20 Interviewer Questions NOT to Ask to Stay out of Hot Water

Anita,

As a small business owner, I rarely need to interview and hire. Recently, I had a woman come in for an interview and after she introduced herself, I asked about the origin of her unusual name. One of my team members later told me to be careful; that question could have been illegal. Really, Anita?! I was just making polite conversation. I’m no HR expert, so what should I watch out for in the hiring process to keep me out of legal hot water?

Dear, Inquiring Mind,

What’s considered appropriate cocktail party small talk could be a legal faux pas in the world of Human Resources. You’ve heard, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”? Well, there is in job interview situations!

Some questions may seem perfectly innocuous, but inquire with caution. By federal law, it is illegal for companies with more than 15-20 employees to base employment decisions on the following protected characteristics:Questions_iStock_000061208998

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy)
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Age (40 and over)
  • Genetic information

Read up on the federal laws prohibiting job discrimination – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act – and research any individual state laws.

Sometimes, a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) may allow you to ask certain questions. Say you are a women’s clothing manufacturer. You may ask model applicants if they are female, as it is a job necessity to properly parade your product.

Below are 20 Questions that are illegal or inappropriate. With a little tweaking, you can get the information you desire on applications and in interviews without any legal repercussions.

 DON’T ASKREPHRASE
1Where are you from? Are you a U.S. citizen?Are you eligible to work in the United States?
2Is English your first language?In what languages are you proficient?
3You have such pretty skin. What race are you?We have an affirmative action program; would you like to voluntarily reveal your race?
4How old are you?
(Unless you are interviewing a teenager to ascertain if they can work in a limited, non-hazardous job)
Are you the minimum age required to perform this job? (For those who obviously are over 18, “Tell me about your experience.”)
5When did you graduate?Do you have a degree?
6Are you married?
(After hiring, you may collect contact/beneficiary information about spouse or domestic partner)
7What is your maiden name?Would you have any work experience or references under another name?
8Are you pregnant?
(Note: This is a question that can turn into an embarrassing situation in your personal life, as well!)
9How many kids do you have?Are you able to travel for this job?
(After hiring, you may ask for depending information for tax/insurance purposes.)
10What are your childcare arrangements?Are you able to work overtime on short notice?
11If you plan to have a family, would you return after maternity leave? / How long do you plan to work before retiring?What are your long-term career goals?
10How far would your commute to our office be?Will you be able to start work each day promptly at 8:00 a.m.?
12What type of discharge did you receive from the military?What education or experience did you gain during your stint in the military that relates to the job duties required?
13Which religious days do you observe?Will you be able to work weekends for this position?
14Do you belong to any clubs or organizations?Do you belong to any professional or trade groups relevent to our industry?
15What exactly is your disability?Can you perform the essential job tasks with reasonable accommodation?
16Have you ever been arrested?Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
17Do you have any outstanding debt?Since you will be in charge of collections for our company, can you tell me how well you balance your personal finances?
18Do you drink?
(Surprised? Alcoholism is protected under the ADA)
19Have you ever been addicted to drugs?What illegal drugs have you used in the last six months?
(Past, but not current, drug addiction is protected under ADA Note: you cannot ask about prescription drugs.)
20How much do you weigh?Are you able to lift boxes weighing up to 50 pounds?

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: If it’s not job-related, don’t ask!

Readers: Have you ever been asked an inappropriate or downright illegal question during a job interview? How did you respond?

Do you have a job-related question? Ask Anita.

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Great Questions to Ask During Interviews
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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tiffany Lieu
    Mar 11, 2016 @ 16:50:37

    I have been to many job interviews that had straightforward questions. I did not think they seemed that illegal such as whether you wanted full-time or part-time hours, and they have small, casual talks too. I can be somewhat conversational at times. It is not always obvious when the questions seemed discriminating enough. At least it wasn’t that obvious. I am going to be more alert about unusually clear questions that you can connect to the law in seconds. Good pointer to be more watchful about questions that are not job related enough. Did not think about it that much during more conversational interviews.

    Reply

  2. Roni
    Mar 07, 2016 @ 16:15:13

    I have been asked by a teacher and coach, “Why are Black mothers so protective of their sons?” Apparently, this was all before the cops shooting unarmed Black men hit the fan, hard. I first looked around the room in shock. I could not believe I was was being asked this question. I was the only Black person and everyone quietly waited for me to answer this question. I gathered my thoughts and said. “Well, I can’t speak for all Black women; my husband is the dominant personality in our family.” What else was I to say? I wanted the job… I got it but, it came with many more racial comments over the years. 🙁

    Reply

  3. Tiven
    Mar 05, 2016 @ 03:19:33

    I had an interview from a lady asking me about myself. Tell me about yourself? In this case, is it legal to ask a question like that? When I was answering that question, she did cut me off. Then, she went on to next question. I felt some discomfort or disturbing behavior from her.

    Reply

    • anitaclew
      Mar 07, 2016 @ 09:52:00

      Tiven, “Tell me about yourself” is typically how every interview starts! Check out my post on the #1 Interview Question: http://anitaclew.com/2010/12/20/interview-tips/. You’ll want to keep your answer work-related. Maybe with the potential for legal ramifications, the HR world will come up with a better opening line that is less ambiguous, such as “Tell me about your career.”

      Reply

  4. Todd Hicks
    Mar 03, 2016 @ 21:35:35

    If you are asked or expected to answer illegal questions, it’s not worth working there. Try reporting the action also.

    Reply

  5. Christine
    Mar 01, 2016 @ 15:18:35

    Nothing inappropriate in an official interview, but there is a potential employer who’s said very frustrating things during informal conversations. I’ve interviewed with him a number of times and even worked for him for a few months in a temporary position a while ago. He repeatedly gave me glowing praise for my work then and knew I wanted a permanent position there, but he told me he chose to hire someone else and then, in the same conversation, asked me if I had plans for a family. I was furious. Despite that, I’ve kept my connections with him, even after I had my daughter, and now I’ll being doing another temporary job for him again in a few months. I again expressed my continued interest in a permanent position, and he told me to my face that he has concerns about my ability to handle the work now that I’m a mother. I don’t know how to argue with him because he’s basing his opinion on the actions of other parents who’ve worked for him, not on anything I’ve done or my professional ability or merit. He’s already decided that I’ll break my word, so what can I say that would change his mind? As far as I can tell, I have no legal recourse unless I can prove that his words were sexist, but based on what he said, I think he actually discriminates against parents regardless of gender. So frustrating.

    Reply

    • anitaclew
      Mar 01, 2016 @ 15:23:16

      Christine, it doesn’t seem that you will be able to win this manager over. Would you really want to work for him permanently? I am hopeful there are better opportunities for you.

      Reply

  6. Sue Koches
    Mar 01, 2016 @ 10:12:42

    I’ve not been asked during an interview, but online there is a site that requires you to post the year you graduated high school or it won’t let you see the jobs that they have. Nice for us older workers trying to re-invent or move closer to our homes with our work.

    Reply

    • Stan Sperling
      Mar 02, 2016 @ 14:04:49

      How about reporting this employer to the appropriate government agency? If you can submit evidence of their action, hopefully they will investigate. I share your frustration, as many employers do not understand the value of older workers.

      Reply

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Disclaimer

Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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