Some links in this post may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no cost to you. But rest assured that all opinions remain my own. You can read my full affiliate disclaimer here.
Job interviews can be exciting, but even the most prepared candidates can be thrown off by unexpected situations. While some hiring managers may ask something that is considered inappropriate, some questions are flat out illegal.
At least, discriminating on the basis of these questions is illegal — so good hiring managers steer clear of these invasive questions altogether.
Unfortunately, you might encounter discriminatory questions on your job search. Read on to learn what’s considered an inappropriate interview question and how to respond if you get asked one.
Illegal interview questions an employer cannot ask
Although laws can be murky and vary from state to state, employers shouldn’t be asking about any of the following, since not hiring someone on the basis of these grounds could constitute discrimination.
- National origin
- Family status
The only exception is if there’s a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), or a requirement related to one of the above attributes that’s directly related to an essential job duty and is considered necessary for the operation of the company. For example, it’s okay to ask the age of a candidate for a bartender position, since you must be 21 to legally serve alcohol.
Most employers are well-aware of basic discriminatory questions, but even the most experienced hiring managers may ask an inappropriate question accidentally or in a roundabout way. Here’s how to answer illegal interview questions in a graceful manner that protects your rights and keeps the interview going in a positive direction.
1. “Do you have children or plan on having children?”
While friends and family might bug you about your plans to have kids, it’s always inappropriate for an interviewer to ask about your family status, regardless of your gender. Employers may assume you’ll need extra time off, be unable to keep regular hours, or have to take paternity or maternity leave — and they could reject your candidacy on those grounds.
Even if you’re pregnant, plan on becoming pregnant, or already have children, you’re not required to tell your employer. You also don’t need to answer questions about your childcare plans, or relationship status. You can respond to this question by saying you can perform all the job duties with no problems.
2. ”What country are you from?
Although a hiring manager might casually ask this question to make conversation, it’s actually borderline illegal. Employers shouldn’t ask about your country of origin, race, or ethnicity. They shouldn’t even ask if English is your first language, though they can provide testing to determine your level of fluency. You can respond politely by saying, “I’m legally authorized to work in the United States.”
3. “How much did you make at your last job?”
This question always puts a candidate in a bad position. Answer truthfully and you risk getting low-balled; answer dishonestly and you could get fired if caught. Fortunately, there’s been a trend across the country in making this question illegal to ask.
Several states have banned the question as a way to reduce the wage discrimination between men and women. California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York City, and Oregon all have laws on the books or upcoming laws that ban interview questions about salary history.
Whether this question is illegal or not in your state, it’s in your best interest to stick to your salary expectations and the value you will bring to this position. Come prepared for the interview by knowing the market value of the job you’re applying for.
4. ”What religion do you practice?”
Religious discrimination is illegal; therefore, employers should not be asking about your religious beliefs, practices, or observances. However, employers can ask if you can work during regular hours of operation. If an interviewer asks questions about your faith, you can reply that your religious commitments won’t have any impact on your ability to work.
5. ”Have you ever been arrested?”
Unless you’ve been convicted of a crime, you’re considered innocent in the eyes of the law, and therefore, you’re not obligated to disclose your arrest record. However, an interviewer can ask you about any convictions that relate to the job and duties. For example, if the job includes handling money, the employer can ask about a theft conviction.
Don’t forget that in many states, employers can perform a background check, so use your best judgment in how forthcoming you want to be with discussing your criminal history.
6. ”How old are you?”
Except in rare situations, employers also shouldn’t be asking about your age. Similar questions, such as “When did you graduate high school?” or “What year were you born?” are just roundabout ways to determine a candidate’s age.
If an interviewer seems to be trying to root out your age, you can refuse to answer or say, “My age does not affect my ability to perform my duties.”
That said, employers might need your date of birth or ID to run a background check, but they shouldn’t be using your age against you in the hiring process.
7. ”Were you honorably discharged from the military?”
Employers can ask you what rank you achieved and what branch you served in; however, unless it pertains to your job responsibilities, they shouldn’t be inquiring about your discharge or military records.
If asked about this, you can say, “There’s nothing from my military past that will affect my job performance.”
8. “Have you ever declared bankruptcy?”
Except for some limited exceptions for banking and financial positions, employers are not supposed to ask about your financial situation or status as it can lead to socio-economic discrimination. Some employers are allowed to check your credit history, but only with your permission first. If someone asks about your financial status, try to put a positive spin on it and avoid answering any questions you’re uncomfortable with.
9. “Do you have a disability?”
The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) made is illegal for companies to discriminate against qualified candidates with a physical or mental disability. Employers are not supposed to ask if you’ve ever had a workplace injury, if you’re taking prescription medications, if you’re being treated for mental health problems, or anything that implies you may have a disability.
If you choose to respond to any of questions related to a disability, simply say, “I’m confident I’ll be able to perform all the job responsibilities.”
10. ”What is your sexual orientation?”
Sexual orientation obviously doesn’t have an impact on your ability to perform your job, and answering this question can open you up to discrimination. Fundamental anti-discrimination laws protect against this question.
There’s no situation where this is an acceptable question, and you’re well within your rights to state that the question is unsuitable for the workplace or even to report the hiring manager for their behavior by filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Hopefully you won’t run into illegal interview questions — but you’ll be prepared if you do
Knowing how to respond to an illegal interview question can be tricky. You always have the option to refuse to answer or to end the interview. While illegal questions may be indicative of poor company policies and could be a red flag, they could also be a sign of an inexperienced hiring manager.
By knowing your rights as a job applicant, you can steer the conversation in a way that protects you. When beginning your next job search, start by looking up illegal interview questions an employer cannot ask and practice how to respond if they come up. This way, you won’t be caught off guard and can focus on acing your interview and landing the job.