Have you ever wondered what you can actually ask when you’re conducting an interview? Curiosity killed the cat—and prying too much can destroy your business finances, too. Asking illegal interview questions can lead to charges of up to $300,000, not to mention reputational damages that can harm your business in the long run.
When you’re getting to know your candidates beyond their resumes, it’s important to avoid intrusive inquiries. Certain types of questions can put you at risk for discrimination lawsuits and, ethically, lead to major setbacks in your diversity and inclusion efforts. We’ll give examples of questions not to ask in an interview and provide a simple framework for determining if a question is appropriate.
7 Types of Questions Not to Ask in an Interview
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) deems any questions regarding protected personal characteristics illegal. Even if a candidate freely offers up the following details, the EEOC prohibits employers from leveraging this information when making their hiring decisions.
Here are seven topics to steer clear of during the interview process.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects workers who are over 40 years old. Some local governments may also protect younger workers from discrimination. While you can ask for age or birthdate if there’s a legal age requirement for a role—like for commercial drivers or bartender jobs—questions like these are typically prohibited in the interview process:
- How old are you?
- What year were you born?
- What year did you graduate high school?
2. Country of Origin or Birthplace
Candidates can meet a position’s language requirements and be eligible to work in the U.S., no matter where they were born. This is why it’s illegal to discriminate against someone based on their national origin. Here are examples of questions not to ask about a candidate’s background:
- Where were you born?
- Are you a native English speaker?
- How did you learn to speak Spanish?
- Where are your parents from?
While employers can ask if a candidate believes they can perform the job—with or without reasonable accommodation—it’s illegal to ask about disabilities and medical conditions. Avoid questions like:
- Do you have a disability?
- Will you need time off for any medical treatments?
- Have you ever filed a workers’ comp claim?
- What is your family medical history?
4. Gender, Sex, and Sexual Orientation
The government has long prohibited discrimination based on gender and sex. As of 2020, this protection extends to gender identity and sexual orientation, too. While asking for a candidate’s pronouns may feel inclusive—and is acceptable after an offer has been extended—being an ally starts with reducing subconscious bias in the interview process. Here are examples of questions employers shouldn’t ask:
- What’s your gender?
- How do you identify?
- Are you male or female?
- What’s your sexual orientation?
- Have you had any gender-affirming treatments?
5. Marital Status, Family Status, or Pregnancy
While many of us prioritize our families, personal plans don’t necessarily impact an employee’s performance in a role. Companies cannot discriminate against a worker to avoid planning around life events, like honeymoons and parental leaves, so it’s essential to avoid these questions—even in casual conversation—during the interview process:
- Are you married or engaged?
- Do you have a partner?
- When are you expecting?
- How many kids do you have?
- What are your childcare arrangements?
6. Race, Ethnicity, or Color
EEOC illegal interview questions include those about race, ethnicity, and color. While there may be exceptions for affirmative action programs, there are legal guidelines for where and how you ask about these topics. As a rule of thumb, avoid these questions unless you’ve consulted with and received a green light from your local government or a lawyer:
- What’s your race?
- What’s your ethnic background?
- What’s your partner’s race or ethnicity?
- Does your family follow any cultural traditions?
Companies—with the exception of religious organizations—cannot ask questions about a candidate’s religion, including:
- Are you religious?
- What’s your denomination?
- Do you observe any religious holidays?
What Questions Can I Ask in an Interview?
When you’re preparing questions for a job interview, ask yourself this: Does my candidate’s answer really affect their qualification for the job?
If there’s a clear job-related need to ask your question, you can likely keep it on your list. Questions about work experience, professional skills, past promotions, and strengths and weaknesses are generally safe to ask. Asking about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) as a professional value is also acceptable.
However, keep in mind there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to the legality of interview questions. Some inquiries aren’t outright illegal—but they may only be legal sometimes. For example, financial status is typically off-limits, but you can ask if a candidate owns a car if it’s a requirement for the role. Similarly, arrest records are protected unless the role is in law enforcement. Questions about salary history may be barred in some states.
Protect Your Company and Uphold DE&I
Understanding what questions not to ask in an interview process can protect your company from long-term consequences while helping you uphold your commitment to DE&I. Steer clear of any inquiries about protected characteristics—like gender, ethnicity, and marital status—and focus on topics that directly impact a candidate’s performance in a role.