illegal.jpgQuestions. Questions. Questions. When you are applying for jobs, you will most likely participate in many different interviews to determine whether you are the right fit for the role. These will feature lots of questions. As a job seeker, it is important for you to understand the difference between an illegal and a legal question. What may seem like an innocent question asked by the hiring manager could end up fitting the criteria for an illegal or discriminatory question or subject. In this post, we want to help you recognize an illegal question, and understand how to respond in the event that you are asked one.

A 2015 CareerBuilder study concluded that 20% of Hiring Managers polled had asked a question during an interview which was later found to be illegal. It’s very easy for someone to put themselves and their respective companies at risk for legal action.

The difference between a legal and an illegal question is often determined by its format, structure and/or content. Many questions that are illegal get asked because the hiring manager is untrained and just happens to be making friendly conversation and is unaware that the question is illegal. If it feels like your answer to a question could be used as a motive or intent to discriminate against you, then it is probably illegal to be asked, regardless of how innocent the interviewer’s intentions are.

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Every question asked in an interview should relate to the role of the job.

So you are prepared if you are ever asked an illicit question, the topics below are the most common subjects that a hiring manager should NEVER bring up:

  • Place of birth, ancestry, nationality, race, color or those of related family members. An example of this would be, “What country were you born in?” or “I love your accent, are you from Paris?” Questions of this nature fall under the category of Nationality Discrimination. Asking, “What others languages do you speak?” is a legal question however if it relates to the job.
  • Gender or Marital Status. A question such as, “Are you planning on getting married soon?” or, “Do you have children?” is illegal. Questions like these, if asked with intent, are usually trying to determine if you have a family that will interfere with your ability to work. Legal alternatives to this would be, “Are you willing to relocate? Are you willing to travel? Are you willing and able to work overtime?” Remember, any question must be directly related to your ability to perform the job.
  • Religious Practices or Observed Holidays. Asking questions relating to religious identity are illegal. It is discriminatory in nature because your lifestyle or observed holidays could interfere with your work schedule. “What religious holidays do you practice?” would be an example of an illegal question. A legal question would be, “Do you belong to any professional or trade groups or other organizations that are relevant to your job?”
  • Financial Matters or Debt. Unless an employer has a job-related reason to ask you about financial matters such as credit history, it is illegal to ask questions such as, “Do you have outstanding debt?
  • Social Life or Recreational time. Questions such as, “Do you drink socially?” or, “When was the last time you used illegal drugs?” are illegal interview questions. These questions have no basis in performing job-related duties. However, it is legal to ask if you are, “Currently using illegal drugs” or, “What illegal drugs have you used in the past six months.” Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, being a drug user is grounds for suspension of protection.
  • Age-related questions. Asking anything that could be misconstrued as Age discrimination is illegal. These would be questions such as, “How long have you been working?” or, “When did you graduate from high school/college?” A legal alternative would be, “Are you over the age of 18?” Employment law prevents any employer from discriminating against anyone who is over 40 years of age.
  • Military-related questions. “What type of discharge did you receive in the military?” is an illegal question to ask, as it has no basis in job-related tasks. Asking questions such as, “What type of education, training or work experience did you receive in the military?” is a legal question. Asking, “What branch did you serve in?” is illegal.

In the event that you are asked an illegal question, there are a number of different routes you can take:

  • You can choose to answer the question in brief, taking special care to avoid the illegal parts, and quickly changing the topic to a new area.
  • You can ignore the question, or ask a question back such as, “Do you mind explaining how this question relates to the job role I am interviewing for?” The hiring manager may even realize their mistake in asking a potentially discriminatory question and appreciate you choosing not to answer.
  • It is also important to note that the laws governing discrimination in employment may vary on a state-by-state basis.

If you feel that a question is blatantly discriminatory or offensive, as a job seeker, you have every right to end or leave the interview.

As a job seeker, if you feel that you have been discriminated against, your main option would be to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission within your state of residence. Employment discrimination is an issue which is ultimately up to a court of law to determine if the information acquired was used to discriminate.

Just remember, small-talk with a hiring manager may seem harmless or innocent in nature, but there is a very slippery slope when it comes to asking questions relating to the job and asking an illegal question which is personal in nature. In conclusion, every question that you receive should be within the context of a job-related duty. We hope this information helps with your job search!



  • Jennifer, Grasz. “1 in 5 Employers Has Unknowingly Asked an Illegal Interview Question, CareerBuilder Survey Finds.” – CareerBuilder.Http://, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.

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