Questions Job Interviewers Are Not Allowed to Ask

When preparing for a job interview, it’s important to research the company and learn as much about the position as you can, but it’s also important to understand your rights as a job applicant.

In the United States, it is illegal for organizations to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, nation of origin, and disability, and the European Union follows similar guidelines. This means that certain questions are off limits during the job interview process.

This article outlines types of questions that interviewers are not allowed to ask and offers advice on what to say if questions relating to these topics come up during an interview.

Legal Standards

The  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has created a set of standards to ensure an ethical and legal interview process for all job applicants. The list of prohibited practices covers all phases of the hiring and application process, including wording of job advertisements, recruitment practices, job referrals, and payment and benefits.

Illegal Questions

The EEOC specifically outlines questions relating to an applicant's disability that cannot be asked before a job offer is made, such as:

  • Do you have any mental or physical disabilities?
  • Do you take prescription drugs?
  • Have you ever filed a workers’ compensation claim?

In terms of marital or family status, illegal questions noted by the EEOC include: 

  • Are you married?
  • How many children do you have?
  • Are you planning to have children? 

Illegal questions relating to citizenship or nation of origin include: 

  • Are you a US citizen? 
  • Where were your parents born? 
  • What is your native language?

Note that asking whether an applicant is eligible to work in the United States is perfectly legal. 

Check out these guidelines for other illegal interview questions relating to race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age, or disability.

How to Respond

The best way to handle illegal questions during an interview, according to Barbara Casarin, is to say, "I'm not sure how this question is relevant to my application." This will alert the interviewer to the inappropriate nature of the question and allow them to retract the question and move on.

The Yale University Office of Career Strategy offers additional guidance, depending on the situation: 

  • Answer the question: Consider the intent of the question. For example, is the interviewer asking about your birthplace because they grew up in the same area and is trying to establish a connection? If you are comfortable answering, then it’s fine to do so.
  • Address their concerns: You may choose to address the interviewer's underlying concerns. For example, if an interviewer asks whether you have children, you might say, “I can assure you that my personal life will not interfere with my professional responsibilities.”
  • Question the relevance. Directly ask the interviewer how the question relates to the position you’re interviewing for. If their answer is unsatisfactory, you can state your concerns and decline to answer.
  • Move on. If an interviewer continues to ask inappropriate or discriminatory questions or pressures you to reply, you can change the subject, refuse to respond, or restate your concerns and politely excuse yourself from the interview.

This article has provided a few examples of questions that interviewers are not allowed to ask, but note that state law may address other discriminatory practices. Again, it’s important to be aware of the potential issues and to know your rights as a job applicant. If you feel you have been discriminated against and wish to file a charge of discrimination, you can learn more on the EEOC website.

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