5 Illegal Job Interview Questions (& What To Do If You’re Asked One)

In my four years as a communication student, the class that still stands out to me as one of the most valuable was my interviewing class.

This class wasn’t just about preparing students to go on the inevitable ~grownup~ job interviews we’d be headed out on as we crept towards graduation –- it also gave us a lot of valuable information on how to conduct interviews.

Interviewing people isn’t something I ever saw myself doing, and to be fair, the only time I’ve ever conducted an employment interview was while searching for a dog-sitter for my puppy. (And to be really fair, my only real questions were “Will you let my dog out?” and “What do you charge?”) But knowing how to effectively and properly interview a person is good for more than just actually being an interviewer -– it also helps you, as the interviewee, to understand when your interviewer is being unethical or illegal.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of rules when it comes to interviewing. Laws protect us from being discriminated against in job interview situations based on race, sex, religion, color, and national origin, and a lot of questions that feel simply unethical may actually open companies up to Equal Opportunity Employment lawsuits.

It is important to know whether or not you are being discriminated against during an interview. You might be able to respond to it in a way that deflects the actual question and is sufficient without giving too many personal details or divulging private information. If nothing else, the ability to notice the unethical question might have you leaving the interview with a bad taste in your mouth that shows you that the job you’re applying for might not be the one for you.

In any case, I rounded up a list of commonly asked interview questions that are inappropriate, and in most cases, actually illegal. You don’t have to answer these questions if you are asked them in an interview -– you certainly shouldn’t feel pressured to. So, I’ve also included an alternative response to each question that doesn’t require actually answering it.

1. The Question: “Are you married/pregnant?”

It is not just weird AF for an interviewer to ask you if you’re single, married, pregnant, or planning on kids — it is illegal. They may ask questions such as these to assess your possible level of commitment to the position — but tbh, it isn’t really their business to know.

How to respond if you’re asked this:

“I prefer not to discuss details of my personal life, but I can assure you that I will fully commit and confidently meet the requirements of this position.”

(Alternate response: stop asking about my womb, weirdo.)

2. The Question: “How many children do you have/how old are they?”

Similarly, an interviewer is not supposed to ask you questions about your children (or ask you if you have children), because an employer should not be able to discriminate against you based on whether or not you have kids.

How to respond if you’re asked this:

“I prefer not to discuss details of my family, but I can assure you they are all supportive of my commitment to my professional life.”

 3. The Question: “Do you have any religious holidays you celebrate?”

This is inappropriate because it reveals your religion -– something an employer cannot discriminate against you for, and therefore shouldn’t know during the interview process. This question, in particular, is basically a weird way of asking about your availability and need for personal time to celebrate holidays.

How to respond if you’re asked this:

“I am always available to work Monday-Saturday -– my religious beliefs and holidays I observe will not affect that.” (Tell them whatever your actual availability is — it is honest, no one can fault you for it, and you don’t have to disclose personal religious beliefs.)

4. The Question: “Do you have any disabilities/what are they?”

You’ve probably answered questions on online job applications that asked things like “Do you have the ability to stand/squat/lift up to 30 lbs?” And those are totally appropriate questions to ask –- they help assess your ability to fulfill the exact physical requirements of the job. However, if you are point blank asked if you have any disabilities that will prevent you from being able to fulfill these requirements during your job interview, it is very much not okay.

How to respond if you’re asked this: “I am very confident that I am capable of all physical requirements of this position.” (You probably wouldn’t be applying for it if you weren’t, so tell them that.)

5. The Question: “Were you/your parents born in the U.S.?”

It is okay for an interviewer to ask if you’re legally able to work in the U.S. (although they probably shouldn’t — that is a question that is better saved for the job application itself). They can’t, however, ask you directly if you were or weren’t born in the U.S.

How to respond if you’re asked this: “I am legally able to work in the U.S.” You probably wouldn’t be applying for — and interviewing for — this job if you didn’t know that you could legally accept it if an offer were extended to you. Be honest, and only honest.

*****

These are just a handful of questions you shouldn’t be asked (or shouldn’t be asking, if you’re the interviewer) during a job interview. For more information, check out this guide, or one of these websites!

Mary writes every day for TFD, and tweets every day for her own personal fulfillment. Talk to her about money and life at mary@thefinancialdiet.com!

Image via Unsplash 

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  • em

    This always drives me a little crazy – with the exception of the disability question, these questions themselves aren’t illegal and it is not illegal to ask. It’s only illegal to make a hiring decision based on your responses. Ask a manager has a good piece here: https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2011/01/10/is-that-interview-question-legal

    All that being said I think that these are good responses to tricky questions!

    • Judith

      The only way your answer won’t affect their hiring decision is if you don’t give them one. Surely, they won’t decide not to hire you “because you have kids”, they’ll just “find the other candidate is a better fit for the job”.

      • Barbara D Holtzman

        Exactly right. Regardless of whether it’s illegal to answer these questions, they shouldn’t be answered with a direct response. It encourages inappropriate discrimination in hiring, even if it’s not technically illegal discrimination. Most decent employers know that.

    • LynnP2

      UGH that’s a good point. I think I’d be diplomatic if I was desperate (i.e. unemployed), but otherwise I’m pretty sure my response would be, “Given that it’s illegal for you to base your hiring decision on my answer, I don’t think I should give one.”

    • Kyra

      +1 to the Ask a Manager reference. As an HR person, I really don’t like misleading articles like this that misstate what is or isn’t legal. Asking the above questions in an interview is stupid and could open you up to discrimination claims, which is why they’re bad practice, or in the article’s words unethical. But stupidity isn’t illegal. The exception is the disabilities one.

    • Jac

      yeah – i remember mary got a lot of flack for a recent article about references. in both, she sort of acknowledged that she hasn’t come from a hiring perspective, so the info given is really more a rehashing of other info. it would be great to have articles like this written by people with hiring experience or people (lawyers? idk) involved in equal employment opportunity compliance/violations

  • LynnP2

    Thankfully I’ve never been asked any of these questions – and I LOVE that NY just made it illegal to ask about your prior salary.

  • Adriane

    I once had an interviewer ask me if I was married or had children (or planned to in the future) because he wanted to make sure I had the time and energy to commit fully to the job. He also wanted me to become certified in the field, which would take time for studying.
    I’m sorry…what? Because children and a husband mean I won’t commit fully or make time to study? Jerk.

  • I’ve also heard that they shouldn’t ask whether you have a car – though I don’t know if it’s strictly illegal. There are some jobs where it’s absolutely required, and you’ll know that up front, for jobs that don’t require you to drive it’s perfectly alright for you to take a bus, uber/lyft, train, subway, whatever. Employers sometimes ask this to gauge your current income/class level and to try to assess what they can pay you (whether they think they can lowball you, etc.). It’s perfectly alright to answer “I have reliable transportation” instead of saying “I don’t have a car.” Bus/uber counts as “reliable transportation.”

  • Alex Dillon

    This is a great, useful article! The only thing I would contest is the answer you give about religion – saying ‘Monday-Saturday’ not only exceeds the standard work week but also gives Sunday as your default “real” day off, which excludes Jews (Shabbat falls on Saturday) and Muslims (who traditionally rest on Fridays, though many Muslims in the west don’t take the whole day off due to societal norms) – two groups more likely to be discriminated against in hiring procedures. To say “Sunday to Friday” or even more rarely, “Saturday to Thursday” would clearly out the interviewee as a member of a minority faith.

    To say that religious holidays will never interfere with work week hours is untrue even for Christians who celebrate, for example, Ash Wednesday, and overlooks the fact that Christmas frequently falls on a weekday but is generally not expected as a work day.

    I’m not quite sure of an appropriate alternate response – “My religious observances will not unduly interfere with the work week” doesn’t quite sound strong enough, but unless one is completely secular or a Protestant Christian, the answer “My religious observances will never interfere with work hours” simply isn’t true, because western society was not structured around said observances.

    • Barbara D Holtzman

      “I have no religious or cultural barriers with regard to work schedule”

      Unless of course, you do, which would make that answer more difficult.

      Employers with over a certain number of employees are required to make “reasonable accommodations,” but the demand for “open availability” rather flies in the face of that. Retail can usually make such accommodations, not that they will or want to, but a Monday through Friday, 9-to-5 job will have more difficulty doing so.

    • Duskpunk

      Assuming that you know your regular schedule aligns with the job’s: “My religious observance will not regularly interfere with the work schedule.”

      I think the response given was an example, not the literal recommended response.

  • Violaine

    In the UK it’s legal to ask if you have any disability – they often ask in application forms. They say they use it to make sure they promote equal chances and so they can make arrangements to your working day – i.e make sure your office is accessible to you, or that your computer is equiped with a special screen, etc. It would be interesting to see how it is actually used.

    • Violaine

      They also ask about your religion, again to promote equal chances. And your sexuality. It was quite a shock for me coming from France where it is actually illegal; but you always have the option of ticking “prefer not to say”.

      • Jac

        wow, i had no clue about that! US colleges do something similar where they ask about race in the name of improving racial diversity in higher education (though most elite universities have a lower percentage of students of color than would be representative of the US as a whole, so it’s unclear if that’s actually how the info is being used)

      • Rcg

        For the disability question, I feel like marking “prefer not to say” is tantamount to saying “of course I have a disability, but I don’t want to tell you what it is because I know it will affect my chances of getting the job, no matter what you say”.

      • Rcg

        Also, I’ve filled out several applications (online) that don’t include a selection of “no, I don’t have a disability”. You either have to say you do have one, or that you don’t want to answer the question.

  • Jerry Gunning

    Question # 6 “How old are you?”

  • jofutt

    As a serial entrepreneur, I have conducted more than 1000 job interviews over the course of my career. I disagree with Mary’s claim that an initial interviewer should not ask whether a person can legally work in the USA because they would not have applied otherwise. I have encountered numerous applicants who are currently on a non-work visa or working for another company on a work visa who have applied for jobs with my companies even though our posting specifically says “must be legally permitted to work in the USA. We will not sponsor.” Asking this question is an absolute must for employers even if the person has stated that they are permitted to work in the USA on the application form.