During a job interview, you’re bound to hear all sorts of questions that are meant to help employers pick people who have the skills and experience that are needed for the job. But beware — there are some questions that have no place lurking in an interview.
As a heads up, the following is practical advice for how to navigate the questions in the moment. We are not lawyers and nothing that follows is legal advice.
Every now and then, an illegal interview question or two will slip out. Most of the time, these questions aren’t meant to demonize you or make you feel like you’re not good enough for the job. Sometimes people just ask questions without even realizing that they’re illegal.
Interviewers just want to be sure that you’re a good fit for the position, but it’s important to know that only questions that relate to the job requirements should be asked.
Federal and state laws prevent employers from asking questions that aren’t related to the job they’re hiring for. Unless these questions have anything to do with the job requirements, they shouldn’t be mentioned during an interview.
Illegal interview questions concern gender or sex, marital or family status, citizenship or nationality, age, religion, credit history, criminal record, disability, or military discharge. To not hire someone because of any of these factors would be discriminatory.
Unfortunately, a lot of these questions are pretty common as conversation starters. Before you get to the interview, it’s good to know what to do if you happen to hear one.
Discriminatory questions about gender are abundant. Some of these questions are pretty straightforward, like “Do you think a woman would be able to manage a team of all men?” and some are more subtle, “are you capable of performing the duties of this role along with your obligations outside of work?”
Questions about gender shouldn’t come up during interviews, unless it directly relates to the qualifications of a job, like serving as an attendant in a gender-specific bathroom. Otherwise, your gender shouldn’t be taken into account when determining if you’re a good fit for the job. Don’t let fragile masculinity keep you from getting your dream job!
If a question about gender comes up, your best approach would be to answer the question without mentioning gender at all.
“Do you think you would be able to manage a team of all men?”
“I have a lot of experience working in management. In my last job, the department I led exceeded its sales by 30%.”
2. Marital or Family Status
“Do you plan on having a baby? Are you going to get married? Will you continue working after having kids? Do you ever get scared at night?”
Aside from wondering if you’re afraid of the dark, these are all questions about your marital or family status — and interviewers legally can’t ask you about them. You might think interviewers are being nosy (which they might be), but these questions come up as way for employers to figure out if you’re committed to the job and the company.
A good way to respond would be to mention that you’re committed to your professional growth. Redirect the conversation back to the position you’re interviewing for. A good answer might sound something like, “I’m more interested in discussing career growth and development opportunities at your company. Could you tell me more about that?”
3. Citizenship, Ancestry, or Nationality
Employers in the United States can get into a lot of trouble for hiring people that aren’t legally allowed to work in the country. Because of this, companies have started to take more extreme measures toward finding out their applicants’ citizenship before they’re even hired.
An interviewer can ask “Are you legally authorized to work in the United States?” or “How many languages are you fluent in?” Any other way of asking this question — “are you a U.S. citizen?” or “can you sing the entirety of the Star Spangled Banner and explain the meaning within the lyrics?” — is illegal (okay, that last question might not be illegal, but could you imagine if someone asked you that in an interview?).
If you think they’ve made a friendly mistake, you could say something like “I’m from South Carolina, what about you?”
If you think this question is being asked with less friendly intentions, you could say “I’ve lived a few different places, but I’m legally eligible to work in the United States.”
You also have the option to not answer and could state, “This question does not relate to my ability to perform the job.”
Younger candidates often get passed over for older, more experienced ones, and older candidates are sometimes disregarded for younger employees who would cost less in terms of salary.
Interviewers ask questions about age to figure out if you have the required experience for the job. Interviewers can legally ask questions about age if the job has an age requirement, like being a bartender.
Interviewers can’t ask for your age with questions like, “What is your date of birth?”
A good answer would remind them of your relevant strengths and show them how your experience can benefit their company, “I actually have a lot of experience as a customer service representative. I have a lot of strength in dealing with high stress situations, and our customer satisfaction rating went up 15% during my time at my previous company.”
You can also choose not to answer and say something like, “My age is not an issue for my ability to perform the duties of the job.”
Employers might ask about religion so they can plan weekend or holiday schedules. The most common questions about religion are usually “Do you go to church on Sunday mornings?” or “What religious holidays do you observe?”
When interviewers ask these questions, they might be interested in hearing about your commitment to the Church of Satan, but they’re probably really asking if you can work certain days or times. Employers can legally ask questions like, “Can you work Sunday mornings?” but they should never relate these questions to religion.
If someone asks you a question about religion, you could also assure them of your availability by saying something like, “My schedule is very flexible and I’m sure I’ll be able to work the schedule needed for this position.” If you really want the job, you’ll just have to reschedule your church-wide seance.
6. Credit History
Prospective employers can’t ask about your financial status or credit history during interviews, unless you’re applying for certain financial or banking positions. Employers can check a prospective employee’s credit with their permission.
If someone illegally asks about your credit history, you could simply tell them, “My credit will not affect my ability to perform the job to expectations.”
7. Criminal Record
You can’t be asked about arrests without convictions or involvement in political causes, but interviewers can legally ask about any convicted crimes if they relate to the job duties. For example, if you’re interviewing for a job that involves guarding a priceless piece of art, the interviewer can ask if you’ve ever been convicted of theft.
Depending on where you live and the job you’re interviewing for, the employer might be able to check your criminal record as part of a background check.
If you choose to respond, you could tell the interviewer, “There’s nothing in my history that would affect my ability to perform the duties of this job.”
Interviewers will often ask about your ability to perform certain tasks, with questions like “Are you able to safely lift and carry items weighing up to 50 pounds?” or “Are you able to stand the length of an eight hour shift?” These questions are legal and fairly common.
The Americans With Disabilities Act prevents employers from discriminating against people with disabilities who are qualified for a position. Employers can’t ask your height, weight, or any details regarding physical or mental illnesses or limitations, unless they directly relate to your ability to perform the job.
If you choose to reply, you can say, “I’m confident that I will able to perform the requirements of the position.”
9. Military Discharge
If you have a military background, an interviewer might ask questions about which branch of the military you served in and your rankings. Interviewers can also ask about any education or experience you gained that relates to the job you’re applying for.
Interviewers can’t ask about your type of discharge, any military records, or questions about foreign military service. If you choose to answer these questions, you can tell them that there’s nothing in your records that would keep from being able to succeed in the position.
Sometimes interviewers ask inappropriate question without even realizing it — they can be just as oblivious as we are. In that case, you can respond to them politely, but only acknowledge the intent of the question in your answer.
You can always end the interview or refuse to answer the question. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s better than working for a company whose policies you don’t agree with. Being asked illegal questions might even show you that you don’t want to work for the company, in that case — they’ve done you a favor by showing you that they suck!
It’s always good to know where the law stands and how to answer appropriately to awkward or illegal questions.
Again, this technically isn’t legal advice and we’re not lawyers. However, if you choose to take legal action after being asked illegal questions you should seek advice from an actual lawyer.
If you feel that you’ve been intentionally discriminated against by an employer based on your gender, family status, race, religion, etc., you have the option of filing a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Contact a lawyer who handles labor issues or contact your local EEOC office to pursue filing a claim.