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Have you ever wondered where the line is drawn between being asked personal questions in an interview simply because the employer is trying to get to know you, versus being probed about a personal matter that is unrelated to the job?

Whether you are on a hiring committee screening candidates or you are job searching and prepping for interviews, it is important for all individuals involved in the hiring process to understand that certain interview questions and topics are off-limits.

Why are some interview questions considered illegal?

During all stages of the interview process, certain questions are illegal to ask because they can lead to discrimination allegations and charges. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits interviewers from asking questions that can hint towards discrimination. Specifically, it is illegal to ask questions inquiring about a person’s race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), religion, age, disability, or genetic information.

What makes a question illegal?

As an interviewee, it might feel normal for an interviewer to ask personal questions in an effort to learn more about you. Keep in mind however, there are topics and questions that are sensitive and must be phrased a particular way to be considered legal.

An interview question is considered illegal if it violates the privacy rights of the candidate. For example, any prying questions or assumptions related to a person’s age (even if it can be easily figured out based on graduation date), marital status (even if a candidate is wearing a ring on their left ring finger), or religion (in any capacity) are unacceptable. 

Legal vs. illegal interview questions

Expert tip: Word choice and sentence structure are the make or break factors between a legal or illegal interview question.

Even if it feels like a touchy subject, interviewers are legally able to ask questions that are pertinent to a candidate’s ability to do a job. That is, as long as the questions are phrased appropriately, of course.

For example…

An interviewer cannot ask if you have a disability but can ask if you are able to perform the specific duties of the position (such as the ability to lift a minimum of 15 pounds or stand for at least 6 hours per day, if the job requires it).  

An interviewer cannot ask if you have any children but can ask if you are available to work nights and weekends (if the job requires it).

An interviewer cannot ask if you are a U.S. citizen but can ask if you are authorized to work in the U.S.

An interviewer cannot ask which religious holidays you observe but can ask if you are able to work their required schedule.

To see more examples of illegal interview questions with suitable alternatives, check out this awesome chart by Betterteam.

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Actionable Steps


1

Familiarize yourself with the details

This applies to both the interviewer and interviewee. What can and cannot legally be asked in an interview? If there is a grey area that you’re unsure of, see step 2 below.

2

Seek assistance

Contact the Human Resources department or consider consulting a coworker or colleague on how to best handle the question if you’re unsure.

3

Learn more

There are laws in place to protect candidates. For example, applicants with a disability are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and workers over the age of 40 are protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

4

Read more on this topic

You can learn more about illegal interview questions by reading the following articles, reviewed to be the best by our professionals 11 Common Interview Questions That Are Actually Illegal, 30 Interview Questions You Can’t Ask and 30 Legal Alternatives and Illegal Interview Questions.

About the Author


Dr. Alyssa Harmon-Salter

Dr. Alyssa Harmon-Salter

Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership

Alyssa holds an Ed. D. in Educational Leadership from Northern Arizona University. For the last 7 years, she has coached hundreds of college students on how to be successful academically and in prepping for a job.
Full Bio | LinkedIn


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