Illegal Job Interview Questions: What Can't They Ask Me?

Congratulations on the interview call. You're almost there. But before you sit across the table or pick the phone to talk to your potential employer, learn to recognize questions that could be illegal.

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(Photo Credit: Mike Licht/Flickr)

Federal and state laws prohibit prospective employers from asking questions around any of the following categories:

  • Age
  • Race/Color/National Origin
  • Credit rating or Economic Status
  • Religious Affiliation or Beliefs
  • Citizenship
  • Sex
  • Arrest and Conviction
  • Disability
  • Height and Weight
  • Military Discharge Status

The following sample questions and a brief analysis will help you identify illegal interview questions.

1. "When did you graduate from high school?"

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects people over the age of 40, and who work in companies with more than 20 employees, from employment discrimination. Employers may specify an age limit for a position only in rare cases where it can be proven that age is a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ).

In all other cases, an interviewer may not ask questions from which your age may easily be determined. Individuals under age 40 aren't covered by the ADEA, but many states do offer protection.

2. "What is the nationality of your parents?"

Employers cannot ask questions to establish your race or national origin. Unless where it is BFOQ, like in a modeling role, you cannot be asked to submit photographs with the application form either.

3. "Do you live in your own or a rented house?"

Questions to verify the financial status of the applicant viz: property ownership, credit rating, bank accounts etc. are not acceptable, unless it is job related.

4. "Would you be able to work on (a religious holiday)?"

Unless they are a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society, an employer cannot ask you about your religious affiliation or beliefs.

5. "Are you native born or naturalized?"

Before making an offer of employment, questions on citizenship are not appropriate. If the intent is to find out if you are authorized to work here in the US, then that is the question you need to answer -- that you do or do not have a work permit.

6. "Is your spouse employed?"

Employers cannot ask questions around sexual identity, marital status, pregnancy, number and age of children, intent of having children in the future, employment status of spouse and name of spouse.

However, if the intent is to understand if the applicant has commitments or responsibilities that may interfere with the duties on the job, then that is a fair question.

7. "Have you ever been arrested?"

Asking for conviction details is OK for "security sensitive" jobs. Requesting arrest records is not. (The fact that an individual was arrested is not proof that he engaged in criminal conduct.) However, several states' laws limit employers' use of arrest and conviction records to make employment decisions. If you have questions about these kinds of laws, you should contact your state fair employment agency for more information.

8. "Do you have any disabilities?"

Employers cannot ask disability-related questions or require medical examinations until after a conditional job offer is given. They may however ask if you will need an accommodation to perform a specific job duty, and if the answer is yes, the employer may then ask what the accommodation would be.

9. "What is your height?" Or "What is your weight?"

You don't have to answer questions related to your height and weight unless it is a BFAQ. Many states have laws specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of height and weight unless based on actual job responsibilities.

10. "What is your military discharge status?"

Because discharge status could be for various reasons, even in the categories above, questions around your military discharge status are illegal and can be considered grounds for discrimination.

In summary, under the laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC, it is illegal to discriminate against someone (applicant or employee) because of their race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, military status, or disability. However, as the interviewee, it is up to you to gauge the intent behind the questions and answer accordingly. You could also choose not to answer. In addition, recognize that if you strongly believe that you have been discriminated against by an employer, labor union or employment agency when applying for a job, you may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever faced any inappropriate or illegal questions during a job interview? Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

3 Comments

  1. 3 JP 24 Oct
    Laws are one thing. Enforcement of those laws are another. Unfortunately there are a lot of violations going on everyday, but it is very difficult to prove they are being violated. An employer can come up with several reasons for terminating you. To Stephanie. Technically, if you were working for a staffing agency the people you say fired you for your appointment did not fire you - the staffing firm fired you. Add to that, you are probably working under "at will" terms. It would be really difficult for you to prevail in any action. The company tells the agency they do not want you there any more - the agency then has no place for you to work and is forced to lay you off. The company does not have to have a reason as long as they do not discriminate due to a protected status you can't do much about it.
  2. 2 Stephanie 22 Oct
    Are these comments illegal? 1) You need to find an older, more mature man. 2) You need to step up your game? 3) You need to do something extra instead of just standing there looking good waiting to put parts on the line. I was fired and the reason was: I didn't give them a weeks notice about a doctor's appointment. The week before, I had one scheduled after the work day but due to circumstances and no response from my area leader, I had to cancel the appointment on my last break which cost me money. When I went back in from taking a break at the end of the 8 hour shift, my area leader asked me why I was still there. He told me to go to my doctor appointment so I told him I canceled that appointment on the last break and was going to stay. He has even flipped me off. Can I file a lawsuit against the company even though I was working for them through a staffing agency? If so, how long do I have to file this after being fired?
  3. 1 Job hunter 15 Oct
    Thanks for this list. I've seen plenty of employers asking these kinds of questions on their jobs portals. Graduation dates have been required fields in some portals I've used, and I've recently come across portals that expressly ask if you're disabled, and they give you a menu of disabilities to choose from, then also ask if you need a reasonable accomodation. These are not small mom and pop shops operating this way; these are multinationals that know better, or ought to. Can you provide a link for reporting this kind of behavior that clearly reflects an intent to discriminate? These companies need to be held accountable. They're not above the law, although they might think so.

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