Illegal Job Interview Questions and How to Respond

During a job interview, the interviewer is trying to get as much information about you as he or she can. Luckily, most of the time, the interviewer will ask you perfect legal interview questions. However, sometimes illegal interview questions that might not seem illegal are asked. It’s, therefore, important to understand what you should and should not discuss during your interview.

For instance, any question that reveals your race, age, gender, religion, national origin, marital status, or sexual orientation is illegal to ask. There are state and federal laws that discriminate based on certain protected categories (i.e., age, disabilities, race, gender, pregnancy status, etc.) illegal.

Interview questions that reveal information about the topics described above is a violation of the law. However, it’s important to remember that if the employer asks you questions that directly relate to specific occupational qualifications, they may be legitimate. In this case, the intent of the question needs to be made clear by the interviewer. Whatever the case may be, you should always be aware and recognize these questions for what they are.

In this article, we discuss what kind of questions are illegal and how you can answer the interviewer. Also, read more about frequently asked job interview questions here and check our job interview preparation checklist.

Pre-employment discrimination – What is it, and when does it happen?

Pre-employment discrimination is when an employer discriminates against a job candidate during the hiring process. There are several topics that are considered illegal to discriminate on. Think, for instance, of discrimination based on race, age, sexual orientation, or religion. Discrimination based on any of these factors is still discrimination – even if there’s no relationship between a job candidate and an employer yet.

There are, however, exceptions to illegal job interview questions. This can, for instance, be the case when there is information needed to assess your occupational qualification. If an employer is worried about if a person not being able to perform the job requirements due to a health issue or disability, they can ask how they would perform the job.

What are illegal interview questions?

A job interview can make even the most prepared job candidate uncomfortable. This is especially the case when a question is asked that is off-limits. Illegal interview questions are off-limits, and you don’t have to answer and sometimes should not even answer these questions. It happens that even the most experienced and trained interviewers sometimes ask illegal questions. That’s why you should be able to spot them – so that you know how to respond.

There are several laws that prohibit employment discrimination. Discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disabilities and national origin is illegal. During your interview, you should watch out for red-flag questions and learn how to reply when an interviewer asks you an illegal question.

Of course, interviewers try to find out whether or not you’re a good cultural fit, and if you possess the needed skills for the job. They do this to assess the probability that you will succeed in their organization. However, seemingly innocuous questions could be illegal. So what are illegal interview questions?

Basically, illegal job interview questions solicit information from you that could be used to discriminate against you. There are also some topics that are considered ‘safe’ subjects, but they still have questions that the employer is not permitted to ask you.

What are illegal interview topics?

The topics below can be considered illegal, especially when they are used in a way not related to the job requirements.

  • Race, color, or national origin
  • Age
  • Disabilities
  • Credit inquiry
  • Financial status
  • Sex, gender or sexual orientation
  • Any arrests or criminal record
  • Marital status or information about your children
  • Pregnancy or pregnancy status

Examples of possible illegal job interview topics

Job interview questions are illegal when they are used to discriminate against you. Every candidate needs to get an equal opportunity during their application.

Below we discuss some topics and when interview questions of these topics are off-limits. As a rule of thumb, remember, any question that asks you to reveal information about these topics without having a job-related basis violates the law.

  1. Disabilities (Physical or Mental)

It’s illegal for an interviewer to ask you if you have any disabilities. The same goes for discussing your medical history or the general health of your family. You do not need to answer these questions during a job interview.

Interviewers are allowed to ask you if you are able to perform the essential job functions required for the position. The same goes for asking you to demonstrate how you would perform a (or multiple) job-related functions.

  1. Marital / Family status

Interviewers are not permitted to ask you whether or not you’re married. The same goes for questions about with whom you live if you plan to have a family soon, if you have children or what your child-care arrangements are.

What the interviewer is permitted to ask is if you have any commitments that could prevent you from working the assigned shifts. This is related to the position and is something to discuss a job interview.

  1. Availability

It’s common that interviewers want to discuss your availability during a job interview. However, it depends on what he or she exactly ask you. Of course, they can ask you what days and shifts you can work or if there are any shifts that you cannot work. Another question related to a position can be if you have any responsibilities that could make it difficult for you to travel for your work. A similar question is, ‘do you have a reliable way of getting to work?

When the interviewer asks you directly about working on weekends, this can be considered as a proxy question to observe your religious beliefs. If this is the purpose of the interviewer’s question, he or she is not permitted to ask you this. Furthermore, any questions about working evenings or child daycare arrangements can negatively impact job chances of women who have childcare responsibilities.

  1. Citizenship / National Origin / Race

The interviewer can ask you when in doubt if you’re legally eligible to work in the country. He or she can follow-up with a question about if you can show proof of visa/citizenship if the company decides to hire you. Furthermore, they are allowed to ask you if you, for instance, can speak, read, and write English (or any other language required for the position).

During an interview, the interviewer is not permitted to ask you if you’re an official citizen, or if you can provide a birth certificate. The same goes for interview questions that inquire about where your parents are from or what your background is. Other questions of the same nature about where you are born are also not permitted to be asked during an interview. All these factors are not related to your ability to successfully perform the job.

Specific questions such as, for instance, ‘how did you learn this language’ is also not relevant when it’s not required for the job that you’re applying for. However, asking about other languages is not an issue if it’s a specific requirement for the job. Think, for instance, of a translator position or phone operator that needs to speak a specific language.

  1. Age

When you’re applying for a job that has a legal age requirement, the interviewer is allowed to ask you your age and also ask for proof. This can, for instance, be the case when you’re applying for a job in a bar. Therefore, age can only play a factor in the hiring process if it’s a requirement for the job.

When age is not a job requirement, the interviewer is not allowed to make a hiring decision solely based on your age, as this would be age discrimination.

  1. Credit inquiries

Your credit is usually not a topic of discussion during a job interview. Therefore, when a question about your credit is not related to the position that you’re applying for, you do not need to answer such questions.

Questions about if you own or rent a home or if you ever went bankrupt are not relevant. Furthermore, employers need to have permission before asking you about your credit history.

  1. Financial status

If the job requires you to travel by car, the interviewer is allowed to ask you if you have a driver’s license or if you own a car. However, due to the relationship between poverty and certain groups or minorities, this question can be considered as sensitive when not related to the job.

  1. Pregnancy

It’s allowed for an interviewer to ask you how long you plan on staying with the company or if you have any leave planned. However, questions directly related to a possible pregnancy such as ‘are you pregnant?’ or ‘are you trying to have a family?’ are not permitted.

Even when you’re obviously pregnant, the interviewer is not allowed to ask you about this. It’s not acceptable for the interviewer to ask any questions about your pregnancy in general.

What is allowed for the interviewer is to describe the position and company and then ask you ‘if you are able to perform all required functions?‘.

  1. Arrest record / Criminal record

Usually, your arrest record only gets brought up by law enforcement agencies. They are also the ones that could exclude you based on a possible arrest record. For any other business, it is allowed to ask if an arrest was related to the position that you’re applying for. Interviewers will try to avoid questions related to arrests in countries or states where it’s illegal to ask. For instance, if you have not been convicted, you could be innocent.

If the job requires it, the interviewer can ask you for a certificate of conduct.

  1. Sex, Orientation or Gender Identity

Interviewers are never allowed to ask about or discuss your sex, orientation, or gender identity. These factors are not relevant to you successfully performing the job and are therefore illegal.

Examples of illegal interview questions are:

So, what are some examples of illegal interview questions? Below you can find a list of interview questions that are illegal.

  1. What is your religion? Are you practicing?
  2. Are you comfortable working for a female boss?
  3. What religious holidays do you practice?
  4. Have you ever been arrested?
  5. Are you comfortable working for a male boss?
  6. Do you socially drink?
  7. What political party do you support?
  8. Do you have any physical disabilities?
  9. Do you have any mental disabilities?
  10. Is English your first language?
  11. What does your wife do for a living?
  12. Since you are in your early twenties, do you think you are able to perform this job well?
  13. What does your husband do for a living?
  14. How long do you plan to work until you retire?
  15. Do you have children?
  16. Are you married?
  17. What country are you from?
  18. When are you planning to have children?
  19. Do you have any outstanding debt?
  20. What arrangements are you able to make for child care while you work?
  21. When was the last time you used illegal drugs?
  22. Have you recently had any health issues?
  23. There’s quite a large age difference between you and the coworkers on your team. Is that an issue for you?
  24. Have you experienced any serious illnesses over the past years?
  25. When do you think you will get married?
  26. I that you’re engaged/married. Do you plan on having children anytime soon?

What do you do when an interviewer asks you an illegal interview question?

There are basically four ways on how you can approach an illegal interview question asked by the interviewer.

  1. Answer the question but set limits

In this situation, you give a diplomatic answer to illegal or inappropriate interview questions. If the interviewer was just trying to get to know you and naively asked you a question, you could choose to answer it.

For instance, when an interviewer asks you about where you were born because he or she was born in the same neighborhood, they could just be trying to get to know you. If you are comfortable answering the question, then you could do so.

If not, and the interviewer presses you to give an answer, you can politely ask him or her how the question relates to the position that you’re applying for. This way, you give them a chance to explain why they ask the question and what they want to know from you.

  1. Address the question behind the question

Interviewers can ask you certain questions because they want to assess your cultural fit for the company. For instance, if the interviewer asks you about a possible disability that could prevent you from successfully performing the job, you can assure the interviewer that you meet all the job requirements to do so. This way, you actually address the question behind the interview question.

  1. Question the relevance of the question

When the interviewer asks you an illegal or irrelevant question, you can always ask how the question exactly relates to the job that you’re interviewing for. By doing so, this may alert the interviewer to whether or not the question he or she asked was appropriate.

If you have a feeling that the interviewer is asking you an illegal, inappropriate, or discriminatory interview question, you can always refuse to answer. Another option is trying to change the subject to navigate yourself through the situation. If you really feel uncomfortable, you can also choose to excuse yourself from the interview.

  1. Steer your answers towards your skills and strengths

If you feel that during the interview, the interviewer asks you an inappropriate question, you can choose to steer your answers towards your skills and strengths. For instance, if the interviewer decides to ask you if you are able to take care of a family while still being able to perform all the required tasks for the job successfully, you can steer the answer towards your ability to multitask and schedule accordingly.

Sample answers to illegal interview questions

Below you will find some example questions and answers.

Illegal interview question 1:

‘I see that you’re engaged? Do you have plans on having children anytime soon?’

‘Wow, I have never been asked this question in a job interview before. Could you please explain to me how that question relevant to the position that I’m applying for?’

Notes:

  1. If an interviewer asks you such a question, you are within your rights to excuse yourself from the job interview.
  2. Furthermore, it’s also a reason to make an official complaint to the human resources department because this question is illegal to ask.
  3. This answer, in general, can be used to inappropriate, discriminatory, or illegal job interview questions.

Illegal interview question 2:

‘Are you a Christian / Muslim / Hindu / Buddhists?’ or ‘What religion are you?’

Answer option 1:

‘From since I was a kid, my parents taught me manners. One of these included not discussing politics or religion. Are there any other inappropriate questions that you would like me to answer?’

Answer option 2:

‘I have never been asked this question in a job interview before. Could you please explain to me how that question relevant to the position that I’m applying for?’

Notes:

  1. The first option is suitable to try to change the subject to navigate yourself through the situation.
  2. If an interviewer asks you such a question, you are within your rights to excuse yourself from the job interview.
  3. This question is a reason to make an official complaint to the human resources department because this question is illegal to ask.

Illegal interview question 3:

‘What’s your nationality?’

Answer option 1:

‘I’m proud to say that my parents are from Nigeria. They immigrated to this country in the seventies and started their own business when they got here. I’m very proud of what my family has accomplished in this country. What’s your nationality?

Answer option 2:

‘I have never been asked this question in a job interview before. Could you please explain to me how that question relevant to the position that I’m applying for?’

Notes:

  1. The first option actually answers the question while you do not have to. It’s a positive answer to this question and ends with asking the question back to the interviewer.
  2. If an interviewer asks you such a question, you are within your rights to excuse yourself from the job interview.
  3. Furthermore, these types of questions are a reason to make an official complaint to the human resources department because this question is illegal to ask.

Illegal interview question 4:

‘How’s your general health at this moment?’

Answer option 1:

‘Thank you for asking! Do I look that pale? I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about this job interview, but I did not realize that I looked that bad.’

Answer option 2:

‘I have never been asked this question in a job interview before. Could you please explain to me how that question relevant to the position that I’m applying for?’

Notes:

  1. The first option is a sarcastic answer, which lets the interviewer know that he or she is asking an inappropriate question.
  2. If an interviewer asks you such a question, you are within your rights to excuse yourself from the job interview.
  3. Furthermore, these types of questions are a reason to make an official complaint to the human resources department because this question is illegal to ask.

Illegal interview question 5:

‘Are you married?’

Answer option 1:

‘Yes, I am! I have been happily married for over 15 years. Are you married?’

Answer option 2:

‘I have never been asked this question in a job interview before. Could you please explain to me how that question relevant to the position that I’m applying for?’

Notes:

  1. The first option actually answers the question while you do not have to. It’s a positive answer to this question and ends with asking the question back to the interviewer.
  2. If an interviewer asks you such a question, you are within your rights to excuse yourself from the job interview.
  3. Furthermore, these types of questions are a reason to make an official complaint to the human resources department because this question is illegal to ask.

Illegal interview question 6:

‘Do you plan on having children anytime soon?’

Answer option 1:

‘Who knows what the future brings. Do you have any children?’

Answer option 2:

‘I have never been asked this question in a job interview before. Could you please explain to me how that question relevant to the position that I’m applying for?’

Notes:

  1. The first option answers the question while you do not have to. It’s a positive answer to this question and ends with asking the question back to the interviewer.
  2. If an interviewer asks you such a question, you are within your rights to excuse yourself from the job interview.
  3. Furthermore, these types of questions are a reason to make an official complaint to the human resources department because this question is illegal to ask.