The 4 Types of Questions You Should Never, Ever Ask Job Applicants

Woman on video interview


Profile Picture
Move up in your career
Interviewing might seem easy. From the outside looking in, you meet and greet, engage in a little small talk, and ask a few questions.
While it all seems pretty straightforward, the truth is interviewers must maintain a delicate balance of putting an applicant at ease, ascertaining their suitability for the job, while ensuring their own compliance to HR guidelines and employment laws. And if conducting an interview is not something you do regularly, it can be incredibly difficult to know what questions can you legally ask and what you should never ask job applicants.
When interviewers are attempting to fill a job opening, they ask applicants questions to determine if the candidate has all of the hard skills and soft skills to be successful at said job.
Moreover, they’ll ask questions to determine if the applicant will be a good fit for the company culture. In their zeal to make such determinations, interviewers may inadvertently (or advertently) ask, shall we say, questionable questions?
If you ever asked an illegal interview question, you’re not alone; surprisingly, it happens more often than you would think. In fact, according to a Careerbuilder survey, 20% of hiring managers admit to asking a question of an applicant only to find out later that it was illegal.
The fact is, interviewers and hiring managers are faced with a pretty difficult task. Finding the right person for the job while sidestepping dicey interview questions is a lot harder than it looks.
The good news is understanding which interview questions not to ask and knowing the best interview question to ask can make all the difference in successfully filling a vacancy. Ahead you’ll find some guidance for both.

Interview questions not to ask

1. Age 

Employers have the legal right to ensure that potential candidates are 18 years or older, but that’s where the digging and math wizardry should end. After all, verifying that your candidate is old enough to legally work is all you need to know, right? As a gentle reminder: the discrimination-employment-act-1967">Age Discrimination Act of 1967 protects those 40 and over from age discrimination.
Regarding age, you should never ask job applicants any of the following:
  • What year did you graduate high school?
  • When did you finish college?
  • When do you plan to retire?
  • Will you be comfortable working around younger employees?
  • Will you be comfortable working around older employees? 
Best interview questions to ask to determine if an applicant can legally work for you:

2. Marital/parental status, family planning or living situation

While employers should do their due diligence to determine whether or not the applicant can do the job, that assessment should be limited to an evaluation of hard and soft skills. Marital status, parental status, and living situations should never be a factor. One additional caveat here is that small talk can be a slippery slope; while chit-chat can no doubt help applicants feel at ease, interviewers must be mindful of the conversation. Information gleaned from polite conversation can influence your hiring decisions, and you may not even be aware of it. What may seem like harmless questions about kids and childcare can easily cross the line into pregnancy and gender discrimination, which is protected and enforced by The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, by the way.
Regarding marital, parental status, and family planning, you should never ask job applicants any of the following:
  • Are you single/engaged, or married? 
  • How many kids do you have?
  • How old are your kids?
  • Are you planning on starting a family?
  • What school do your kids go to?
  • What daycare do you use? 
Best interview questions to ask:
  • Can you work the required hours? (i.e. 9 AM – 5 PM)
  • Are you open to relocation?

3. Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity

Questions regarding sexual orientation and attempts to surmise that information are verboten. In this case, applicants are protected under  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits “employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.”
Regarding sexual orientation, you should never ask job applicants any of the following:
  • What gender do you identify as?
  • What’s your partner’s name? 

4. Religion 

While you no doubt need to ascertain your applicant’s availability, questions about religion are strictly prohibited. The only time religion should ever come up in the hiring process is if the applicant requests an accommodation. Ideally, they would do so after receiving an offer of employment, and at that time, it’s up to both parties to come to a mutual agreement (or not).
Regarding religion, you should never ask job applicants any of the following:
  • What’s your religious background?
  • How often do you attend church services (mosque, temple, etc.)?
  • Do you observe [X religious holiday]? 
  • What religious holidays do you observe? 
Best interview questions to ask to determine availability:
  • Can you work on weekends or holidays?
  • Will you be able to meet our standard attendance requirements?

Conducting an interview

Conducting an interview is much more complicated than it sounds, particularly if you lack experience and HR know-how. No doubt your goal is to fill current openings and enhance your team with folks who have the right skills and those with the best culture fit. But getting through the interview unscathed might be another story if you’re new to the game.

How to conduct an interview

If you’re not sure how to conduct an interview, here are a few good rules of thumb to keep in mind as you navigate the minefield of legal and illegal questions.
  • Keep your focus on the job and only ask questions that are relevant to its requirements. 
  • If a question feels too personal, it probably is. Trust your gut, err on the side of caution, and skip it. 
  • If you’re new to interviewing, create a list of legal interview questions, and stick to the script. This will help you maintain consistency and avoid illegal or inappropriate questions. 
  • Be mindful of small talk. When you’re trying to put an applicant at ease, be careful not to cross any lines, stick to innocuous topics like traffic and weather. 
Finding the right candidate is crucial for your team’s long-term success and your organization as a whole. But finding “the one” is a lot easier said than done. Asking the right questions can lead you to your next superstar, and asking the wrong (read: illegal) questions can lead to more trouble than you bargained for. Knowing what questions can you legally ask and what you should never ask job applicants can make all the difference and keep things moving along nicely. Remember to keep the interview focused on the job requirements, stick with questions relevant to those requirements, and you should do fine. 
— Sharon Brandwein
This article originally appeared on Ladders