Watch out for These Illegal Job Interview Questions

Photo Credit: Unsplash, Sebastian Herrmann

Job interviews are nerve-wracking, there’s no two ways about it. And though you’re trying to put your best foot forward fielding questions, the interviewer may stump you from time to time. Just remember to breathe and answer confidently. But sometimes you don’t only get the basic questions, like “Tell me about your past experience,” or “Why did you leave your last job?”

In some cases, interviewers may ask questions that are downright illegal. If that happens, it should be a major red flag that you probably don’t want work there. There are laws to protect against discrimination with regards to age, health, religion and more.

Here are a few questions you should be on look out for, and we’ve got a couple of suggestions on how to handle some of them if asked.

7. How old are you?

Chances are your resume outlines at least some dates, including high school and/or college graduation, so the potential employer could guesstimate. But asking the question is out of bounds. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects the older workforce from being squeezed out of the hiring process by making it illegal to consider age for people over 40 (sorry, younger workers) – after all, some employers view older workers as incompetent, unable to keep up, and nearing retirement.

And they don’t have to straight out ask the question verbatim for it to be in-kosher. They could mask it with, “When do you plan on retiring?” or “How long have you been working?” Be cautious of these too.

6. How is your health?

This should never come up in an interview. Period. This would include queries about your weight, height, and past illnesses you’ve suffered. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) also protects applicants with disabilities. The one thing they can ask is regarding your physical limitations if the job responsibilities include lifting, reaching items off a tall shelf, etc.

There are many manual labor jobs that require someone to fit certain requirements. They can ask if there is any conditions that could keep you from performing a job. But only if these things are required for the task. It’s okay to answer based on these questions.


5. Are you married? or Do you have children?

Invasive much? Hannah Keyser at Mental Floss explains why you should look out for this.

“Anything that fishes for information about a candidate’s family plans (marriage, engagement, and child planning) is technically illegal because it falls under pregnancy discrimination. It can often seem like a hiring manager is just making pleasant conversation and trying to get to know you better, but job applicants are not obligated to disclose any personal information. This could also be a subtle way to question someone about their sexual orientation—another protected class.”

You can talk about your family, especially if you’re looking to bond with an employer that has kids of their own. But be careful if they explicitly ask things like, “Do you have child care lined up?” or “How do you handle your job if your kids get sick?”

4. What religion do you practice?

Frankly, consider walking out the door if they ask you this. The Yale Office of Career Strategy says:

“Questions about an applicant’s religious affiliation or beliefs (unless the religion is a bona fide occupational qualification), are generally viewed as non job-related and problematic under federal law. Religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies are exempt from the federal laws that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces when it comes to the employment of individuals based on their particular religion. In other words, an employer whose purpose and character is primarily religious is permitted to lean towards hiring persons of the same religion.”

But if you’re not gonna be working in a religious institution, say you’d prefer not to answer because it doesn’t affect your work. Or…yeah, just go.

3. What is your nationality?

If an employer explicitly stated thee question this way, it’s illegal. But they’re allowed to ask if you’re authorized to work in the US – in fact, this is a check box on most applications. But questions like, “What country are you from?” or “What country are you from originally?” are a big no-no.

2. Are you a social drinker?

I’ve never in my 20+ years of working ever came across this one…

It may be an innocent question. Perhaps they have team happy hours and want to see if you’ll fit in. But seriously, this is covered under the ADA. Vivian Giang at Business Insider reports:

For example, if you’re a recovering alcoholic, treatment of alcoholism is protected under this act and you don’t have to disclose any disability information before landing an official job offer.

So feel free not to answer.

1. Have you been arrested before?

Ouch. This one stings and will make you uncomfortable whether you have been or not.

An employer can inquire if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime or misdemeanor. They can also run a background check (per your consent upon an employment offer) to find out. But if you were arrested and nothing was convicted, then…no. This question is out of line.

If asked, rephrase the question to them, “Do you mean have I ever been convicted?” This will redirect the question to a safer place.

How should you react to these questions, overall?

There may be a situation where the interviewer is new at one-on-ones and doesn’t know the rules of recruitment. So it is possible there’s no malicious probing going on. But since no one is in the room but you, you’ve got to use your judgement. Experience.com‘s advice is:

“If an interviewer asks if you have children, you may deduce that she wants to know if you’d be missing work often to care for them. You might simply answer that you have no problem meeting the position’s attendance requirements.”

For any of these, you might similarly explain that it won’t affect your job performance, while not answering the meat of the question.

Most employers are up on the legalities of interviewing, so if everything is on the level you probably won’t need to field illegal questions. Just remember, you are interviewing them as well, determining if the company suits your needs. After the interview, try to really reflect on if the place is right for you.

And good luck!