15 Common Illegal Interview Questions

By Jeff Gillis

Most job seekers understand that the hiring manager might ask them something unexpected, or maybe even outlandish. But there are certain questions that do more than catch you off-guard. They leave you wondering, “Is that even legal?” The answer is, maybe not.

There are illegal interview questions. Some are banned at a federal level, while others are state or city-specific. However, just because one isn’t allowed doesn’t mean you might not be asked.

Figuring out what hiring managers can and can’t ask isn’t easy for candidates. Luckily, we have your back. If you are wondering what kinds of interview questions aren’t legal, here’s what you need to know.

What Are “Illegal” Interview Questions? Why Are They Asked? How Often Are They Used?

Generally, illegal interview questions are any that are barred by law. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces a variety of policies that cover prohibited employment practices, including certain kinds of inquiries.

Usually, those rules focus on eliminating discrimination from hiring practices. For example, asking a job seeker if they have a medical condition is a no-go. Questions about a person’s race, gender, family status, and similar demographics usually aren’t allowed, either.

However, there are also local laws that take things further. For example, an increasing number of states and cities are barring questions about candidate salary histories.

Regretfully, being asked illegal interview questions happens more than people would like to admit. At some point in your career, there’s a decent chance it’ll happen to you.

If you’re faced with an illegal interview question, the important thing to remember is, you don’t have to answer it. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to sit silently. You can pivot the conversation back to your professional skills and traits. However, if the hiring manager tries to insist, you can use a different approach.

You may ask them why that question is relevant. If it’s a matter of poor phrasing over something nefarious, they can clarify their intentions. If they press forward, you can let them know that you believe that question isn’t legal, if you feel like being bold.

JEFF'S TIP: If you’re facing illegal interview questions, and it doesn’t appear to be poor phrasing or a misunderstanding, remember, you do have the option of leaving. After all, do you want to work for a company that would blatantly disregard the law? Probably not. You aren’t obligated to stay, so head for the door if that’s what you want to do.

15 Illegal Interview Questions

1. Where were you born?

While a hiring manager can ask, “Are you legally authorized to work in the United States?” they can’t ask you this. Employers aren’t allowed to discriminate based on a person’s country of origin or race, so asking where someone was born is generally a no-no.

2. Are you going to want to take time off for religious holidays?

This question crosses the line because it’s specifically asking about religious holidays. Your response could let the hiring manager know if you follow a particular faith, and discriminating against candidates because of religious affiliation is banned.

3. Do you plan on getting pregnant/having children?

Here’s a question that is typically asked of women, but it’s an illegal interview question regardless of who it’s directed toward. A person’s family status is off-limits, including hypotheticals, when it comes to hiring decisions.

It’s also against the law to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, current or, potentially, future. That means there’s no reason for a hiring manager to know the answer to this one.

4. When did you graduate from high school?

This may seem like a strange one, but it’s against the rules for a reason. By knowing when you graduated, the hiring manager can estimate your age.

A hiring manager can usually only discuss your age if there’s a specific job requirement. For example, if you’re interviewing for a bartender job, them asking if you’re 21 or older isn’t out of line.

5. Do you have a disability?

If you’re trying to land a job, a company can’t ask if you have a disability during the hiring process. All they can typically ask is if you can handle the duties, either with or without reasonable accommodations.

Now, once there’s a job offer, things change. You may have to participate in a medical exam, suggesting everyone working in that role is required to do so. You may also have to discuss any accommodations you may need to perform the duties associated with the position.

6. Have you ever filed a workers’ compensation claim?

While a hiring manager can ask, in a general way, if you’re physically capable of doing the job, they can’t ask much else about your health. This includes whether you’ve had a workers’ compensation claim in the past.

Now, this only applies during the initial interview. If there’s a conditional offer in place, and they ask everyone that question, it’s technically fair game.

7. How did you learn [foreign language]?

When it comes to illegal interview questions, here’s another one that may seem like an odd inclusion. However, by asking someone how they learned a foreign language, the hiring manager could be trying to find out your national origin, your parent’s nationality, or a similar detail.

Now, a hiring manager can ask about your level of fluency, as long as they approach it in a general sense. However, asking how many years of experience you have or if you’re a “native speaker,” may be crossing the line.

8. How do you identify?

This may seem innocuous, especially since people’s preferred pronouns aren’t something hiring managers will always automatically know. However, it can reveal details about a person’s gender, sexual orientation, or other statuses, making it against the rules.

9. Are you a U.S. citizen?

This question is a way for hiring managers to figure out which candidates are or are not U.S. citizens. The thing is, it’s illegal. You may be eligible to work in the United States but not be a citizen, and hiring managers aren’t allowed to discriminate based on a person’s citizenship status.

Again, hiring managers can ask if you are legally allowed to work in the United States. They aren’t allowed to hire someone who isn’t, so that question ensures they don’t make a mistake. But going beyond that generally isn’t permitted.

10. How much longer do you plan on working?

Older professionals may find themselves facing this question. Often, it’s an attempt by the hiring manager to figure out if you’re close to retirement or estimate a candidate’s age. But making hiring decisions based on a person’s age (suggesting they are over 40) is illegal.

11. Where’s your accent from?

In some cases, people ask this out of pure curiosity. However, it prompts you to discuss your national origin or race. That means the hiring manager shouldn’t ask you this one, as your answer could make them privy to protected information.

12. Do you have children?

Another family status question, asking a person if they have kids isn’t allowed. Rejecting or hiring you because you have children is illegal, and it likely has nothing to do with the job, anyway.

Even an indirect approach to this question could be considered a no-go. For example, if the hiring manager starts discussing their own family obligations, and then looks for you to chime in, they could be using that approach to find out if you have kids. However, since they didn’t actually ask you a question, it might not officially break the rules, but it also means there’s nothing to answer, so you can just ignore it.

13. Do you need Sunday mornings off for church?

Here, the question crosses the line because it touches on religion. It’s asking you to reveal whether you head to church on Sundays, which also gives them clues about your religious affiliation (or, potentially, lack thereof).

The hiring manager can’t choose candidates based on whether or not they have a religious preference. However, they can generally ask about your availability to work, including specifically if you can work Sunday mornings. It’s a small distinction, but it is an important one.

14. What’s your background?

Unless the hiring manager is talking about your professional or educational background, this one isn’t permitted. It could touch on race, color, national origin, and ethnicity, and they can’t use that when deciding whether to hire you.

15. Have you been really sick in the last year?

Again, this is digging into your medical history, which they generally can’t discuss.

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, all of the illegal interview questions above should be off-limits, but candidates do encounter them from time to time. If it happens to you, you can try to pivot, or ask for clarification, giving the hiring manager a chance to rephrase. It’s possible it was a mistake, but it’s also possible it’s not. So, remain vigilant and make decisions as you see fit.

Thanks for reading!

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About The Author

Jeff Gillis

Co-founder and CTO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Jeff is a featured contributor delivering advice on job search, job interviews and career advancement, having published more than 50 pieces of unique content on the site, with his work being featured in top publications such as INC, ZDnet, MSN and more. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.