruiting individuals of their particular religion. In other words, an employer whose goals and character are primarily religious are allowed to lean toward hiring people of the same religion.

‘What is your nationality?’

The employer has every right to check if you can legally work for him, but he cannot ask any questions about your race or place of birth. Employers are not allowed to ask if you are a US citizen, but they can ask if you are eligible to work in the US. Anything from the area “which country are you from?” or “what country are you from?” illegal.

Employers are not allowed to ask you what is your first language or if English is your first language. Employers may well-intentionally ask you to inquire about your fluency, but it can still be offensive or used to discriminate. Instead, they might ask what languages ​​you speak, speak, or write fluently, which is perfectly legal.

“Do you like to drink in society?”

Some employers like to ask questions that may be relevant to how well you fit into the culture of the company. This can lead to personal questions about hobbies, likes and dislikes, and even if you enjoy drinking in public. It may sound harmless, but as Business Insider’s Vivian Jiang points out , it’s actually illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

For example, if you are recovering as an alcoholic, alcohol treatment is protected by this law and you do not need to disclose any information about your disability prior to receiving a formal job offer.

Whether you are being treated as an alcoholic or not, they don’t have to ask. And if you choose to answer and say no, they cannot discriminate against you. Any questions about whether you drink or smoke cigarettes are prohibited.

“Have you ever used drugs in the past?”

This is another example of a loaded question that can mean a lot. First, “drugs” can mean anything from illegal drugs to prescription drugs, so it’s not clear to begin with. Second, ADA Policy Director Chris Kuczynski explains that an employer cannot ask about your past use if it may not have been related to the crime you were convicted of (forcing you to mention it). And even then, it’s a sketchy topic worth bringing up for no good reason.

They may ask you if you currently use any illegal drugs . You may even have to take a drug test at some point, so if so, then it might not matter how you answer that question. Just remember, your background is not information you normally have to disclose, unless you are interviewing for a government position or job that requires a thorough background check.

How to respond to illegal questions and discrimination

If you come across illegal questions like this, it can be a little inconvenient. If the question does not seem to be malicious, try to figure out what information they are actually looking for – they may just not be good at interviewing, or they may be completely new to it. Try to give them what they want without giving up information that you know you should keep.

However, if you think they are discriminating against, or if you think you have been denied a job because you refused to answer an illegal question, contact the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission . There you can file a job discrimination complaint and learn more about the laws that protect you while you continue to look for work. Don’t let your interviews turn into a terrible story if you can help, always come prepared and knowing your rights.

This story was originally published in 2013 and has been updated on January 15, 2021 to provide more complete and up-to-date information.


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