Oh No You Didn’t: The ABCs of Illegal Interview Questions

June 4, 2020

Avoiding illegal interview questions can be tricky. Here is why it is important to know what you can't ask, as well as the questions that are off limits.

Image of Scrabble letters with the letters SMH.

We’ve all said the wrong thing at one point or another.  In fact, my mouth must be a magnet for my foot, since my foot seems to land there so often!  I figure it has something to do with being a social person, so it’s largely a numbers game.  The more I say, the better likelihood something dumb will eventually come out, despite my best efforts.  Nevertheless, I know that sometimes I have to be extra careful when it comes to the things I say, depending on my audience.  This is never truer than when I have been part of an interviewing team, and I had to remain aware of illegal interview questions.

So, here is the rundown of topics you should avoid during interviews, with special attention to illegal interview questions.  I hope that this will help you find the right candidate, and keep you from asking the wrong questions.

Legal Authenticity vs. Discretion

One of the things I struggle with is finding a good balance between being my authentic self and oversharing.  Some people would say I am an open book. Ok, I am an open book.  In other words, few topics about my life experiences are off limits.  Basically, I want people to be able to tell who I am quickly, which can result in me spilling the tea about myself fairly early on.  Furthermore, I try to be the same person to everyone.  One of the worst things someone could call me is “fake.”  So, I try to be my real self with everyone I meet. Legally, of course.

Illegal Interview Questions Image 1 1
Photo by Nick Youngson | Source | CC by

While authenticity is important, discretion has its place in the business world.  Discretion is simply a way of communicating that makes us mindful to not offend someone, and to avoid revealing private information.  Furthermore, we shouldn’t view being discrete as being fake.  As you can imagine, using discretion keeps us from asking illegal interview questions.  Consequently, avoiding illegal interview questions can help us view our candidates through an unbiased lens.   

The ABCs of Illegal Interview Questions

The biggest reason why these questions are off limits is because they could be perceived as being discriminatory.  Discrimination can be a real problem in the workplace, so it is best to avoid practices that one could perceive as discriminatory.

Here is an alphabetical list of illegal interview questions you should not ask your candidates.


  • Age – You should not ask candidates their age or the year they were born.  That is illegal.  However, there are some occupations where a minimum age is a requirement. In those cases, you will want to ask for proof of age.  Make certain the job you are hiring for requires proof of age before asking for it.
  • Availability – While you will want to know the person you hire is available to work according to the schedule, you should be careful about the way you word your interview questions.  Do not ask women about childcare or ask candidates if they own a car.  Instead, ask for the shifts the candidate is available to work, and if they will be willing to travel if necessary.  Also, you may ask if the candidate has transportation available to get to work.
  • Credit – You should not be asking any questions about whether a candidate has a bank account, garnishments, or credit history, as credit is an illegal topic.
  • Criminal History – While some jobs require vetting where large sums of money or security are concerned, you mostly may not ask about arrest records or convictions.
  • Disability – You should make certain that your employee is able to perform the duties of the job, but do so by fully explaining the demands, and then asking if the candidate can perform all of them.  However, do not ask about disability claims or prior workplace injuries.
Image of a woman sipping from a glass of water as she takes a break from reading illegal interview questions.

Need a break yet? Ok, grab a sip of water, then we’ll get back at it.

  • Education – Here, you may ask about educational degrees.  However, you may not ask the years the candidate received the degrees.
  • Emergency Contact Person – Filing emergency contact information only happens after a candidate is hired.  You should not be asking anything about this prior to completing the new hire paperwork.  Asking for this information during the interview is illegal.
  • Employment – You should not ask how old a candidate was when he/she started working.  However, you may ask where and for how long the candidate worked for a company.
  • Economic Status – If the job requires an employee to own a car, then you may ask that question.  However, be careful.  If you don’t know for certain that the position legally requires the question, don’t ask.  Also, do not ask if the candidate owns a home.
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  • Family Status – You may not ask candidates whether they are single, married, or have children.
  • National Origin and Race – You may not ask questions about race, color, or where a person was born.
  • Physical Attributes – This aligns with disability.  You may ask a candidate if he/she is able to perform all job functions, but you may not enquire about height or weight.  Anything related to the body is illegal, unless otherwise specified
  • Military Service – While information about skills acquired through military training is legal, you may not ask about the conditions of discharge.
  • Name – You may not ask about name changes, such as maiden names, however you may ask if the candidate has worked for the company under a different name in the past.
Image of a man running across the finish line, as a symbol of finishing the list of illegal interview questions.

Go ahead and get another sip of water before we push through the rest.

  • Relatives – This particular topic is tricky, because you may legally ask if relatives work for your company or competitors.  However, you may not outright ask for the names of relatives who work for competitors.
  • Religion and Organizations – While you may ask if the candidate is a member of professional organizations, you may not ask about religion, creed, or non-professional organizations.  Non-professional organizations include sororities, fraternities, and country clubs.
  • Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – Nope.  Don’t even go there. 
  • Zeroing In on Non-Essential Information Just don’t ask anything that is none of your business, because it’s likely an illegal interview question.

As you can see, the list of illegal interview questions is quite long.  Still, each one of these questions should be avoided.  In other words, this is not an a la carte list you can pick and choose from.

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Avoiding Illegal Interview Questions

People, no one is perfect.  I’ll be the first to admit that.  Nevertheless, we should work hard to be mindful of what we ask job candidates, and continue to strive to improve the way we interview.  Illegal interview questions are illegal because they are not anyone’s business except the candidate’s.  They have no place in the workplace, and we will all be wise to keep it that way.  So, next time you prepare for a job interview, review your ABCs of illegal interview questions.  That way, you’ll feel confident you are hiring the right person for the job, and not hiring based on bias.

Image of employees working confidently after being hired without being asked illegal interview questions.

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