How to Avoid Questions You Can’t Ask in an Interview

You’ve separated the star candidates from that imposing pile of resumes, and now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. To learn more, you’ll want to ask them about their work habits, past challenges, and whether they go to church every Sunday. Okay, definitely do not ask that last question.

Why not? Maybe you just need to know whether they’d be available on the weekends, but a candidate’s religious practices are none of your business. What if you instead asked whether they can regularly work on Sundays? Phrased this way, you can get the information you need without running afoul of the law.

Certain interview questions, or even language in job descriptions, are off-limits because they open the door to allegations of discrimination, even if that wasn’t the intention. As a hiring manager, it’s important for you to know where to draw the line. Here are some guidelines to help.

What Are Examples of Questions You Can’t Ask in an Interview?

Questions you can’t ask in an interview are those that pry into an applicant’s protected status or privacy rights. For example, workers over the age of 40 are protected by age discrimination law. So you can’t ask an applicant’s age, even if their appearance or the graduation date on their resume gives it away. You also may not make comments or take notes indicating an applicant’s general or estimated age.

If you slip up and ask an inappropriate question, you expose yourself to possible legal action if an applicant has reason to believe your question was the basis for a discriminatory hiring decision. At that point or, even better, before you get to that point, it’s vital to reach out to your corporate counsel for guidance.

Applicants sometimes volunteer certain information (whether they’re married or have kids, for example) that you can’t directly request. If you didn’t ask for those disclosures, then don’t sweat it. Still, you’ll want to avoid even the appearance of such information being used as part of your hiring decision.

Questions You Can’t Ask in an Interview at a Glance

Some state and local jurisdictions provide additional prohibitions on interview questions that aren’t necessarily restricted under federal law. However, the following interview questions most likely would be illegal in every state (in some cases, whether an interview question is illegal or not can depend on the size of the employer and other factors):

Do You Have a Disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protections for disabled employees and job applicants. If an applicant has an obvious disability (i.e., they’re in a wheelchair) or has disclosed a disability to you, you may inquire about any reasonable accommodations they may need in order to do the job.

What’s Your Age?

Workers over 40 are protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), so asking for their age is like asking for a lawsuit. You can, however, ask whether a job candidate is 18 or older, since their status as a legal adult may be an important legal factor in the job.

Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, in a Union?

While you can tell an applicant about the union status of your workplace, you can’t ask about their current or past affiliation with a union.

Do You Have Kids?

Whether the applicant has kids is not relevant to their candidacy and could be used to discriminate against them. But you may ask about children after they’re hired for insurance purposes.

Can You Tell Us about Your Nearest Relative or next of Kin?

While employers may ask for this information once an applicant is hired (for emergency contact purposes, for example), such questions also should be off-limits during the interview.

What’s Your Heritage?

Are you a U.S. citizen? You may ask whether an applicant is legally eligible to work in the United States (they may have a temporary visa, a green card, or citizenship), but direct questions about their national origin or immigration status are a no-no.

What’s Your Racial Identity?

You’ll want to avoid any questions that specify a person’s ethnic or racial identity.

Have You Ever Been Arrested?

If you need your new hire to pass a security clearance, then you can inform them about this requirement, but it’s best to avoid specifics.

Were You Dishonorably Discharged?

You may ask whether an applicant is a veteran or whether they have any job-related experience in the military. But you shouldn’t ask about their discharge status.

Have You Ever Filed for Bankruptcy?

You can’t ask about bankruptcy filings, loans, wage attachments, or financial status. But you can ask for certain financial information related to benefits of compensation after they’re hired.

Are You Married?

While it’s irrelevant to ask this during the interview, you may ask about dependents for insurance purposes after they’re hired.

There are other questions you can’t ask in an interview that may pertain to specific jobs and situations. For instance, you can’t ask whether an applicant has any speeding tickets unless the job requires a clean driving record (such as a commercial trucker).

With a better idea of the red flag areas, you’ll be able to keep your interview questions within the law.

Avoid Questions You Can’t Ask in an Interview and Get to the Right Candidates

You want to learn as much as you can about your top candidates before you make that all-important decision. But what you don’t want to do is expose yourself (and your company) to a lawsuit. Knowing what questions to ask — and not ask — is critical, but the first step is finding the right people. Before you take a shot in the dark, allow us to help. With our expertise in matching candidates to positions — and our global reach — we can help you find the qualified candidates you need. Even better, you can start the process today by posting a job for free.

Legal Disclaimer: This article is not intended as a substitute for professional legal advice. Always seek the professional advice of an attorney regarding any legal questions you may have.